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Since starting to learn German, I find myself wanting to use a non-hyphenated word in English, but I always end up adding the hyphen because otherwise it just seems wrong in English. Why is this? Is it merely convention?

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2 Answers 2

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First of all, note that the problem is a little bit more complex. English can separate parts of a compound with a space (orange juice), nothing (football), or sometimes a letter (bridesmaid). German can use nothing (Fußball), a letter (Orangensaft, not Orangesaft), or, rarely a hyphen (Drucker-Zeugnis) to avoid confusion.

That being said, this is primarily a spelling convention. There is no grammatical or pronunciation difference between an English compound like mathematics book and the German analogue Mathematikbuch. However, there are some reasons why the English conventions would not work well for German:

  • German uses joins compounds with interfixes (Fugenlaute) far more often than English. As these interfixes do not belong to either part of the compound, splitting the compound in writing would pose a consistency and aesthetics problem. When English uses these, it is either without hyphen or space (bridesmaid) or a double hyphen (annoy-o-tron).

  • English has a comparably rigid word order for sentences which allows to identify compounds in writing by their position and without relying on the help from the orthography. (In spoken language this is not so much of a problem thanks to pauses, stress, etc.)

  • Since the German orthography capitalises all nouns, proper nouns are not as easy to identify and you could easily confuse a compound with a proper noun plus apposition. For example der Flughafenwahn (compound noun) means the airport craze, but der Flughafen Wahn (proper noun plus apposition) is Wahn airport.

Now, if English orthography had these issues, it might employ the approach of only omitting the space when it would be causing confusion – which it indeed does to some extent, it indeed does, e.g., in bridesmaid. However, German orthography champions consistency considerably more than the English one.

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  • Your first reason is weak; isn't it completely clear that it should be Orangen-Saft, and not Orange-Nsaft? Jun 24, 2020 at 12:09
  • @PeterShor: The former is less awkward because German (like English) prefers to modify words at the end and not the beginning, Orangen happens to be a real word (the plural of Orangen, but that’s not its function in Orangensaft as evidenced, e.g., by Apfelsaft). But it is still awkward, even more so if you separate with a space (Orangen Saft). It’s like saying that Annoyotron is clearly Annoyo-tron and not Annoy-otron.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 24, 2020 at 13:12
  • That only looks strange to you because you're used to joining words; if the convention in German were not to join words, they'd look perfectly normal, and Joinedtogetherwords would look weird. But I agree that your other two reasons are valid. Jun 24, 2020 at 13:47
  • @PeterShor: That only looks strange to you because you're used to joining words – I doubt that. Hyphenating words does happen in German, but never when there is an interfix. Also, it’s the same in English: I don’t think there is any English compound with an interfix which is usually written with a single hyphen (let alone a space).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 24, 2020 at 13:53
  • We use a lot fewer interfixes in English, and sometimes we do hyphenate after them (we wouldn't use spaces). Consider the Franco-Prussian war. It doesn't look strange at all to me. Not hyphenating after infixes is merely convention. Jun 24, 2020 at 14:00
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There are plenty of unhyphenated compound words in English (teaspoon, greenhouse, laptop...). Gyles Brandreth in Have you eaten, Grandma says that hyphenated words are becoming less common. Even co-operate, which you would think needed the hyphen to stop you from pronouncing the first syllable coop, is now often written without one. There are no hard and fast rules (though occasionally the presence of a hyphen changes the meaning, as in the words recover and re-cover).

I can't see English speakers ever accepting those long strings of unhyphenated words that you get in German, though!

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    This is more of a description of the state than an explanation of the differences, except for the last sentence which essentially describes the historic momentum.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 24, 2020 at 10:39
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    Ms. Bunting's point is that there is nothing to explain, because the difference between English and German is not as sharp as the question assumes.
    – jsw29
    Jun 24, 2020 at 15:28
  • English speakers regularly accept strings of nouns with spaces, in headlines. Only the spaces make this different from a German string.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 24, 2020 at 15:54
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    The New Yorker does not need a hyphen in coöperate ;)
    – Carsten S
    Jul 4, 2020 at 18:56
  • Yes, using a diacritic is another possibility; but the word is often written without either. Jul 5, 2020 at 7:55

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