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I'm learning German, and I also like to study World War II, so every now and then I stumble upon hyphenated words in German that I'd like to syntactically understand better.

For instance, why Prinz-Albrecht-Palais is hyphenated? I understand that in English that'd be something like Prince Albrecht Palace, without any hyphens.

Also, why some of the branches of the Schutzstaffel (SS) had hyphens not only in the beginning of words (e.g. SS-Totenkopfverbände) but also in the ending (e.g. Reichsführer-SS, Waffen-SS etc.)? Why is that?

Please, I'm not some Nazi prick, I'm just curious about those names. :)

Thank you for your time.

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3 Answers 3

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Short answer:

Hyphenation has to be used to concatenate words that are in fact only one (compound) word. Like your example Prinz-Albrecht-Palais. Otherwise it would be three words and the Prinz Albrecht (as a guy) would just be followed strangely by an unnamed Palais (as a building). With hyphens it is the building named with the prince and a single compound word.

Abbreviations should to be "well known" to the reader to be used. In your example, it can be assumed. So the relevant part in naming anything related to the "SS version" ist just to add the abbreviation of "SS" instead of writing it out.

Additionally the first rule applies: the naming consists of the abbreviation and the second word = needs a hyphen.

Rules according to Duden (in German):

  • D26 for hyphenation in need for concatenation
    • be aware that some words get well known thus the hyphen gets lost over time and the "one word due to hyphenation" is then one compound word
  • abbreviations itself
  • D28 & D29 for combination of abbreviations and words
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    I guess, the question is not why it is Prinz-Albrecht-Palais instead of Prinz Albrecht Palais, but instead of Prinzalbrechtpalais. At least, this is how I understood the question. But I might be wrong. Dec 17, 2021 at 3:08
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While in English compound terms are typically created by writing separate words, delimited with a space, written German uses different conventions:

  • append the words into one new word, without any visible separation (e.g. the infamous "Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän"), sometimes with an additional "s" in between, or
  • append the words with hyphenation (e.g. "Donau-Dampf-Schiff-Fahrts-Gesellschafts-Kapitän").

Creating a compound term from space-separated words is plain wrong in German.

The hyphenation style is used if the non-hyphenated word would look strange or unintellegible. Some combinations have become "standard" to a degree that we wouldn't use hyphenation for them, so often you'll encounter combinations of both styles (e.g. I'd hyphenate like "Donau-Dampfschifffahrts-Gesellschafts-Kapitän", treating "Dampfschifffahrt" as a standard compound).

If some part of the compound is an abbreviation, you have to hyphenate, e.g. "Kfzkennzeichen" would be unintellegible, it has to be "Kfz-Kennzeichen".

And to understand German compounds, you have to start at the end (similar to English). So a "Donau-Dampf-Schiff-Fahrts-Gesellschafts-Kapitän" is a captain belonging to a company doing cruises with ships powered by steam engines on the Danube river.

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One of the distinctive features of the German language is its inclination to create compound words from simple ones. English often has distinct words for things which are described by compounds in German. For example:

 - Tuch          cloth
 - Hand          hand
 - Handtuch      towel

Notice that "Handtuch" is a new thing that - albeit being conceivably derived from "Hand" and "Tuch" - has a meaning of its own. Also notice that german compounds - unlike english ones - never may consist of separated words. The "Danube Steamship Operating Company" mentioned above will ALWAYS be a "Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft" (btw.: we call it usually by its abbreviation DDSG) and never a "Donau Dampfschiffahrts Gesellschaft", although this is increasingly often seen already with the onslaught of anglizisms. In a lot of shopping windows you can see "Herbst Schlußverkauf" instead of "Herbstschlußverkauf". There is even a word for this type of compound-(not-)building: "Idiotenspatium" (about "morons blank"). German differentiates clearly between separate and compounded words: a "viel versprechender Politiker" (a politician promising much) and a "vielversprechender Politiker" (a [very] promising politician) are quite different things, "Haus Apotheke" is rather a dynasty named "Apotheke" whereas "Hausapotheke" is merely a "medicine chest".

In the case of "Prinz-Albert-Palais" (Prince Albert's Palace) there is a different rule at work: proper names can never be part of compounds. "Meier's law" might be "Meiersches Gesetz" or "Meiersche Regel", but not "Meiergesetz". "John Doe Street" would be "John-Doe-Straße", not "John Doe Straße"

There is, as @Shegit Brahm already said, also the rule never to make abreviations part of a compound word: "Kfz-Kennzeichen", not "Kfzkennzeichen".

Finally there are some exemptions:

  • if you want to put emphasis onto a certain (part of a) word you may hyphenate that part to set it visually apart from the rest: "be-greifen" puts emphasis on the "be-"

  • if you would end with some quite unreadable compound you can hyphenate instead of concatenate: Weltherrschafts-Tagtraum

  • to avoid confusion: "Musikerleben" could be "Musiker-Leben" (the way a musician lives) or the "Musik-Erleben" (the way of experiencing music) and you can hyphenate to make clear which one you mean.

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