Even if you’ve never tried to learn German as a second language, you’ve heard the horror stories, or perhaps even slowed down on occasion to rubberneck the tangled mass of verbiage in the Deutsch portion of your stereo instructions. Thankfully, those of us who are English speakers and have taken the linguistic plunge in Germany — and promptly drowned while flailing about in its mother tongue — can take comfort that most Germans are ready to kindly throw us a life preserver auf Englisch.
There is also tremendous solace to be taken in the fact that Mark Twain, one of the most accomplished exercisers of the English language, not only engaged in his own struggle to learn German but also decided to turn his rapier wit on the source of his discomfort. In the “The Awful German Language,” an essay originally published as an appendix to Twain’s travel book A Tramp Abroad (1880), the great American writer, who spent most of 1878–79 in Germany, dresses up every querulous complaint in his finest satirical attire, making anyone’s linguistic inaptitude presentable, if not downright charmant.
And thanks to Twain’s own marvelous linguistic feats, you need not be acquainted with German or late-19th-century Europe, or possess even a passing appreciation for grammar to enjoy his uproarious tour through the awful German language.
Waiting for the Verb
In German, it is common for the verb to come at the end of a clause or a sentence, testing the reader’s patience, making simultaneous translation virtually impossible and depriving the listener of the pleasure of interrupting the speaker. Or, in Twain’s words:
“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech … ; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot … ; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own … one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about.”
Twain quips that in some cases when a German news publisher is in a hurry, it “will have to go to press without getting to the verb at all.” In the literary context, he likens the parenthetical wait for the verb to a dentist recounting a “tedious anecdote” while holding the forceps on your tooth until the “dreaded jerk.”
“Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste,” Twain concludes with his own barbed jerk.
Gendered Nouns and Declining Declension
Nouns in German can be one of three genders — masculine, feminine and neuter — often with no rhyme or reason behind the gender assignment. “In Germany,” Twain observes, “a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has,” and goes on to translate a conversation from a German Sunday School book to demonstrate this “absurdity.”
Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.
German also declines its nouns, articles, pronouns and adjectives into four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive) — an exceedingly difficult task for a foreigner. “I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say,” Twain recounts, “that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”
Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.
It is challenging enough when living in another country to deal with utilities, public transportation and other practicalities, but in Germany, if you need to acquire something like motor vehicle liability insurance, or Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, you’re going to need some help … just pronouncing it.
“Some German words are so long that they have a perspective,” Twain writes of the language’s tendency to overly compound its nouns into agglomerations that are nearly indecipherable to the uninitiated (and not found in most dictionaries, or Google Translate).
Twain undoubtedly would have been greatly amused by the recent retraction of Germany’s longest word, when Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, a 63-letter gem meaning a “law for the delegation of monitoring beef labeling,” was removed from the German lexicon when the underlying law was repealed. Such monstrosities, as Twain would say, “are not words, they are alphabetical processions.”
If only we still had Mark Twain to help us feel better about the other things in our lives that feel unnecessarily difficult like navigating the Awful iCloud Sync or the Awful American Health Insurance System.
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. Or as we say in English, “It’s all Greek to me.”
"The Awful German Language" is an 1880 essay by Mark Twain published as Appendix D in A Tramp Abroad. The essay is a humorous exploration of the frustrations a native speaker of English has with learning German as a second language.
Twain made his first unsuccessful attempt to learn German in 1850 at age fifteen. He resumed his study 28 years later in preparation for a trip to Europe. Upon his arrival in Germany, the fruit of this recent scholarship was attested to in the advice of a friend: "Speak in German, Mark. Some of these people may understand English." During this 1878 stay in Germany, Twain had a dream in which, according to his notebook, "all bad foreigners went to German Heaven—couldn't talk and wished they had gone to the other place."
"The Awful German Language" was published in the second volume of Twain's A Tramp Abroad, 1880, as appendix D. Gunilla Anderman and Margaret Rogers describe the work as "Twain's most famous philological essay".
On October 31, 1897, Twain delivered a lecture titled "Die Schrecken der deutschen Sprache" ("The Horrors of the German Language" in English) to the Concordia Festkneipe in Vienna (the Vienna Press Club). Twain continued to give lectures into the 20th century regarding the language.
Twain describes his exasperation with German grammar in a series of eight humorous examples that include separable verbs, adjective declension, and compound words. He is, as the subject suggests, focusing on German as a language, but Twain is also dealing with English to compare the two languages. This allows for an analysis in linguistic weight assigned to various typological and stylistic aspects of language which revolve around the difference between an analytic language like English with a language like German that is a synthetic language with some analytic characteristics. Twain emphasizes these changes through interlinear translation, a manner of translation which tries to preserve the original language without context and in a literal manner, and this method emphasizes the mechanics of the language translated.
The German language contains a complex system of inflection that is capable of frustrating learners in a manner similar to Twain's argument:
Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions." He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.
The inflections within the language are used to represent both syntax and semantics, and function is assigned in hard to grasp ways, which combine with Twain's claim about exceptions being rather common in the German language. Part of this stems from the language's word order, along with gender, number, and other linguistic aspects, being connected to the morphology of individual words.
One of the key emphases within the work is on German linguistic gender. Twain plays with the differences in natural or sexual gender and linguistic or grammatical gender by pointing out that the German for girl is grammatically neuter, unlike many sexless items such as turnips:
Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.
The problem with the linguistic gender is that it appears to make sense in theory, but it operates in an illogical manner. The actual relationship between gender and noun is unclear, and it is difficult for a learner of German to psychologically connect their understanding of the words with the gender rules. To Twain, there was no reason for concepts such as a fish's scale having a feminine gender but a fishwife, an actual female, lacking any. When Twain translates the "Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate", he expresses feelings of anger that result from his attempt to learn the language:
It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and oh the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye. And it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm.
German is not special in this manner, but, as Guy Deutscher observes, it was simply the language that Twain was learning at the time of the work. Many other languages contain some or all of the idiosyncrasies that Twain pokes fun at, including French, Russian, and Latin.
- ^ abcdLeMaster, J R, James Darrell Wilson, and Christie Graves Hamric (1993). "Awful German Language, The". The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 57–58.
- ^Potsdam 2004 pp. 315–316
- ^LeMaster, Wilson and Hamric 1993 p. 315
- ^Anderman and Rogers 2003 p. 125
- ^Anderman and Rogers 2003 pp. 125–126
- ^ abSchmid 2002 p. 85
- ^Romaine 1999 p. 65
- ^Deutscher 2005 p. 41
- ^Housen and Pierrand 2005 p. 52
- ^Deutscher 2005 pp. 41–42
- ^Deutscher 2005 p. 42
- Anderman, Gunilla and Rogers, Margaret. Translation Today. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003.
- Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005.
- Housen, Alex and Pierrand, M. Investigations in Instructed Second Language Acquisition. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2005.
- LeMaster, J. R., Wilson, James, and Hamric, Christie. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993.
- Potsdam Public Museum (Potsdam, N.Y.) (2004). Images of America: Potsdam. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-3650-7. Retrieved 2009-07-16.
- Romaine, Suzanne. Communicating Gender. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 1999.
- Schmid, Monika. First Language Attrition, Use and Maintenance. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 2002.