A word made up of two or more other words, usually, but not in all cases, combining their meaning as well. For example: greenhouse, waterhose, butterfly and homa.

Compound words (or rather compound nouns) are apparently the bane of anybody trying to learn German. But the rules are really simple:

Now, the first point is, as far as I can see, specific to the German language. The second point is common among English and German speakers, but it confuses the hell out of native speakers from southern european countries, where the order of specification is the other way round.

Let's take a simple example from a multi-lingual bag of sweets that currently sits on my desktop:

  • In English: Coffee Candy. Two words, the specific (coffee) before the general (candy).
  • In German: Kaffeebonbons. One word, generated from the concatenation of a general noun (Bonbon = candy) and a specifying noun (Kaffee = coffee).
  • In French: bonbon de café. The other way round, and not even a proper compound, just a description: candy of coffee.
  • In Italian: caramella al caffé. Just like in French.
Now, the obvious advantage of the southern european version is that, if e.g the speaker gets shot while halfway through the description, you still have an idea what he was talking about. With the English version, you'll have to wait till the end. And with the German version it's even worse: after you've waited till the end, you'll have to disassemble the construct in order to get a clue.

Let me illustrate that last point with a small example:

   Blumentopferde
   |____||__||__|
   
             Erde             earth/ground
         Topf              pot
   Blumen            flower
In this way of disassembly, the construct correctly parses to 'earth for filling flower pots'. If, however, the speaker (or the auto-slicer of the word processor) makes a mistake in pronounciation, the parsing could yield:
   Blumentopferde
   |______||____|
           
           Pferde                       Horses
   Blumento          ??? proper noun ???
'Pferde' are horses - but so far, nobody ever found out what a 'Blumento' is. Some people still assume it's a special kind of horse.

Now let me come to the final pièce de résistance: probably the most famous and most horrendous of the German compound nouns (you have been warned):

Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsunterhosen

Let's run this through the parser:

     Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsunterhosen
     |___||___||____||___| |__________| |_____| |___||___|
                                                     
                                                     hosen
                                                unter
                                        kapitän
                           gesellschaft
                     fahrt
               schiff
          dampf
     Donau          
Hosen
trousers, as simple as that.
unter
under, together with the trousers from above = undertrousers, slip, briefs, boxers, shorts, whatever.
Kapitän
captain (of a ship or other vehicle).
Gesellschaft
group, society, corporation
Fahrt
journey, ride
Schiff
ship. Together with the 'fahrt' from above, that makes a compund word with the meaning of navigation or shipping (in ships). Note that, depending on which version of the German language you're using, 'Schifffahrt' is written either 'Schifffahrt' or 'Schiffahrt'.
Dampf
steam
Donau
(the river) Danube.
.
The various 's' between some of the words serve to separate some hard corners and indicate a possesive function.

So, as a translation of the above single German word, we get: "shorts of a captain of the Danube steam ship company".

In morphology (a subfield of linguistics), a compound is a (relatively) new word created by the word formation process of (surprise!) compounding. Usually, compound is short for compound noun, because the compound word is a noun, though the other word may be of any lexical category.

How do compounds differ from noun phrases?
Compounds are any combination of words (generally two in English) that have come to be represented as one word in the mental lexicon of the speakers, unlike noun phrases, which are thought of as a combination of multiple words which can be switched around (i.e., noun phrases are productive.) The same words can be used as a compound noun or a noun phrase (see examples below), so telling the difference between these two things is often difficult (and something a number of my Introduction to Linguistics students always get wrong) when the compound is a combination of an adjective and a noun. When you have a noun-noun compound (like enchilada sauce) they are easier to identify, but still must pass the intonation test below.

This is all well and good, but how can we identify a compound?
The testable difference between compounds and noun phrases in English, is which part of the word or phrase is stressed. Rather than the head receiving stress, as happens in phrases (we say black bird because it is a bird, not a black), the first item receives stress, regardless of whether it is the head or not (and it usually is not, because of how English syntax works).

For example:
black bird = could be a raven, crow, blackbird (noun phrase)
vs.
blackbird = a specific species of bird (compound)

white house = any house that is white in color
vs.
White House = where the president of the united states lives

make up = a verb phrase meaning to create something (as a story), to prepare something for use (as a bed), or to make amends after a fight
vs.
makeup = cosmetic products or
make-up = the composition of something

(Note that the spelling is generally different between a noun phrase and its compound counterpart; this in and of itself, however, does not tell us whether a word is a noun phrase or compound noun, as in makeup and make-up which are both compounds but have different meanings. Spelling is often altered in situations like these because readers do not have the benefit of intonation to help their understanding of a sentence, but linguists are much more interested in how the language is spoken, not how it is written. Spoken language reveals much more about how language works than do things like spelling conventions.)

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