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I'm a beginner in German as I only just started learning it more seriously this year despite loving the language my whole life. German compound words don't scare me that much as it's pretty similar to English compound words in a lot of ways, except that, in German, it's more of a hard-set rule while in English it's an evolution.

Or so I thought.

I've noticed that some words are actually not compounded even though I assumed they were. Here's an example. Chocolate milk is Schokoladenmilch. Oat milk is Hafermilch. But chocolate oat milk is Schokoladen-Hafermilch instead of just one word, Schokoladenhafermilch, which is very similar to how English uses dashes to combine multiple nouns into a kinda single word.

Is there actually a rule for joining nouns in German? And is it okay if I just assume that all nouns should be collapsed into a single compound word in writing, as in, people won't find it too weird? Perhaps it's like English in the sense that it takes a while for a compound word to come to be, making the language more descriptive than prescriptive.

Danke im Voraus!

  • My German is school-room minimal yet even I recognize the idea that German compound words are at all similar to English compound words would be somewhat strange for a newcomer; verging on bizarre for anyone "loving the language my whole life." By the way, is English not your first language? Only "German compound words don't scare me that much as it's pretty similar to English compound words…" is wholly comprehensible yet it will never actually work in English. – Robbie Goodwin Jun 28 at 23:08
  • As a German I agree, that it's not really different to English, compare car door <> Auto|tür or window board - Fenster|bank. Of course, German also has the Fugen-s, but apart from that, it's not really a different pair of shoes. – infinitezero Jun 28 at 23:12
  • @RobbieGoodwin so I've always loved the way German sounds, but I never bothered learning it until last year when I started doing it for fun. I basically knew nothing about the grammar and had a very limited vocabulary until this year when I decided to turn it from a pastime to a real goal. – Spartan0x75 Jun 30 at 2:39
  • @RobbieGoodwin English compound words are not as crazy as those of German as most of our compound words are made of just two nouns, but they do exist everywhere. Bedroom, for example, is a compound word and you can absolutely find old text of modern English where it was written as "bed room." In fact, as a software engineer, I see a lot of new words that are currently in process of becoming compound words. We read articles of some algorithms with those words separated, becoming connected with a dash around a turn of the century, to now being written as a single word sometimes. – Spartan0x75 Jun 30 at 2:43
  • @RobbieGoodwin And yes, I am American, so English is my first language. It's not weird as English, in the end, is Germanic. We were all shown with Old and Middle English in our schooldays (hey, another compound word), and are aware of the heavy Romance influence in our language due to the Norman French conquest of England, giving the birth of Middle English. That's why English is so different compared to every other Germanic language and also why the pronunciation and spelling don't often play nice with one another. That being said, the proto-Germanic root is still unmistakably there. – Spartan0x75 Jun 30 at 2:49
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Duden states that you are allowed to add hyphens to emphasize certain parts [§45(1)] or in confusing/unclear composita [§45(2)]. This means, that Schokoladenhafermilch itself is correct. But in order to emphasize that it's oat milk with chocolate flavour, you may add a hyphen in between.

On the other hand, Schokoladenhafer-milch would mean you grew some special chocolate oat and made milk out of it.

Schokoladenhafermilch leaves both options (in principle), so native speakers will tend to understand the most likely option depending on context.

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  • 4
    It's also harder too read the longer the word get's, so adding a hyphen can also improve readability – Sentry Jun 27 at 18:05
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    But let me also add that it is considered bad style. I don't know where you picked up Schokoladen-Hafermilch, but while it is suitable for an add or a label on a product or in the yellow press, any civilized text would spell it as Schokoladenhafermilch. In principle German nouns are infnitely composable (with the meaning of adding detail or precision to the last component), but overdoing so is also considered bad style. So while Schokoladenhafermilchstrohalmbehälterbestellcoupon is completely grammatical, you would try to avoid it in favor of relative or adverbial clauses. – ThomasH Jun 28 at 16:35
  • That does make a lot of sense and I totally get the emphasis part. I think I saw the word either on an article or a recipe online as I've been trying to read more German lately. Anyways, it's always nice to get some clarifications on things like this! – Spartan0x75 Jun 30 at 3:01
  • I'd like to add that hyphens are recommended for separating components of different languages ("Datamining-Spezialist") or abbreviations ("Kfz-Versicherung"). – hajef Jul 3 at 8:48

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