Longest German Word is No Longer Relevant

By Cory Healy on 5 June 2013
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On board a Danube steamship

On board a Danube steamship

Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungs- aufgabenübertragungsgesetz, the longest word in Germany, is no more. The 63-letter word, commonly shortened to RkReÜAÜG for ease of use, translates to “beef label monitoring delegation law” and refers to a 1999 law that made BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) testing mandatory for all healthy cows.  In a move that promises to save farmers up to €5 million, the European Union voted to strike down the law. As an unforeseen consequence, Germany’s contender for the longest German word has suffered a similar fate.

While linguists consider Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz an authentic word because of its use in legal documents,the word doesn’t appear in the standard German dictionary Duden because of how infrequently it’s used. The longest word currently in Duden is the 36-letter long Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, which refers to motor vehicle liability insurance. Yet, Guinness Book of World Records regards “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften,” the 39-letter term for legal protection by insurance companies, to be the longest German word used in everyday conversation.

How is it possible to have multiple “longest” words in a language, you may ask? German allows for compounds to be added indefinitely to an existing word in order to express extra concepts. This practice is known as Bandwurmwörter – tapeworm words. Mark Twain famously explored the English speaker’s—and his own—initial frustrations in learning the language in his satire The Awful German Language, calling them not words, but “alphabetical processions.”

In writing this article, I checked with our very own resident Austrian, FBT Editorial Director Jonathan Spira, who fondly remembers having to spell Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company captain) as a child.  “It was easier then,” he explained, “because it only had 41 letters.  Since the German orthography reform of  1996, which added an extra ‘f,’ it now has 42 letters.” The rest of us here remain tongue-tied in our attempts to tackle such beasts.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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