Today we’re going to talk about stuff and things and ideas! More specifically, we’re going to look at how we make the words that represent those things: Nouns.

And, since this is German, we’re going to learn how to turn them into really, really long words! As a quick appetizer, let’s check out Anja’s video about the word Toilettenbürstenbenutzungsanweisung.

It kind of makes you wonder how a word like that is supposed to work, and how it was even put together. To get to the bottom of this mystery, we need to start at the beginning—to learn how nouns are made and how we can combine them to make bigger words.

Anything can become a noun (almost)

Most words don’t start out as nouns, but nouns are an equal opportunity employer. Many of the nouns we use every day were other kinds of words before, but that didn’t stop them from making something of themselves! 

Verbs and adjectives can easily be transformed directly into nouns. Additionally, other kinds of words like adverbs or prepositions can also be attached to nouns to become a part of a compound noun.

How to transform adjectives into nouns

The way we turn different adjectives into nouns depends on the word—it’s not always the same method. Generally, we can't just look at an adjective and know which nouns can be made from it. However, we can figure out what a new noun means, and which adjective it came from. 

Let’s take a look:

umlaut + -e changes an adjective into a feminine noun with effectively the same meaning. It’s usually used with short words that have only one syllable, but that’s not a universal rule.

  • warm (warm) → Die Wärme ist angenehm. (The warmth is nice.)
  • lang (long) → Die Länge ist genau zwei Meter. (The length is exactly two meters.)
  • kalt (cold) →  Die Kälte hat mir die Finger gefroren. (The cold froze my fingers.)

-heit/-keit also makes feminine nouns with almost the same meaning as the adjective. These endings closely mirror how -ness works in English:

  • sicher (safe) →  Hier ist die Sicherheit die höchste Priorität. (Safety is the top priority here.)
  • dunkel (dark) → In der Dunkelheit sieht Gogo nichts. (Gogo sees nothing in the darkness.)
  • ehrlich (honest) → Ehrlichkeit ist nicht immer höflich. (Honesty is not always polite.)

-tum creates nouns that are what the original adjective describes. For instance:

  • heilig (holy) → Der Pilger besucht das Heiligtum. (The pilgrim visits the shrine.)
  • reich (rich) → Sie hat Reichtum und Macht. (She has wealth and power.)
  • eigen (own [adj.]) → Er hat kein Eigentum. (He has no property.)

We can also use an attributive adjective (the ones that come right before a noun) in place of the noun that normally would come after it. In this case, the new "adjective/noun" will have the same adjective ending that it would have if the nouns were still there. 

That probably sounds very confusing, so let’s look at some examples:

  • gut (good) - die guten Schuhe (the good shoes) → Die guten sind im Schrank. (The good ones are in the closet.)
  • fliegend (flying) - der fliegende Vogel (the flying bird) → Der fliegende schaut nach Mäusen. (The flying one is looking for mice.)
  • billig (cheap) - die billigen Tickets (the cheap tickets) → Die billigen sind ausverkauft. (The cheap ones are sold out.)

Not too bad, right? Let’s look at verbs!

How to turn verbs into nouns

Knowing how to turn verbs into nouns is super useful, because it's easy to do and the rules are consistent. As a result, every time you learn a new verb, you’ve automatically also learned at least one new noun!

old woman celebrates a good deal

The simplest way to turn a verb into a noun is to use the infinitive form of the verb as a neuter noun. The nouns that we make this way always describe the action of the verb, like the German version of a gerund (nouns that end in -ing) in English:

  • laufen (to run) → Das Laufen macht mich müde. (Running makes me tired.)
  • rauchen (to smoke) → Das Rauchen ist ungesund. (Smoking is unhealthy.)
  • spielen (to play) → Das Spielen macht spaß. (Playing is fun.)

Of course, there are also other ways to make nouns out of verbs. These are not universal to all verbs, but they're still very common.

The ending -er (instead of the verb ending -en) is used to create a masculine noun out of a verb. A noun made this way is a person who does whatever action the verb is. Let’s do a few examples:

  • spielen (to play) → Der Spieler hat Erfahrung. (The player has experience.)
  • malen (to paint) → Der Maler hat die Wand angemalt. (The painter painted the wall.)
  • backen (to bake) → Der Bäcker steht früh auf. (The baker gets up early.)

A combination of the ge- and -e (that’s called a circumfix, if you’re curious!) can be added to a verb stem to turn it into a neuter noun. The result is a collective noun with the same meaning as the verb. For example:

  • bellen (to bark) → Das Gebelle hat die Nachbarschaft aufgeweckt. (The barking woke up the neighborhood.)
  • reden (to talk) → Das ist jetzt genug Gerede.(That’s enough chatter, now.)
  • mengen (to mingle with) → Er ist im Gemenge verschwunden. (He vanished in the crowd.)

-ung makes feminine nouns that are related to the action of the verb, or that do the action that the verb describes. For instance:

  • umgeben (to surround) → Die Umgebung der Stadt ist sehr schön. (The surrounding area of the city is very nice.)
  • dichten (to seal) → Die Dichtung hat ein Leck. (The seal has a leak.)
  • zahlen (to pay) → Die Zahlung ist verspätet. (The payment is late.)

