Compound nouns in German

Today a student asked me “How do you turn a noun into an adjective in German?” He wanted to say “banana bread” and “orange juice”. The answer is that German doesn’t form an adjective at all, but instead forms a compound noun out of the original words. So banana bread? Bananen + BrotBananenbrot. And orange juice? Orangen + Saft = Orangensaft. The last word in the compound determines the gender (and plural form) of the compound noun: das Brot, thus das Bananenbrot and der Saft, hence der Orangensaft.

About 30% of compounds require a connector between the combined words. These are most commonly –n-, –en-, –s-, –es– and sometimes –e-. The connector is sometimes the plural form of the first noun, as above: Banane (singular) → Bananen (plural), Orange (singular) → Orangen (plural). But no one rule governs the choice of connector. There are therefore words such as Tageslicht (day + light) and Tagebuch (day + book = diary), but also Tagtraum which combines two words (TagTraum day + dream) using no connector.

The joined words needn’t be only nouns. While the final element of a compound noun must be a noun, the first element an be an adjective, an adverb, a verb or verb stem, or a preposition.

Here are some examples of German compound nouns. See if you can tell what they mean. Click on the text of each compound to see the answer.

das Jahr + -es- + die Zeit = die Jahreszeit season (time of the year)
frei + die Zeit = die Freizeit free time
zwischen + die Zeit = die Zwischenzeit meantime, interim (the time in between)
der Abend + die Schule = die Abendschule night school
höchst + die Temperatur = die Höchsttemperatur highest temperature
das Haus + der Schuh = der Hausschuh slipper (house shoe)

And there is no rule limiting the length of a compound. It can consist of a string of several German words:

über + die See + der Handel = der Überseehandel overseas trade
der Gummi + (die Hand + der Schuh) = der Gummihandschuh rubber glove
fünf + Jahr + -es- + der Vertrag = der Fünfjahresvertrag five-year contract
([der Fall + der Schirm] + der Springer) + die Schule = die Fallschirmspringerschule parachute school (parachute jumper school)
(das Haus + die Tür) + (der Schlüssel + das Loch) = die Haustürschlüsselloch house door keyhole

How did you do?

7 comments on “Compound nouns in German
  1. Chris Pope says:

    Is there a set of rules governing which connector to use? If so, where can it be found?

    • Unfortunately, there are no rules or even set patterns. The connectors, or linking elements (Fugenelemente auf Deutsch), in existing German compound words often correspond to old case endings (e.g., plural, genitive). These endings expressed the relationship of the compound parts to one another. Eventually the separate words started being written together as single words, but retained the endings. Eventually, the grammatical function of the endings was lost, but they remained in the compound words.

      Am I right in assuming you want to know which linking element to use when forming your own compounds? There is unfortunately no easy answer to that question. I would suggest scanning through a dictionary for compounds starting with your first word and see what options there are. For instance, if “Zeit” is the first of two words you want to combine, scan the dictionary for compounds beginning with “Zeit”. (This is easily done at http://dict.cc/ using a wildcard search function: Zeit* .) You will see that most of those compounds have no connector (except for a few that link with the plural –en form). So there is a good chance that your compound would be best formed in the same way.

      Incidentally, linking elements happen in about one-third of all compound nouns, so they are absent more than not.

    • kuratius says:

      I’d like to disagree about one thing: I don’t​ think these case endings have lost their meanings, they form a set of rules that is still commonly used when forming new compound nouns. I (a native speaker) also use them for clarification purposes. It’s the reason why we can say things like Weltschmerz and everyone immediately knows what we’re talking about. The equivalent in English, world pain, just creates confusion because they don’t have those rules and it sounds like Weltenschmerzen to them instead.

  2. Philip says:

    I thought that the pleural form of a German compound was derived for the old German form of a word which was possessive (Genetive). Thus one has Bananenbrot (bread of the banana). Does this have any etymological basis?

    • Connectors that link elements of compound nouns do go back to what were once case endings, often genitive or plural endings, but they have now mostly lost their function as such in the compounds.

      In addition, new compounds continued and continue to be made by analogy without any logical connection to the meaning of the compound. For instance, Briefträger, where Brief is singular although the carrier clearly carries more than one letter, and Hühnerbrust, where Hühner is plural, but it can refer to the breast of only one chicken.

      And you will see connectors that don’t natively belong to the nouns they are appended to. For example, a seemingly genitive -s after a feminine noun, for example: FreiheitSstatue, GeschwindigkeitSgrad.

      It’s complicated, but you are correct in noting that there is the history of an etymological basis, even when it’s no longer consistent, evident, or even present in many compounds today.

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  4. Sajid Ahmed says:

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