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Another question here made me ask this question: If Brotaufstrich is something one usually smears on bread during breakfast, shouldn’t Fruchtaufstrich mean something they smear on fruits?

I am joking. Of course I know what Fruchtaufstrich is, I am just wondering if this is correct German word (from the viewpoint of German grammar) and if there are some other examples where a part of a composite word can be both object and subject in different words.

(At Takkat's suggestion): Generalizing the question, it would be very nice to get examples of other interesting composite nouns (Komposita) in German that might have ambiguous/funny meaning.

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  • How about saying Aufstrich instead of Brotaufstrich in the first place?
    – FUZxxl
    Nov 26, 2011 at 19:55
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    Gab's nicht erst eine Frage, die zu Zitronenfaltern geführt hat? Nov 26, 2011 at 20:22
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    Schweineschnitzel/Jägerschnitzel is the same phaenomen, isn't it? Nov 26, 2011 at 20:26
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    A classical joke is about "Kinderschnitzel" as opposed to "Kalbsschnitzel" and "Putenschnitzel". (As in "Daddy, what is Kalbsschnitzel made of?" "Calves." "Daddy, I don't want to finish my Kinderschnitzel.") But these are not very interesting jokes for adult native speakers, the first part of a compositum is a precision of the second part, this precision can be the material or purpose special attribute (Glastisch, Esstisch, Klapptisch). This is not really different in English except there are less composita overall, compare chocolate cake, tea cake, mud cake.
    – Phira
    Nov 26, 2011 at 20:29
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    Pferdestall = Stall für Pferde; Hosenstall != Stall für Hosen = Schrank :)
    – Emanuel
    Apr 7, 2012 at 20:52

4 Answers 4

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Building compositions is widely done in German. There are some rules to follow but these do not affect object/subject relations when building such composites. For composite nouns we may combine several nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other morphemes to build a new noun. The last word (Kopf) in a composition is usually the noun that defines the principle nature:

Rindfleisch­etikettierungs­überwachungs­aufgaben­übertragungs­gesetz is a law (Gesetz) in the end

This rule is best seen in composites where the meaning changes by inversing:

Kaffeefilter <-> Filterkaffee

Additional examples:

  • Tee (tea)
    Schwarztee: colour (black) + object (tea)
    Kräutertee: composition (herbs) + object (tea)
    Magentee: function (for a sick stomach) + object (tea)
  • Topf (pot)
    Kochtopf: usage (to cook)
    Blumentopf: content (flowers)
    Auspufftopf: technical function (exhaust/muffler)
  • Kanne (jug)
    Kaffeekanne: content (coffee)
    Gießkanne: function (to water)
    Zinnkanne: material (tin)

Which composite is known and used is a matter of convention (see this nice answer) rather than of grammar rules. It would be grammatically correct to build new composites that are nonsense. Even those may eventually be used:

Diskursabfolge - used
Computergehäuseschraubendesigner - not used but understood
Reisetrauer - made up for nonsense but still used in a poetical context

It is great fun to build new composites and see by googling that they may already exist.

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In cases such as this, I often like to refer to the phrase »Sprache ist Konvention« (Language is convention). In every languages, there are words and phrases that seem counterintuitive or just wrong. The reason they (still) exist is that the meaning is (usually) common knownledge. Any German knows, that »Fruchtauf­strich« is something made of fruit and sugar that you can smear on your bread, so why make up another word for it? That would just increase the confusion in most cases. Apart from planned languages such as Esperanto, languages evolve over time. As vocabulary is contributed randomly from a lot of sources, it often does not make much sense to compare similar words and their meaning.

Tl; dr, I don't know why it is like it is, but it's unlikely to change and quite common to have related words without a system between. Here is another example: das Wort, das Vorwort, but die Antwort.

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    Apart from planned languages such as Esperanto, languages evolve over time. As a person who learned Esperanto at the age of 6 (and thus considering it being almost a native language) I assure you that this language evolves over years. Nov 26, 2011 at 20:19
  • And to the rest of your answer: it is clear to me that in most cases the common sense decides for the meaning of a composite word, and since German is not a planned language like Esperanto (though this is true even there) the composite noun is understood correctly. But I couldn't find the word in my Duden and hence is the question whether it is correct or not. I hope you agree that not every word that is understood is correct (or was originally correctly formed), even if it is in active use... Nov 26, 2011 at 20:27
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    @Alexander Thank you for the comments. I don't speak Esperanto so I can't tell very much. I just write what I think. Thank you for the information. BTW, the word Fruchtaufstrich is actually defined (German) by an EU directive.
    – FUZxxl
    Nov 26, 2011 at 21:07
  • I searched both documents with my PDF viewer and FireFox and did not find any entry. Moreover, the Wikipedia article itself tells that Fruchtaufstricht does not fall into any category there. For English translation of this article see my reply. Nov 26, 2011 at 21:18
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Of course, there are a lot of word pairs like this: Apfelkuchen (Cake made with Apples) vs. Hundekuchen ("Cake" for dogs); Grillteller (a dish with grilled pieces of meat) vs. Kinderteller (a small dish for a child) etc.

I can't think of any non-food related examples right now.

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  • Die Zahl der Beispiele ist nahezu endlos: Sonnencreme, Hautcreme, Kakaocreme - alle 3 sind für den Auftrag auf die Haut, in einer ist Kakaobutter drin, mindestens eine soll gegen die Sonne schützen. Einfamlienhaus, Fachwerkhaus, Vorderhaus, Kaffeehaus, Gesindehaus, Niedrigenergiehaus, Stammhaus, ... Nov 4, 2018 at 11:38
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But I couldn't find the word in my Duden and hence is the question whether it is correct or not.
@Alexander_Galkin in a comment

It is one of the outstanding traits of the german language to come up with composite words on the fly which are still understood by anybody. German has perhaps the smallest vocabulary compared to closely related languages (English, French, Italian, etc..) because of this ability. There is, for instance, no genuine word for "towel" because of the composite "Handtuch".

Many of these composite words are not in any dictionary, but their meaning is clear (to native speakers at least) nonetheless. You will most probably not find "Bowlingkugeltasche" in any dictionary but sure enough every native speaker here understands that it is a bag specifically formed to fit a bowling ball and carry it around.

How these compounds are formed and understood is an intricate process and i fear it is nearly impossible to cover all these intricacies by rules. In German there is a joke giving an ironical commentary about managerial prowess (or rather lack thereof):

Wenn ein Abteilungsleiter die Abteilung leitet, dann faltet ein Zitronenfalter Zitronen.If a department manager manages the department then the common brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni, a butterfly) folds lemons.

But then, in English you have:

If a train station is where the train stops a workstation is where the work stops.

which works in an identical way.

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