Language: Stringing together the longest word

Posted on by Mike Evans

I have always been fascinated by languages, both my native English and the thousands of separate tongues and dialects throughout the world. I can hardly go anywhere in the world without wanting to say please, thank you and how's your father in the local lingo

At an early age I learned from my mother, in northern England, that starving meant to be very cold. It was always starving in our house because we hadn't even imagined central heating. When I arrived in London to start work as a journalist I discovered most right-thinking people equated starving with being hungry. This was a new concept for me. Only later did I realise that "to starve" was a gradual softening in meaning of the German verb sterben, to die. What had happened in the fascinating transition of meaning from strong to weak was that dying of cold had stuck in my part of northern England while the rest of the English speaking world interpreted it as dying of hunger.

This is just one of thousands of examples of the way in which our language has evolved over the last thousand years since Norman French courted and married good old Anglo-Saxon which, in turn, had come to dominate the Scandinavian tongues of the Norsemen (not to mention the prior Latin and the celtic of Welsh, pushed into their western fastness by the Roman invader). It is hardly surprising, then, that I was amused earlier this week to read that Germany has officially ceased to deploy the longest word in common(?) usage. It deserves a line to itself:

Das Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

which, as any German five-year-old will tell you, is the law for the delegation of monitoring of beef labelling. Easy peasy.


Not to be out-done here in the Britain, if not in the English language, we have the Welsh town of


Just say "Clan-vire-poolth-guin-gilth-go-ger-u-queern-drob-oolth-clandus-ilio-gogo-goch" or simply "Clan-vire PG" if you need directions to the local fish and chip shop. In case you are wondering, it means "St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool and the church of St Tysilio of the red cave" but, disappointingly, it turns out it was invented in the 1860s by a local tailor who wanted his town to have the longest railway station name in the world. He succeed and, for over a century, sausage-long platform tickets have been a big seller.

Back to the Germans, who have a habit of stringing together nouns into more sausages with total disdain for the hyphens and similar fripperies. It is the only language I know that can have three s's in a row. In theory, a German noun can be of any length. I remember at an early age being encouraged to pronounce:

Die Kölndüsseldorferdampfschifffahrtskapitänsmütze

or the Cologne-Dusseldorf Steamship Company's captain's hat. It knocked Peter-Piper-picked into a pair of Lederhosen. Incidentally, it is longer than the Danube version mentioned here in The Telegraph. These compendiums, which are really intended to amuse rather than use, can be strung out to improbable lengths thanks to the easy going nature of the grammar. Any German party-game afficionado will recognise

Die Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft

or, in plain English, the "Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services". So now you know, even if pronunciation is on the tricky side, even for a German. You may well wonder why simple old English has become the Weltsprache. Or why the fledgling United States of America adopted English instead of German. Even Wurst, we might all be at it by now: Sausagenounsunlimited.

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