I imagine that in an agglutinative language like German it often happens that a word can be plausibly parsed in multiple non-equivalent ways. For example, aberkennen could be plausibly parsed as either ab|erkennen or aber|kennen.

I suppose that spoken German clearly distinguishes between the two alternatives, but if I came across such a word in writing I would not know (without consulting the dictionary) which of the possible parsings is the correct one. (In this case, it turns out that the first one is the correct one, but the second one does not look obviously wrong to me; in fact, conceptually it looks close to Aberglauben.)

(A pair that is more ambiguous when spoken than in writing is Urinstinkt and Urin stinkt.)

My question is: is there a term for this sort of ambiguity that I could use in a Google search to find more examples?

Incidentally, this sort of thing does happens in English (e.g. un|ionized and union|ized), but I expect that it is far more common in German, particularly written German, given that in German it is more common for morphological components to be written as single-word aggregates, whereas in English spaces or hyphens are more commonly used to indicate the intended parsing.

  • I guess no. It seems to be a coincidence that aber has ab as a prefix in it. Jun 17, 2018 at 10:11
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    related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/1705/… There's a pretty long list in one of the answers there
    – tofro
    Jun 17, 2018 at 10:24
  • The general linguistic term for a surface form that might be the result of different underlying structures or processes is ambguity. It's most often applied to syntax (parsing ambiguity) or semantics (sense ambiguity), but this is a clear case of morphological ambiguity. I'm not aware of a more specific single term for it. Jun 17, 2018 at 11:01
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    I guess a problem with your question is that there is actually no aber-kennen, only ab-erkennen. I understand what you mean, but your example is not really the best one. Jun 17, 2018 at 13:12
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    @RudyVelthuis the OP knows there is no aber-kennen. And mentions it
    – tofro
    Jun 17, 2018 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


There is a general rule in German that composites have to be broken down in the opposite direction they have been constructed (e.g. for hyphenation).

German grammar rules simply state (§108)

Zusammensetzungen und Wörter mit Präfix trennt man zwischen den einzelnen Bestandteilen.

(Which simply assumes you know the original components)

That means there is normally no such thing as parsing a word. You need to know the original components of composites in order to break the words apart. This admittedly is a bit of a challenge if you only have a limited vocabulary, but that is how natural languages are.

aberkennen has a construction plan like the following:

kennen - to know, to be familiar with

er-kennen - to realize (to come to know)

ab-erkennen - to revoke, (to un-realize)

This is a natural process for native speakers (who intuitively would make no sense of aber-kennen and would immediately discard such a breakdown), but can, admittedly, be a real challenge for learners.

  • ISTM that OP thinks there is a word aber-kennen too, i.e. a combo of aber and kennen, and wants to know how to distinguish that, in writing, from ab-erkennen, i.e. the combo of ab and erkennen. The problem is that there is no aber-kennen, AFAIK. The simple answer is, of course: if both existed, you simply couldn't distinguish them in writing, except from the context. Jun 17, 2018 at 13:15
  • @RudyVelthuis please read the last paragraph, which exactly says that
    – tofro
    Jun 17, 2018 at 14:07

There is no word aber|kennen, i.e. the combination of aber and kennen.

But if both existed (aber|kennen and ab|erkennen), you would not be able to see a difference, in writing, except from the context. Both would be written the same.

When spoken, you would hear a slight difference, because ab and aber sound differently and there would probably be a slight stop between ab and erkennen.

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