By Various authors

16 September 2019 - 13:23

Two tortoises eating leaves
'A Dutch tortoise is also a schildpad, (or 'shield path') a vacuum cleaner a stofzuiger ('dust thing') and a glove a handschoen.' Photo ©

congerdesign used under licence and adapted from the original

Have you ever seen a ‘naked snail’ or watched something on the ‘stupid box’? Do you have a ‘clean mother’?

Put two words together and they can mean something very different – as we discovered when we asked our colleagues around Europe for a few of their favourite compound nouns ahead of this year’s European Day of Languages.

Here are some of our favourites.

You'll learn German compound nouns faster than a flying thing

German, and many related languages, is a goldmine when it comes to compound nouns, as German is a language that tends towards compounding.

The number siebenhundertachtundzwanzigtausenddreihundertneunundvierzig (728,349) is one example.

But some of the shortest compound nouns are the loveliest. Nacktschnecke – the German word for slug, is made up of nackt (naked) and Schnecke (snail).

The German language also has Kinderwagen (pram, but literally ‘child carriage’), Schildkroete (‘shield toad’ – or rather, tortoise), Handschuh (‘hand shoe’ or glove) and Staubsauger (‘dust sucker’ or vacuum cleaner).

We also love Hüftgold (the German word for ‘love handles’ that translates as ‘hip gold’). 

Anything with the word Zeug – ‘thing’ – attached to it is on our list. You can have a Spielzeug (‘playing thing’ – or toy), Fahrzeug (‘driving thing’ – a vehicle) or of course Flugzeug (‘flying thing’ – aeroplane).

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Dutch compound nouns are as delicious as peanut cheese

Like its linguistic cousin German, Dutch is a language rich with compound nouns. Some are almost identical to German – so a Dutch tortoise is also a schildpad, (or 'shield toad') a vacuum cleaner a stofzuiger ('dust sucker') and a glove a handschoen.

Dutch also has the wonderful schoonmoeder (‘clean mother’ meaning mother-in-law’) and pindakaas (‘peanut cheese’ or peanut butter).

Closely related to Dutch, Flemish has its own compound nouns. Our favourite is kijkbuis – ‘watch tube’ – meaning television.

We might learn Greek compound nouns if we visit the book casing

Greek rivals the Germanic languages in compound nouns.

You might learn a language by watching the ‘stupid box’, or television (Χαζοκούτι, from χαζός meaning 'stupid' and κουτί meaning 'box'). You could practise with a friend over ‘black juice’, or coffee (Μαυροζούμι, from μαύρος meaning 'black' and ζουμί for 'juice'). If you prefer to stay in your flat to study, you might be a ‘home-cat’ (Σπιτόγατος, from σπίτι for 'home' and γάτος for 'cat'). 

If you're disobedient, you might be called a ‘wild goat’ (Αγριοκάτσικο, from άγριος for ‘wild’ and κατσίκα for ‘goat’). A library is a ‘book casing’ (Βιβλιοθήκη, from βιβλίο for ‘book’ and θήκη for ‘casing’). If you're accused of something, you might be a ‘finger-shown person’ (Δακτυλοδεικτούμενος, from δάκτυλο meaning 'finger' and δείχνω meaning 'show'). 

Hungarian compound nouns are as delicious as nail stew

Hungarian can also build long compound nouns to rival German. Take ezerkilencszázkilencvenkilenc (1,999) for example. Or how about jövedelemegyenlőtlenség – income inequality – or kompromisszumképtelenség – the inability to make a compromise?

The best compound noun in Hungarian has to be körömpörkölt, meaning ‘nail stew’. This dish made of pigs’ feet is a local delicacy – certainly tastier than it sounds.

European Day of Languages is 26 September 

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