I came across an interesting quiz the other day. It is designed to help German speakers avoid potential errors when speaking English. The example that made me laugh out loud was:
Was heißt „I am an undertaker“?
a. Ich bin Unternehmer.
b. Ich bin Leichenbestatter?
The answer is b. Die Leichen are “corpses” and Leichen- can be a prefix meaning “funeral” or “mortuary” or “cadaveric.” Der Bestatter also means “undertaker” as well as “mortician” and “funeral director” and comes to us by adding the -er suffix to the stem of bestatten – “to bury” or “to inter.” A good translation for option a. would be “I am an entrepreneur” – someone who undertakes to start a new company. (Note that this example also introduces the translation challenge of knowing when an article is needed. In English, to state your profession you must include the article “a” or “an.” In German, to be correct, you must not.) Der Unternehmer is formed in a fashion similar to der Bestatter: you start with the verb nehmen – in this context “to take” – add the -er suffix to the stem to get the nonword *Nehmer – “taker” – and then add the prefix unter-. While *Nehmer does not appear to be a word, it is productive, appearing in 14 compounds. For example, it appears in der Darlehnsnehmer – “borrower – someone who takes out a loan;” in der Zeitnehmer – “timekeeper – some one who takes a measurement of the time something takes;” in der Geiselnehmer – “hostage-taker;” and in der Sicherungsnehmer – “risk-taker” (or “secured party”).
Having seen all these, what they jumped into my head was der Teilnehmer – “participant” or the person who takes part. One meaning of der Teil – “part” – would also to support this. However, we are actually back to the -er plus verb stem as teilnehmen means “to participate” (partizipieren also exists, it is even given the designation gehoben by dict.cc – “an elevated style” – interesting that the loan word is considered the elevated style…) or “to take part.”
I hope there were a few take-aways for you from this discussion of how German compounds can be taken apart as well as a sense of how you can be taken in by this process, which can lead to mis-takes.
I was on canoo.net just now and noticed an ad for FindIT – Semantische Suche für Unternehmen which could be mistranslated by the literally minded as “semantic search for undertakers.” Instead it is a service that helps businesses organize their data and documents.
Interesting idiom – Er würde über Leichen gehen, um … “He would stop at nothing to …”