Having Fun with Language on German American Day 2022

By Sabrina Völz

In coun­tries, such as Poland and the Nether­lands, learn­ing Ger­man is on the rise. Yet, in the U.S., it’s been declin­ing for the past hun­dred years. Num­bers of stu­dents learn­ing Ger­man have decreased from rough­ly two mil­lion in 1910 to a lit­tle over one mil­lion today. There­fore, it shouldn’t come as a sur­prise that Ger­man pro­grams have been clos­ing all over the U.S. The very lib­er­al arts col­lege I attend­ed as a bach­e­lor stu­dent in Indi­anola, Iowa – Simp­son Col­lege – elim­i­nat­ed its Ger­man pro­gram a few years ago. So in prepa­ra­tion for this Ger­man Amer­i­can Day (Oct. 6), I decid­ed to attempt to do some PR for German.

Recent­ly, while I was surf­ing the web, I came across some­thing that almost knocked me for a loop. It’s noth­ing bad, just a 58-let­ter word. So let’s hear that drum roll….

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That word is: Kurzfris­ten-energie-ver­sorgungs-sicherungs-maß­nah­men-verord­nung.

Believe it or not, it’s real­ly a word. But what does it have to do with Ger­man Amer­i­can Day, you ask? Every­thing. Ger­man is such a won­der­ful lan­guage; it’s hard for me to believe that not every­one wants to learn it. After all, there are a lot of cog­nates like T‑shirt, hotel, or com­put­er, to name but a few. But more impor­tant­ly, you can just make new com­pound words by putting two or more words togeth­er. As many of you might know, Mark Twain wrote about this fea­ture in the 19th cen­tu­ry. When I first start­ed learn­ing Ger­man in high school, build­ing and deci­pher­ing Ger­man com­pound nouns was high­ly enter­tain­ing. Some of my first encoun­ters were:

  • Hand­schuh – lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as “shoe for the hand,” and if you think about it for a while, you’ll even­tu­al­ly fig­ure out that the word means “mit­ten”
  • Fin­ger­hut – lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed as “a hat for a fin­ger” or thimble
  • Kühlschrank – “the cool cup­board” or refrigerator

A lit­tle imag­i­na­tion goes a long way in Ger­man, and when your German’s good enough to deci­pher a word like Kurzfris­tenen­ergiev­er­sorgungssicherungs­maß­nah­men­verord­nung, then you know you’ve made it to the big leagues.

Any­way, here’s a lit­tle exper­i­ment you could do with begin­ning Ger­man lan­guage stu­dents or those who know no Ger­man at all. Get the Ger­man club or an upper-lev­el class to do this exer­cise on Ger­man Amer­i­can Day, and don’t for­get to hand out gum­my bears to any­one who par­tic­i­pates. Make cards with about 20 pic­tures on them and place the words in Ger­man and Eng­lish below. Make sure they can build at least 10 words in Ger­man. Oth­er words than the ones men­tioned above might include: Fußball, Kranken­wa­gen, Orangen­saft, Käsekuchen, Hausti­er, Tomaten­salat, Sand­burg, Taschen­lampe, or Apfel­baum. Include a cou­ple of hard­er ones to up the ante, words like Arm­ban­duhr or Meer­schweinchen. The word Käse­fuß should cer­tain­ly be worth a few laughs.

As a warm-up exer­cise for an inter­me­di­ate class, put the stu­dents in groups and see how many Ger­man words they can detect in Kurzfris­tenen­ergiev­er­sorgungssicherungs­maß­nah­men­verord­nung. You might want to set a timer and make a race out of it.

For a more advanced group, have the stu­dents do an inter­net search and try to find out what that 58-let­ter word means, dis­cuss an excerpt of Mark Twain’s “The Awful Ger­man Lan­guage,” and then write a short reac­tion paper.

Enjoy the day, everyone.

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