New words
The World of Neologisms

Sascha Lobo
Sascha Lobo | Photo: © Reto Klar

The German language is constantly producing new words, known as neologisms. Yet it may take several years for a word to be included in the Duden dictionary and various criteria also have to be fulfilled.

It is a well-known fact that philologists are cautious to comment on how many words exist in the German language. 200,000, 300,000 or even 500,000? It’s hard to say, is what you always hear. After all, language is not a rigid construct, but is subject to constant change as it marches in lockstep with cultural and social developments. New words enter the German language on a daily basis, while others disappear. Young people are particularly creative when it comes to putting new vocabulary into circulation. Adolescent readers can now find even more vocabulary in the pocketbook Wortschatz: 698 Worte für alle Lebenslagen, published by NEON magazine in collaboration with Sascha Lobo. Whether some of them have what it takes for a Duden entry – that is the question.

How new words are created

German seems to create new words with a productive frenzy. Fremdschämen (second-hand embarrassment), twittern (to tweet) and Abwrackprämie (car-scrap bonus) are just three of the many new words that made it into the current edition of the Duden dictionary in 2009. Is the existing German word pool insufficient? Dr Doris Steffens of the Institute for the German Language in Mannheim, who since 1997 has been specialising in neologisms, the academic term for new words, sees the underlying reason as being a communicative need.

“Neologisms are created whenever new objects or situations need a name, and a characteristic feature is that speakers are unaccustomed to them for some time.” When a word has been used in a language community so often that it is no longer conspicuously new, its career as a neologism is over. “Most words are gradually absorbed into the general vocabulary”. It may well take ten years for that to happen, however. But there are also cases where journalists help a word to reach a considerable level of familiarity overnight. One example was during the elections to the Bundestag in 2005, when the term “Jamaica coalition” was used to refer to the cooperation of the Greens with the Christian Democrats (black) and Free Democrats (yellow). Conversely, it is a sad fact that when a word has fulfilled its communicative purpose, for example, because the named object is no longer relevant, it may fall into oblivion.

Types of neologism

On account of the technical progress made during the nineties, that decade was productive in taking loan words, mainly from English, to describe what was still lacking in German to describe common processes in the new computer age. Do speakers stumble over whether the word Notebook is feminine, masculine or neuter in German? “Generally, the article corresponds to that of the equivalent German word,” says Steffens. Fortunately, there is no such uncertainty in the case of neologisms created through changing the meaning of an existing word. Usually, a word emerges as a neologism, a so-called new meaning, when it appears in connections where the original meaning is distracting. Steffens: “the verb knicken, for example, has undergone such a development” (the original meaning of knicken was “to fold”, but now das kannst du knicken means “you can forget it”). In German, composite words in particular have plenty of potential to become neologisms, but also new verb formations attract attention. A good example of this derives from the word for the long-term unemployment benefit introduced in 2005, Hartz IV, named after Peter Hartz. It has given us the verb hartzen, a succinct way of saying “to live on unemployment benefit”.

Young people – an inexhaustible source of new words

Coming back to young people – hardly any other social group is more active when it comes to inventing new vocabulary or to giving existing words a new meaning. After all, creating one’s “own” language does not only give one a feeling of belonging, but is also a means of dividing oneself off from the older generation. When a word from youth language finds its way into the general language, young people often drop it again and continue their search for fresh words. Since March 2010, NEON magazine has devoted a vocabulary column to the urge to expand linguistic horizons. Now, a pocket-book version, Wortschatz: 698 Worte für alle Lebenslagen, has given further momentum to the process of vocabulary generation. In it, author Sascha Lobo has thought up words such as simsulieren, krankfeuern and Plomp together with corresponding definitions to create a 190-page cornucopia of ingenious vocabulary which, as one can read on the back cover, has entered the market with the ambition of becoming a little Duden of the future.

Criteria for inclusion in the Duden dictionary

Such promising blurbs do not worry the Duden editors, however. “The Duden aims to document actual language use, not the theoretically limitless possibilities of linguistic creativity,” explains Dr Werner Scholze-Stubenrecht, Head of the Duden editorial office. New words have to be actually used by a language community in order to take their place among the 135,000 entries currently contained in the Duden. Scholze-Stubenrecht gives the criteria for inclusion in the Duden as follows: “They have to appear frequently in our electronic collection of texts, the Duden corpus, be verifiable in different sources, such as newspapers or books, and appear over a certain period of time – that is to say, they are not just a flash in the pan.” So the words coined in Wortschatz: 698 Worte für neue Lebenslagen have a long way to go. Be that as it may, the book is definitely an enjoyable read.