Size Doesn’t Matter in Germany

It’s been an entertaining few days for linguists on the continent. Hot on the heels of the French for French Kiss finally entering the country’s dictionary comes news from Germany of the demise of the language’s longest word.

Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz was introduced in 1999 in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Meaning the almost equally tortuous “the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef”, it came in because of EU legislation at the height of the BSE crisis. With new legislation bringing the required activity to an end, the word becomes possibly the final casualty of the farming disaster it was brought in to help eradicate.

Media outlets across the world have had fun with this story, a particular favourite being articles celebrating absurdly long words in German and other languages. Despite being a sesquipedalian, I don’t intend to repeat that.

Instead I have been thinking about German’s fabled ability to string lots of smaller words together to make one bigger word. I think the one that I remember being told about when growing up was tank, or schutzengrabenvernichtungsautomobile as Germans of a certain age liked to call them. What I think is clear about this story is that this method of coining words in German is not going to change, and at some point in the future, some other utterly unpronounceable word is going to emerge in response to a semantic chasm. No doubt we will all be reporting on that as well.

I also like the way that word has simply been killed off. The legislation goes and so does the word, no sentimentality, just efficiency. In English, it takes years of moribundity before a word heads to linguistic heaven. In German, it seems that a word can cease to be instantly.

Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz now has infinitely more recognition than it ever did when it was alive. Sadly it is not here to enjoy it. But at least the cattle are.

One thought on “Size Doesn’t Matter in Germany

  1. Pingback: A Shitstorm in Germany | Wordability

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