The ending -tum is used to turn some verbs into neuter nouns. Keep in mind that this ending is used to change some existing nouns as well.

  • wachsen (to grow) → Für einen Investor gibt es nie genug Wachstum. (For an investor there is never enough growth.)
  • (sich) irren (to be mistaken) → Er hat sein Irrtum eingesehen. (He recognized his mistake.)
  • besitzen (to own) → Der Mönch hat seinen Besitztum aufgegeben. (The monk gave up his property.)

How to make compound nouns in German

Turning other kinds of words into nouns is really useful, but it’s just the beginning for German. Before we can start making the super long words that the German language is so famous for, we first have to learn how to combine nouns with other words to make compounds.

German Noun + Noun compounds

There are several different ways to combine multiple nouns into a single word. Some nouns use different kinds of sounds to connect the two words, while others don’t. Whatever the method, the connector is always attached to the first noun in the compound word.

Nouns that use use the plural endings -e, -n/-en, or -er simply use that plural form to connect with other nouns:

  • der Hund (the dog) + die Leine (the leash) → Bobbi hält die Hundeleine. (Bobbi is holding the [dog] leash.)
  • die Tinte (the ink) + der Fisch (the fish) → Sie kocht Tintenfisch. (She cooks squid.)
  • das Huhn (the chicken) + das Ei (the egg) → Katie kocht ein Hühnerei. (Katie cooks a chicken egg.)

Other nouns use a connector that matches their Genitive ending, such as -s, or -es.

  • das Jahr (the year) + die Zeit (the time) → Sommer ist die schönste Jahreszeit. (Summer is the most beautiful season.)
  • das Leben (the life) + der Lauf (the course) → Katie hat ihren Lebenslauf ausgedruckt. (Katie printed out her CV.)
  • der Geburtstag (the birthday) + das Kind (the child) → Er hat dem Geburtstagskind gratuliert. (He congratulated the birthday boy/girl [lit. child].)

One clear and simple rule to remember is about the -s- connector: If the first noun has the ending -tum, -ung, -ling, or -heit/keit, we always use -s, like this:

  • die Leitung (the pipe) + das Wasser (the water) → Sie trinkt Leitungswasser. (She drinks tap water.)
  • der Flüchtling (the refugee) + das Lager (the camp) → Er wohnt in einem Flüchtlingslager. (He lives in a refugee camp.)
  • das Datum (the date) + die Angabe (the disclosure/statement) → Das Papier hatte keine Datumsangabe. (The paper didn’t have a date.)

Lastly, many nouns use no connector at all. Here we just stick the words together and that’s it!

  • der Kaffee (the coffee) + die Tasse (the cup) → Bobbi füllt seine Kaffeetasse. (Bobbi fills his coffee cup.)
  • das Dach (the roof) + das Fenster (the window) → Katie öffnet das Dachfenster. (Katie opens the roof window.)
  • das Video (the video) + das Spiel (the game) → Gogo spielt ein Videospiel. (Gogo plays a video game.)

Whew! That was a lot, but don’t worry, it gets easier. Most other types of compound nouns are much more predictable and easy to make.

Compounds with verbs

When we want to combine a verb with a noun, we normally only use the stem of the verb. That’s the part of the word that carries the main meaning, without the ending. Then we just put the verb and noun together, without any connectors.

  • trinken (to drink) + das Wasser (the water) → Das Trinkwasser ist sauber. (The drinking water is clean.)
  • fahren (to drive) + das Zeug (the stuff, gear) → Bobbi hat ein neues Fahrzeug. (Bobbi has a new vehicle.)
  • brennen (to burn) + das Holz (the wood) → Gogo kauft Brennholz für den Kamin. (Gogo buys firewood for the fireplace.)

Compound nouns with adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions

When we want to make compounds with other parts of speech, such as adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions, we don’t need to change anything, or add any connecting sounds. Check it out:

  • grün (green) + der Kohl (the cabbage) → Katie kocht Grünkohl. (Katie cooks kale.)
  • unter (under) + der Mieter (the renter) →  Frau Stock mag keine Untermieter. (Frau Stock doesn’t like subletters.)
  • mit (with) + der Arbeiter (the worker) → Das Geschäft hat 5 Mitarbeiter. (The business has 5 employees.)

Not bad, right? Alright, now we’re finally ready. Let’s get to the good part!

How to make your own super-long German words

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting to learn just how you can start making your own crazy long words. Well, congratulations, your day has come!

long german compound word formation

Now that we know how to make nouns and how to make compounds, we can start thinking about bigger German words. Let’s look at an example:

  • Arbeiterunfallversicherungsgesetz (occupational accident insurance law)

This word is made up of 4 nouns, and each one connects to the next in the same way as it would in any compound:

  • der Arbeiter (the worker) uses no connector
  • der Unfall (the accident) uses no connector
  • die Versicherung (the insurance) uses the -s connector because it uses the ending -ung
  • das Gesetz (the law) is not connected to anything

So, next time you want to describe a complicated concept, you can design your very own long German word for it. Just make sure to leave it in the comments, because we want to see it! 

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