Word formation processes in English and German – a survey

Term Paper 2009 13 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies


1) Introduction

When German native speakers converse with English native speakers, they are often astonished how easily and spontaneously new words can be created in English. At the same time, English speakers are astonished by the number of lengthy[LH1] compounds the German use in written language. But still, most word formation processes are very similar in both languages - both[LH2] English and German even share some affixes, for example be- in be-friend or be-zahlen or –er in sing-er or Säng-er.

[LH3]I want to investigate[LH4] the differences and similarities concerning the major word formation processes in English and German (compounding, derivational suffixation and conversion). Firstly[LH5], I will provide an appropriate background by looking at contrasts in the lexicon and will also touch on[LH6] some diachronic explanations. Then I will explain the different units of words[LH7].

Ultimately, I[LH8] want to get an insight into a very recent [LH9]phenomenon, namely the adding of German affixes to English words in German word formation - the so-called ‘Denglisch’.

2) Contrasts in the lexicon

Before I [LH10]explore the similarities and differences in word formation processes between the two languages, I want to provide some background information by giving a general overview of the contrasts in the lexicon and the connection between word formation and the lexicon.

First, we must be aware of the fact, that words play an active role in the shaping[LH11] of items in our imagination. This means, that if a word does not exist in a language, it is hard to grasp the meaning of it.

(1) Dunst, Nebel
(2) haze, mist, fog
We can translate haze with ‘Dunst’ and fog with ‘Nebel’, but it is hard to find an appropriate translation for mist (Mair 1995: 25). It is important to know that there are limits to the transfer of meaning from one language into another.

Another problem is false friends, which are words that look alike - often because they are rooted in the same language [LH12]– but have developed a different meaning:

loslassen ‘stop to hold’ vs. let loose ‘free from restraint’ (Mair 1995: 26)

This shows that the relation between English and German does not necessarily lead to a better understanding, but can[LH13] lead to misinterpretations (“Can I become a steak, please?”).

Especially interesting concerning word formation are two tendencies in the lexicon which can be explained through history:


The German language tends to use compounds in cases where the English uses synonymous word pairs of different etymologic origin:

(1) table/desk vs. Tisch/Schreibtisch
(2) calf/veal vs. Kalb/Kalbfleisch (Mair 1995: 29)

The reason for this is[LH14] the long periods of close language contact and bilingualism in Britain, especially after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The people who had to slaughter the animals used the English words while the French upper class used their words for the cooked meat. A large part of the Middle English vocabulary had its origin in French, in fact many thousand words (Jucker 2000: 36-38).[LH15]


In Old English and Early Modern English, inflectional endings were lost. This is closely connected to the settlement of the Vikings in Britain. The Danes and Norwegians would have spoken different dialects, but both languages were rather similar to that[LH16] of the Anglo-Saxons (Jucker 2000: 24). It is assumed that in order to understand each other, the endings were simply ignored. Due to this development, almost every verb, in English, can be used as a noun or the other way round (conversion), [LH17]which is often a more precise way of saying something than in German:

to carpet a building vs. ein Gebäude mit Teppichen ausstatten

The only constraints are word-class specific suffixes (Mair 1995: 29-30).

So when we look at the word formation processes, we should always keep in mind that English and German both derive from Germanic, but have been exposed to different influences over the years.

3) The components of words

To understand the word-formation processes, it is important to have a look at the units that can be combined.

There are items which are non-specific concerning word-formation processes:


Words can be combined with all units, including themselves. [LH18] We distinguish between simple words like Torte and complex words like Apfeltorte (Donalies 2007: 10).

Phrases and letters

Sometimes words are composed with phrases or letters:

(1) Ich-kann-sie-nicht-vergessen-Brief
(2) B-Promis, A-list crowd (Donalies 2007: 11).

The following units are specifically needed for some word-formation processes:


Confixes are bound units and can be combined with words[LH19], affixes and themselves. They are just used for word-formation and can define the word class. They are usually borrowed from other languages. Typical confixes are:

(1) faszin-, therm-, -skop, -zid
(2) bio-, cyber-, -minator (Donalies 2007: 12).


Affixes are also bound units and cannot be combined with themselves. We distinguish between prefixes, suffixes and circumfixes, which are frequently used in German word formation but I did not find any examples in PDE.

(1) prefixes: VERsüßen, POSTmodern
(2) suffixes: SüßE, selectivITY
(3) circumfixes: VERsüßeN, GechattE, (Donalies 2007: 14-20).

4) Compounding


Compounding is the most productive type of word-formation process, both in English and in German. It can be defined as the combination of two words to form a new word. But compounds can consist of more than just two elements and these elements need not to be words (Plag 2003: 133). According to Donalies it is even most common that compounds consist of a word and a confix (Donalies 2007: 35). The more precise definition given by Plag is “[…] a compound is a word that consists of two elements, the first of which is either a root, a word or a phrase, the second of which is either a root or a word” (Plag 2003: 135).

Binary structure

In both languages all compounds are binary which means that they can be divided into two units:

(1) university teaching award committee(1) member(2) (Plag 2003: 133)

‘ member of X’

(2) Rosenbuschbegradigungs(1)experte(2)

‘n expert for X’

Right-hand head rule

Concerning the notion of the head, in both languages the left-hand member modifies the right-hand member, which is also called the head (right-hand head rule). This does not account for all languages, for example French: a café-filtre is something to drink, not something to filter (Donalies 2007: 39). The head determines the grammatical features of a word, e.g. the word class or the number. [LH21]


English and German compounds are usually stressed on the first/left-hand element, whereas in noun phrases the stress lies on the last word of the phrase. This can even lead to minimal pairs:

greenhouse (‘a glass building for growing plants’) vs. a green hóuse (‘ a house that is green’) (Plag 2003: 138)

But there are a lot of exceptions to the rule, e.g. aluminium fóil (Plag 2003: 138) or Schienenersátzverkehr (Donalies 2007: 40).


[LH1] Extra long sounds very colloqial

[LH2] Too many „ands“

[LH3] You should never in a essay, state that it is an essay or term paper that you are writing – it sounds unprofessional and informal

[LH4] Examine is not really correct in this context. You would use it more if a doctor need s to examine a patient.

[LH5] Never start a sentence with „but“

[LH6]You have to „touch on “something in this context

[LH7]You do not need to say where it will be dealt with – it is unnecessary.

[LH8]The same reason as before – you should use „ultimately“

[LH9]„current“ means what is happening now – so something can’t be “very now” – do you mean “very recent/modern”?

[LH10]It sounds like you don’t want to investigate it now, but maybe will later.

[LH11]Shapening is not a word, but shaping is.

[LH12]What do you mean – It sounds like they are from the same language – do you mean language origin, i.e Germanic?

[LH13]„also“ sounded contradictory in a way

[LH14]It is either the „reason s are“ or the „reason is“

[LH15]This is very interesting : )

[LH16]Unless the Anglo Saxon’s had more than one language, you have to use the singular „that“

[LH17]You must make it clear you were speaking exclusively about English here.

[LH18]Ok I’m really confused, what do you mean? It isn’t clear

[LH19]Is a confix not part of a word?

[LH20]You may want to start all titles with a capital letter

[LH21]I don’t understand what a head is. Will Frau Schneider know exactly what a head is? Maybe you should clarify what it is in a short sentence or give some examples as well as the French one.


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University of Freiburg – Englisches Seminar
Word English German Contrastive Linguistics



Title: Word formation processes in English and German – a survey