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I was wondering which of the following is true:

  1. There is no limit to how long a German word can be.
  2. There is a limit and it is …
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    Welcome to German Language Stack Exchange. Feel free to take a tour of the site. Visit the help center to learn more about it. I would be astounded, if this question hadn’t been asked before. Spoilers: option 1 in theory, option 2 with unknown in practice. – Jan Oct 2 '16 at 20:43
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    Urururururur.....großvater – Iris Oct 2 '16 at 21:20
  • Related: german.stackexchange.com/q/6189/9091 – Matthias Oct 2 '16 at 23:44
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    There is no limit to how long a German word can be. You can merge composite nouns of any length to build even longer composite nouns. There are nouns used in legal documents like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (63 letters) and Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung (67 letters), but there is no rule that forbids to add another noun. – Hubert Schölnast Oct 3 '16 at 12:47
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    Amüsantes: Rhabarberbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbierbarbärbel, original, modern, von swr3 eingesprochen – Martin - マーチン Oct 4 '16 at 8:47
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There ist that lore about the German language that might make it look to bystanders as if German conversation would be attacking each other with monster word constructs of massive length. This is not true. In day-to-day use, we probably have no (or only slightly) longer words than any other major language.

(The lore might probably go back to Mark Twain's essay The Awful German Language, a satirical revenge of a frustrated learner to the language. Thoroughly recommended to anyone learning German - You might recognize some of your own struggles)

There is definitively no rule other than practicality that limits the length of a German word. So, in theory, you can always make an existing word a bit longer by just adding another prefix or substantive - In a mathematical sense, that would mean the length of words is unlimited.

Such monsters are hard to tame, however, so no one would actually do that. It is also normally considered bad style to use overly long words (The groups that care the least are jurisdiction and public administration, normally...).

The capability to combine existing words into new ones, however, comes in handy at times when you realize you have no word that just fits what you are trying to say - Just make up a new one on the fly by combining substantives, add a fitting prefix or adjective. Those words are normally used as one-timers, dispose-after-use. In case the language (i.e. the collective users of the language) decides that word makes sense and is useful, it might even receive a longer lifespan.

Nearly any language (at least the ones I know) allows compound substantives - A hamster and a cage makes a hamster cage in just about any language. While English, for example, has very strict rules on where in a sentence a word can go, German is much more flexible in word order. This loose word order has forced us to leave out the space between compound substantives and join them into one single word, in order to make it very clear which words belong together and which don't - So, we end up with the "Hamsterkäfig".

BTW: the world record for the longest train station name is still with Wales and not Germany, the few German place names that made it into the list at the list of longest place names are also pretty far behind, so can't be that bad

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    'We probably have no (or only slightly) longer words than any other ...' - That is not so true. There are significant (and some times relevant) differences in text and word length between languages, and comparing a German and an English text, you will find that the German text will usually be longer and it will have longer, but fewer words. Using e.g. the 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' as an example, the German text is 16% longer (9987 vs 8639 characters), the words are on average 24% longer (6.23 vs 5.03 characters) and has 7% fewer words (1602 vs 1717). – jarnbjo Oct 4 '16 at 17:11
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    @jambjjo See here: ravi.io/language-word-lengths - Compared to English, you seem to be right, compared to Mongolian - No. But all-in-all, the average WL is not really very different in the first few languages. – tofro Oct 4 '16 at 18:13
  • Also note: This list includes compound words (he apparently just used Unix word lists) and all the leading European languages allow forming new words through concatenation (don't know for Belarus, though...) - It would be interesting to see the list with compound words removed. – tofro Oct 4 '16 at 18:21
  • @jambo While true, that is also connected to having slightly longer substantivation suffixes and more common di- and trigraphs than English - more consonant letters overall. The ge- prefix and common words being longer than their English counterparts (e.g. ein(e) > a) do not help either. – Chieron Oct 5 '16 at 9:40
  • Fußgängerüberweg mag selten in der Alltagssprache vorkommen, aber auch Zebrastreifen ist ein zusammengesetztes Wort, oder Bohnensuppe oder Blitzableiter. Dass zusammengesetzte Wörter selten benutzt werden bestreite ich. – user unknown Oct 20 '17 at 14:46
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There is no longest German word because there is no largest natural number.

While cardinal numbers above 1 million are written in German as a sequence of separate words (like "zwei Milliarden fünfhundert Millionen"), ordinal numbers are always written as one word (see §36.1.6 in the official spelling rules). So you could start to count the atoms in the universe (count really quickly!) and when you arrive at the 2,125,125,108,232th atom you have found "das zweibillioneneinhundertfünfundzwanzigmilliardeneinhundertfünfundzwanzigmillioneneinhundertachttausendzweihundertzweiunddreißigste Atom" plus a very long German word, and very soon you will arrive at an even longer word, and so on...

