I came across these words:

Kleingruppe, Reinform

Why are they like that? Why not "kleine Gruppe" and "reine Form"? This looks really interesting. Please explain to me how and when can I use this type of adjective. I would like to add it to my German language arsenal.

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    Please be careful with this. These nouns often have acquired a different meaning than the corresponding adjective + noun combination. – Roland Apr 14 at 5:44
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    This is one of the many weird features of the German language people are confused about because they don't exist in other languages. Oh, wait: "smartphone", "blackmail". – RHa Apr 14 at 6:30
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    There is an interesting comment on this topic where the oberservation is made that this happens mostly with morphologically simple adjectives (like klein as opposed to lebenslang). – amadeusamadeus Apr 18 at 3:17
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    @amadeusamadeus: I am not convinced this is related to length or complexity rather than the main stress being on the last syllable of the adjective, maybe in combination with some adjective endings that lend themselves more to this form of connection. – O. R. Mapper Apr 22 at 14:04
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    @amadeusamadeus: Sozialgefüge, Präsidialamt, Maximalabweichung, Spezialbezeichnung, Ministerialbeamter are just a few examples. – O. R. Mapper Apr 22 at 15:21

These words are a special type of compound nouns, but they're more than just a different way to affix an adjective to a noun. They are new words with their own life, and they can have acquired meanings that go beyond just the noun plus the adjective, or a different meaning altogether.

E.g., a Blaulicht isn't just any blue light that shines blue. It's exclusively used for the flashing light on police, ambulance, and fire department cars.

Kleintier has a (more or less) fixed definition in veterinary medicine, and a different one in tenancy law.

Rotfront was a communist paramilitary group in the 1920s and today is sometimes used as a derogatory term for far-left activists.

Your examples:

Kleingruppe is often used with a fixed definition for the context. For example, a railroad company might have special ticket prices for Kleingruppen, and then Kleingruppe has a fixed definition in their terms and conditions like "a group between 3 and 10 people plus up to 10 children below 13 years". So if you use Kleingruppe when buying a ticket, it will be understood to have that definition.

Reinform is basically a chemical term (pure form of a substance in contrast to a mixture) that can also be used in a figurative sense ("Der Artikel ist marxistische Theorie in Reinform.").

So while the literal meaning can in many cases be a guidance in understanding a compound word, in other cases the whole isn't just the sum of its parts. Trying to build new words by concatenating an adjective and a noun won't work in most cases either.

  • One could add that in these compound nouns the stress moves to the first part. I think the same happens in English, even though there it remains two words in writing (there are probably also hyphenated examples). – Carsten S Apr 23 at 9:15

These are no adjectives, but nouns. As a rule of thumb, you can normally combine an adjective ("kleine", "reine") with a general noun ("Gruppe", "Form") to get a compound noun in German. This is used because it is more concise, even though it regularly adds a sense of bureaucracy to the language.

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    "This is used because it is more concise" - I think this is a really incomplete (and maybe even misleading) explanation. There is no way anyone would replace "Ich sehe einen großen Mann." with "Ich sehe einen Großmann." just for the sake of being "more concise". Roland's comment "These nouns often have acquired a different meaning than the corresponding adjective + noun combination." provides a good starting point for a more fitting explanation. – O. R. Mapper Apr 14 at 6:38

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