Montag, 3. Juni 2013

Longest Word in German Abolished

Maybe I ought to have added a few exclamation marks and used a bigger font. Maybe I ought to have added a few titillating pics. After, all, I just used a misleading headline in order to draw attention to this post. The rest of the post will try to be accurate, I promise.
Der Spiegel reports that the longest word in Germany that is actually in use has been "retired". What actually happened (and like with this post, you learn that when you read the article) is that lawmakers in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern abrogated the Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüber- wachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz ("Law on the transfer of responsibilities for supervision of the marking of cows and the labelling of beef"). The second part of this (Rindfleisch- etikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz) was on record as the longest German word actually in current use. German has the ability to form theoretically endless compounds, which are also pronounced and written as one word. So it's easy to make up crazily long compounds to illustrate this, but the ones in actual use are normally quite short - normally the longer ones contain three- to four words. Longer compounds are mostly found in legal terms and scientific and technical terms. The longest one that's sufficiently frequent to be recorded in the Duden (the standard and standard-setting dictionary for German) is Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung ("third-party motor insurance"), which is a combination of a three-element compound Kraftfahrzeug ("motor vehicle") that nobody uses outside of technicalese and legalese - in everyday language, you'd say Auto or Wagen "car" or Fahrzeug "vehicle", or shorten it to Kfz -, and a four-element compound Haftpflichtversicherung "third-party insurance" that, in everyday language, is often shortened to Haftpflicht (which, by itself, normally means "third-party liability").
Now, in the article it is stated the mentioned law was the longest compound in actual use since the Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmi- gungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung ("Ordinance on the transfer of responsibilities for the approval of real-estate transactions") was abrogated in 2007 (in the article, length is measured by the number of letters). That reasoning is a bit curious - after all, a law can be referred to even after it is abrogated. The word can still be found in various collections of legal acts. And there's a meta-discussion out there about long German compunds where it's bandied about (going by the first four pages of a Google search I did, most attestations of the word are in discussions about long words and compounds, not in legal contexts). So the G-word is still being used, and the same reasoning is valid for Rindfleischetikettierungsüber- wachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. To argue that a word is not used anymore because the thing it describes is not used anymore is a curious mix-up between signifier and signified. That notwithstanding, the article is worth a read.