Of course you could as well construct arbitrarily long words of the "Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft..." type. But IMHO long ordinal numbers have the advantage that the word always makes sense. They just have no practical relevance (like the other constructions...).

(Credits to http://www.sprachlog.de/2013/06/05/das-neue-laengste-wort-des-deutschen/ for inspiring this answer, although the post is wrong for using a cardinal number in its example.)

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Theoretically there is no limit to how long a word can be. In practice there is a limit to how many words you can add and still make sense.

An exception is Großvater, Urgroßvater, Ururgroßvater,... (grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather...) which produces an infinite series

Another exception is written out numbers which can be arbitrarily long (e.g. Neunmilliardeneinhundertzweiundneunzigmillionensechshunderteinunddreißigtausendsiebenhundertsiebzigfache)

Without the Ur-rule or numbers the longest meaningful word ever composed in German has been claimed to be

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft

(80 letters), although even longer words are theoretically possible (just add "verwaltungsrat" to that word, or "verwaltungsratsvorsitzender")

The longest 'authentic' German word is the name of a government regulation (repealed in 2007)

Grundstücks­verkehrs­genehmigungs­zuständigkeits­übertragungs­verordnung (GrundVZÜV)

(67 letters)

The "Guinness Book of Records" calls

Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften

(39 letters) the longest word in general use.

The longest dictionary word (Duden) is

Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung

(36 letters)

Sources: The Telegraph, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Dudenkorpus

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  • Your claim on "Donaudampf...." is old and untrue. Just add a "verwaltungsrat", for example, and you have made it a bit longer. – tofro Oct 20 '17 at 11:03
  • @tofro do you have a source reference? – PiedPiper Oct 20 '17 at 11:13
  • I'll be happy to update this answer with documented longer words – PiedPiper Oct 20 '17 at 11:18
  • In my experience, one is usually able to disprove any supposed longest word in fairly short order, by forming a related adjective or adverb, though I usually use this in English with antidisestablishmentarianism -> antidisestablishmentarianistically. Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaftlich, anyone? Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnungsaufhebung, perhaps. – phoog Dec 4 '19 at 22:05
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I think there is no such thing in any language. I mean, you could just invent new words which are then longer than any other word and consist of random words arrayed to one great.

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    Zufällige Wortkombinationen würde ich nicht per se als neues Wort betrachten. Aus Holztür und Metalltür kann man leicht schließen, dass einen Plastiktür ein mögliches, neues Wort ist, das auch verstanden wird, aber Wursttür wäre erst mal unverständlich. Zum zweiten: Meines Wissens kann man in einigen Sprachen nicht einfach Wörter aneinanderreihen um neue zu bilden. Englsich wäre so eine Sprache. – user unknown Oct 3 '16 at 13:51
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    das wort random von canadiansimon ist sicher falsch. wenn man jedoch statt zufällige substantive sinnvolle substantive benutzt, lassen sich natürlich beliebig lange wörter konstruieren, auch wenn sie keiner im sprachgebrauch verwendet. (stichwort wortkettenspiel: zu einem sinnvoll zusammengesetztes wort muss man ein neues sinnvolles zusammengesetztes wort finden, das mit dem zweiten wort des vorhergehenden zusammengesetzten wortes beginnt. "klebt" man die einzelnen worte (ohne doppelungen) aneinander, erhält man ein beliebig langes sinnvolles wort). Oberweserdampfschifffahrtsgesellschaf... – anion Oct 4 '16 at 16:13
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There must be a limit. Otherwise speaking out the word would take arbitrary long time.

A possible candidate for an upper limit is

Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung

You can find more candidates here.

From a formal point of view there are grammar rules that would allow words of arbitrary length, e.g. by prepending ever more prefixes (Urur...großvater -> Ururur...großvater, example by @Iris), but in practice they are not applied too often.

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    "There must be a limit." - that just means that there is no German word of infinite length, not that there is a longest German word. – O. R. Mapper Oct 3 '16 at 0:57
  • If you mean infinite in the mathematical sense this is not correct. If there is a limit, then it follows that there is a word of maximum finite length. – aventurin Oct 3 '16 at 14:48
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    According to your logic, there must be a largest number, because otherwise speaking it would take an arbitrary long time. But there is no largest number. – TonyK Oct 4 '16 at 14:15
  • @TonyK My wording was probably misleading. The meaning should be: There must be a largest number because otherwise for every given duration there would be a word that spoken out would exceed this duration. The implicit assumption here is that for any natural spoken language (here German) only words that actually are being used can qualify as a word of this natural language. [continued in the following comment] – aventurin Oct 4 '16 at 17:55
  • This is in contrast to formal languages in mathematics that may have production rules that lead to arbitrary (but finite) long words. The Urgroßvater production rule above e.g. would produce arbitrary long words in a formal language but not in real German. – aventurin Oct 4 '16 at 17:55

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