I came across a document in in one of the Scandinavian languages recently, and was quite surprised at the length of the compound words in use. English compounds are generally quite short, and even the compounds used in German seemed short compared to the ones in this text. The thing that struck me most was that what was expressed by a whole sentence in English was translated into just two or three words. So I started wondering what purpose this process of joining words together, seemingly ad infinitum, actually serves.
English is the exception
One of the first things I found was that actually, English is the exception among the Germanic languages. Although we use noun phrases like ‘city council member’, we express them as separate words, rather than joining them together as other Germanic languages would. One of the reasons why German compounds seemed relatively short to me was that they are able to be hyphenated. A reform of German spelling, passed in the mid-nineties, allowed the splitting of long compounds by hyphenation as an aid to comprehension.
Though I was joking when I said at the beginning of this article that some words seemed to be compounded ad infinitum, I found out that in Finnish, there is no limit to the amount of words that can be joined together – so they really could go on forever! Good luck finding a piece of paper big enough…
To wrap up, I thought I would share the longest English compound I could find with you. It’s not really a word, as such, but the chemical name of Titin. It is 189819 letters long, so is by any measure extremely long, but most lexicographers reject classifying it as a word, regarding it instead as a verbal formulae. I wonder how many points you would get if you found a scrabble board big enough to fit that on! It’s a bit too long to fit in here, but you can find it online. There are even some recordings of text-to-speech software pronouncing the full name on Youtube (although these have had to be cut down or sped up, as it would take about 4 hours to say the whole name otherwise!).
What’s the longest compound you’ve ever come across?