In German, two-part composite nouns (Schul·lehrer, Schlüsel·loch, Elektronen·mikroskop, Sonnen·wende, etc.) are abundant, but composite nouns consisting of three or more parts are not at all uncommon: Grund·schul·lehrer, Schlüsel·loch·chirurgie, Raster·elektronen·mikroskop, Winter·sonnen·wende·punkt.

In English, the joining of two nouns into one (e.g. school·teacher, key·hole) also happens, but it is not as common as in German (e.g. electron microscope, not electron·microscope), and, as far as I can tell, it is limited exclusively to two-part composites (one never sees composites like elementary·school·teacher).

But, if one considers only the spoken language, then there's a close syntactical similarity between, on the one hand, German composite nouns like Raster·elektronen·mikroskop and Grund·schul·lehrer, and on the other, English "nominal" collocations like scanning electron microscope and elementary school teacher.

Now, assuming this correspondence between German composite nouns and English nominal collocations, one can begin to formulate questions about the relative frequencies of such entities in the respective languages.

One such question that interests me is whether composite nouns of three or more parts (for which I'll use the shorthand 3+-compounds) are more common in German than nominal collocations of three or more words (or 3+-collocations, for short) are in English. I suspect that the answer is yes, and would appreciate pointers to any systematic research on this question.

(I realize that the description above oversimplifies greatly, glossing over many complications that would get in the way of a systematic study. For example, it is not always clear how to count the number of parts in a composite word. Is it Umwelt·schutz or Um·welt·schutz? Is it Infrarot·strahlung or Infra·rot·strahlung? There's also the question of whether the frequencies of German 3+-compounds and English 3+-collocations should be normalized, respectively, by the frequencies of German 2-compounds and their counterparts in English (i.e. both 2-compounds and 2-collocations taken together). Dealing with such complications, however, is part of what this sort of research typically entails.)

2 Answers 2


While I can not point you to any research result, I can try replying to your question based on my experience.

I was born in Germany and have been living here ever since. Using 3+ compounds is very common since you need to form such words for describing something with one word in the most precise way possible.

E.g. one could say "Gewerbegebietsaufsicht" or "Fremdentourismusangestellte". Many more words are formed in this way. Some more examples from my daily life:

  • Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung
  • Zweibettzimmer
  • Hotelfachangestelltenversammlung (yes, we do use that one :-))
  • Mieterschutzverein

We Germans always try to find one "simple" (but long) word for describing things, persons or what they do. So I would say that using 3+ compounds in the German language is very common!

Hope this helps at least a little bit.

  • I would say that Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung is actually just 2 words, Geschwindigkeit and Begrenzung.
    – Em1
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 22:45
  • Haha, you're right! Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 12:19

Compound words are one of the strengths of the German language, which can describe more precisely in relationships/correlations (particularly in the sciences). You are not limited to two or three words. One of the best known examples is the German word "Donaudampfschiffsgesellschaftskapitänmütze" (Donau-dampfschiffs-gesellschafts-kapitän-mütze, compound of five single German words, something like the hat or a cap of a skipper or captain of a steam ship travelling only on the river Donau).

Your given two examples "Umweltschutz" and "Infrarotstrahlung" have two compound words: "Umwelt-schutz" and "Infrarot-strahlung". The word "Umwelt" means environment or ecology, the word "Welt" means "world". "Umweltschutz" could be translated with "environmental conservation" or "environmental protection". "Infrarot" is the German name of an unvisible kind of light for us (X-ray, (visible) blue, (visible) red, infrared).

Because I'm a German natural speaker and my English is not so good, I can't say how it is with English or give you a systematic research point.

As far as I know the answer is "Yes" as you already guessed.

  • The equivalent to your example in English is both easier to read and shorter: Danube steamship company captain's hat Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 12:39

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