The Awful German Language
by Mark Twain


A little learning makes the whole world kin.
        --Proverbs xxxii, 7. 

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities
in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper
of it with my German.  I spoke entirely in that language. 
He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while
he said my German was very rare, possibly a "unique";
and wanted to add it to his museum. 

If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art,
he would also have known that it would break any
collector to buy it.  Harris and I had been hard at
work on our German during several weeks at that time,
and although we had made good progress, it had been
accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance,
for three of our teachers had died in the mean time. 
A person who has not studied German can form no idea
of what a perplexing language it is. 

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.  So overboard he goes again,
to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. 
Such has been, and continues to be, my experience. 
Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing
"cases" where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant
preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with
an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground
from under me.  For instance, my book inquires after
a certain bird--(it is always inquiring after things
which are of no sort of no consequence to anybody): "Where
is the bird?" Now the answer to this question--according
to the book--is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith
shop on account of the rain.  Of course no bird would
do that, but then you must stick to the book.  Very well,
I begin to cipher out the German for that answer.  I begin
at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea. 
I say to myself, "REGEN (rain) is masculine--or maybe it
is feminine--or possibly neuter--it is too much trouble
to look now.  Therefore, it is either DER (the) Regen,
or DIE (the) Regen, or DAS (the) Regen, according to which
gender it may turn out to be when I look.  In the interest
of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it
is masculine.  Very well--then THE rain is DER Regen,
if it is simply in the quiescent state of being MENTIONED,
without enlargement or discussion--Nominative case;
but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general
way on the ground, it is then definitely located,
it is DOING SOMETHING--that is, RESTING (which is one
of the German grammar's ideas of doing something), and
this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it
DEM Regen.  However, this rain is not resting, but is
doing something ACTIVELY,--it is falling--to interfere
with the bird, likely--and this indicates MOVEMENT,
which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case
and changing DEM Regen into DEN Regen." Having completed
the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up
confidently and state in German that the bird is staying
in the blacksmith shop "wegen (on account of) DEN Regen."
Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark
that whenever the word "wegen" drops into a sentence,
it ALWAYS throws that subject into the GENITIVE case,
regardless of consequences--and therefore this bird stayed in
the blacksmith shop "wegen DES Regens."

N.B.--I was informed, later, by a higher authority,
that there was an "exception" which permits one to say "wegen
DEN Regen" in certain peculiar and complex circumstances,
but that this exception is not extended to anything
BUT rain. 

There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. 
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--not in regular order,
but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed
by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any
dictionary--six or seven words compacted into one,
without joint or seam--that is, without hyphens;
it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects,
each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and
there extra parentheses, making pens with pens: finally,
all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together
between a couple of king-parentheses, 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; and after the verb--merely by way
of ornament, as far as I can make out--the writer shovels
in "HABEN SIND GEWESEN GEHABT HAVEN GEWORDEN SEIN,"
or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. 
I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the
flourish to a man's signature--not necessary, but pretty. 
German books are easy enough to read when you hold them
before the looking-glass or stand on your head--so as
to reverse the construction--but I think that to learn
to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing
which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner. 

Yet even the German books are not entirely free from attacks
of the Parenthesis distemper--though they are usually so mild
as to cover only a few lines, and therefore when you at
last get down to the verb it carries some meaning to your
mind because you are able to remember a good deal of what
has gone before.  Now here is a sentence from a popular
and excellent German novel--which a slight parenthesis
in it.  I will make a perfectly literal translation,
and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens
for the assistance of the reader--though in the original
there are no parenthesis-marks or hyphens, and the reader
is left to flounder through to the remote verb the best way he
can:

"But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-
now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed)
government counselor's wife MET," etc., etc. [1]

1.  Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide
    gehu"llten jetz sehr ungenirt nach der neusten mode
    gekleideten Regierungsrathin begegnet. 

That is from THE OLD MAMSELLE'S SECRET, by Mrs. Marlitt. 
And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved
German model.  You observe how far that verb is from
the reader's base of operations; well, in a German
newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page;
and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the
exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two,
they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting
to the verb at all.  Of course, then, the reader is left
in a very exhausted and ignorant state. 

We have the Parenthesis disease in our literature, too; and one
may see cases of it every day in our books and newspapers:
but with us it is the mark and sign of an unpracticed
writer or a cloudy intellect, whereas with the Germans
it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen
and of the presence of that sort of luminous intellectual
fog which stands for clearness among these people. 
For surely it is NOT clearness--it necessarily can't
be clearness.  Even a jury would have penetration enough
to discover that.  A writer's ideas must be a good
deal confused, a good deal out of line and sequence,
when he starts out to say that a man met a counselor's
wife in the street, and then right in the midst of this
so simple undertaking halts these approaching people
and makes them stand still until he jots down an inventory
of the woman's dress.  That is manifestly absurd. 
It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant
and breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it
with the forceps, and then stand there and drawl through
a tedious anecdote before they give the dreaded jerk. 
Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste. 

The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they
make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it
at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the OTHER
HALF at the end of it.  Can any one conceive of anything
more confusing than that? These things are called
"separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered
all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two
portions of one of them are spread apart, the better
the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. 
A favorite one is REISTE AB--which means departed. 
Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced
to English:

"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his
mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom
his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin,
with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich
brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale
from the terror and excitement of the past evening,
but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again
upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than
life itself, PARTED."

