“Sir, what’s the German for…”

Rossall INSPIRE is the umbrella under which members of the Rossall community come together to share knowledge, ideas and perspectives on all aspects of education and learning. Richard Catterall, Head of Year 11 and Teacher of German and French, explores the enchanting world of German compound nouns, revealing cultural nuances and linguistic wonders.

Imagine if a student asked “Sir, what is the German for ‘the emotion you feel when you realise you are all alone in a wood?’”.

Easy. German has one word for that: ‘Waldeinsamkeit’. The compounds ‘Wald’ (meaning ‘forest’) and ‘einsamkeit’ (meaning ‘loneliness’). But there is more to this word. It describes the emotion you might feel wandering through a wood one day and realising you are on your own. ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ is not necessarily something to fear. The suggestion is ‘a connectedness with nature and the peace experienced in that moment’. Which single English word captures this sentiment as efficiently as German? I can’t think of one.

As a teacher of German I love it when a class comes across compound nouns. Breaking them down into bite-size chunks allows for many moments of discovery of new vocabulary before building them back together like a jigsaw. Compound nouns in German rarely have a direct one word English equivalent. One of the joys of teaching German is its ability to join words together seamlessly. But it is more than that. The beauty (at least for me) is the formation of expressions which encapsulate concepts succinctly.

Compound nouns (and there are some real belters out there) are not confined to esoteric realms. They are evident in everyday discourse, encapsulating experiences in a single term. You may decide to press the ‘Tageskilometerrückstellknopf’ (the little button on the dashboard which resets your car’s odometer.) Try this one: ‘Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften’ or “insurance companies providing legal protection.” As Mark Twain put it, “Some German words are so long that they have perspective.”

But the charm of German words extends beyond their functionality. It can reflect the cultural and historical tapestry of the German-speaking world. You will be familiar with our use of the word ‘Schadenfreude’ – the feeling of joy and pleasure that comes from seeing another’s misfortune. We use the term ‘Wanderlust’ or the ‘deep desire to travel and explore’. You may feel a sense of ‘Fernweh’ (a deep yearning for far-away places). But there is more to ‘Fernweh’. It emphasizes a sense of homesickness for places one has never been. Then there is ‘Weltschmerz’; the literal translation is ‘world pain’, first coined by the German Romantic author Jean Paul. It reflects a philosophical awareness of the inherent suffering in the human condition. Such words convey sentiments deeply rooted in the German cultural psyche.

However to claim this is solely the domain of German is unfair. In Afrikaans you may be called a ‘loskop’ – again a compound meaning ‘loose head’, i.e. someone who is forgetful and absent-minded. In Arabic, ‘Samar’ refers to ‘staying up late after the sun has gone down and having an enjoyable time reading poetry and listening to music’. In Bulgarian ‘ailyak’ is ‘the subtle art of doing everything calmly and without rushing’. In Czech ‘litost’ is something like ‘a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery’. In Danish, relaxing with friends and loved ones, spending the evening at home, and getting cosy by candlelight could all be described as ‘hygge’. Watching the glow of a roaring fire is ‘hygge’. So too is building a snowman with your children. In Estonian, a person who throws water on hot rocks to make steam in a sauna is ‘leiliviskaja’. ‘Dépaysement’ is a feeling in French of restlessness that comes from being away from your country of origin. I could go on.

My all time favourite however is (of course) a German one: ‘Handschuhschneeballwerfer’. ‘Someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs’. In other words ‘a coward’ or ‘someone who criticizes from a safe distance.’

In summary our hope in all of the Modern Foreign Languages we teach at Rossall is that students appreciate the beauty of linguistic expression. To many younger students of German complex nouns are at first untranslatable. But when you break them down into their compounds there is plenty of material, not only for language learning, but for glimpsing cultural nuances. They are, I suppose, linguistic windows offering unique perspectives. They shed light on facets of human experience that may be impossible to describe in English. Language in its myriad forms can encapsulate the nuances of human experience. They invite and deserve closer analysis, inviting us into the rich tapestry of expression.

Mr R. A. Catterall
Head of Year 11 / Teacher of German and French