I was wondering which of the following is true:
- There is no limit to how long a German word can be.
- There is a limit and it is …
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I was wondering which of the following is true:
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
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.)
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
(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)
The "Guinness Book of Records" calls
(39 letters) the longest word in general use.
The longest dictionary word (Duden) is
There must be a limit. Otherwise speaking out the word would take arbitrary long time.
A possible candidate for an upper limit is
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.