However, it is not well to dwell too much on the
separable verbs.  One is sure to lose his temper early;
and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned,
it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. 
Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance
in this language, and should have been left out. 
For instance, the same sound, SIE, means YOU, and it means SHE,
and it means HER, and it means IT, and it means THEY,
and it means THEM.  Think of the ragged poverty of a
language which has to make one word do the work of six--and
a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. 
But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing
which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. 
This explains why, whenever a person says SIE to me,
I generally try to kill him, if a stranger. 

Now observe the Adjective.  Here was a case where simplicity
would have been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason,
the inventor of this language complicated it all he could. 
When we wish to speak of our "good friend or friends,"
in our enlightened tongue, we stick to the one form and have
no trouble or hard feeling about it; but with the German
tongue it is different.  When a German gets his hands
on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining
it until the common sense is all declined out of it. 
It is as bad as Latin.  He says, for instance:

SINGULAR

Nominative--Mein gutER Freund, my good friend. 
Genitives--MeinES GutEN FreundES, of my good friend. 
Dative--MeinEM gutEN Freund, to my good friend. 
Accusative--MeinEN gutEN Freund, my good friend. 

PLURAL

N.--MeinE gutEN FreundE, my good friends.
G.--MeinER gutEN FreundE, of my good friends.
D.--MeinEN gutEN FreundEN, to my good friends.
A.--MeinE gutEN FreundE, my good friends.

Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize
those variations, and see how soon he will be elected. 
One might better go without friends in Germany than take
all this trouble about them.  I have shown what a bother
it is to decline a good (male) friend; well this is
only a third of the work, for there is a variety of new
distortions of the adjective to be learned when the object
is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter. 
Now there are more adjectives in this language than there
are black cats in Switzerland, and they must all be as
elaborately declined as the examples above suggested. 
Difficult?--troublesome?--these words cannot describe it. 
I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of
his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks
than one German adjective. 

The inventor of the language seems to have taken pleasure
in complicating it in every way he could think of. 
For instance, if one is casually referring to a house,
HAUS, or a horse, PFERD, or a dog, HUND, he spells these
words as I have indicated; but if he is referring to them
in the Dative case, he sticks on a foolish and unnecessary
E and spells them HAUSE, PFERDE, HUNDE.  So, as an added
E often signifies the plural, as the S does with us,
the new student is likely to go on for a month making
twins out of a Dative dog before he discovers his mistake;
and on the other hand, many a new student who could ill
afford loss, has bought and paid for two dogs and only
got one of them, because he ignorantly bought that dog
in the Dative singular when he really supposed he was
talking plural--which left the law on the seller's side,
of course, by the strict rules of grammar, and therefore
a suit for recovery could not lie. 

In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. 
Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language,
is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness.  I consider
this capitalizing of nouns a good idea, because by reason
of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute
you see it.  You fall into error occasionally, because you
mistake the name of a person for the name of a thing,
and waste a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning
out of it.  German names almost always do mean something,
and this helps to deceive the student.  I translated
a passage one day, which said that "the infuriated tigress
broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest"
(Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this,
I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a
man's name. 

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system
in the 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.  See how it
looks in print--I translate this from a conversation
in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

"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."

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds
are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless,
dogs are male, cats are female--tomcats included, of course;
a person's mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet,
and body are of the male sex, and his head is male
or neuter according to the word selected to signify it,
and NOT according to the sex of the individual who wears
it--for in Germany all the women either male heads or
sexless ones; a person's nose, lips, shoulders, breast,
hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair,
ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience
haven't any sex at all.  The inventor of the language
probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay. 

Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in
Germany a man may THINK he is a man, but when he comes to look
into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts;
he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture;
and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the
thought that he can at least depend on a third of this
mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second
thought will quickly remind him that in this respect
he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land. 

In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor
of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib)
is not--which is unfortunate.  A Wife, here, has no sex;
she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish
is HE, his scales are SHE, but a fishwife is neither. 
To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description;
that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. 
A German speaks of an Englishman as the ENGLA"NDER; to change
the sex, he adds INN, and that stands for Englishwoman--
ENGLA"NDERINN. That seems descriptive enough, but still
it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the
word with that article which indicates that the creature
to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die
Engla"nderinn,"--which means "the she-Englishwoman."
I consider that that person is over-described.

Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great
number of nouns, he is still in a difficulty, because he
finds it impossible to persuade his tongue to refer
to things as "he" and "she," and "him" and "her," which
it has been always accustomed to refer to it as "it."
When he even frames a German sentence in his mind,
with the hims and hers in the right places, and then works
up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use--
the moment he begins to speak his tongue files the track
and all those labored males and females come out as "its."
And even when he is reading German to himself, he always
calls those things "it," where as he ought to read in this way:

TALE OF THE FISHWIFE AND ITS SAD FATE [2]

2.  I capitalize the nouns, in the German (and
    ancient English) fashion. 

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 of 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. 
And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she
will surely escape with him.  No, she bites off a Fin,
she holds her in her Mouth--will she swallow her? No,
the Fishwife's brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and
rescues the Fin--which he eats, himself, as his Reward. 
O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket;
he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the
doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she
attacks the helpless Fishwife's Foot--she burns him up,
all but the big Toe, and even SHE is partly consumed;
and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues;
she attacks the Fishwife's Leg and destroys IT; she attacks
its Hand and destroys HER also; she attacks the Fishwife's Leg
and destroys HER also; she attacks its Body and consumes HIM;
she wreathes herself about its Heart and IT is consumed;
next about its Breast, and in a Moment SHE is a Cinder;
now she reaches its Neck--He goes; now its Chin--
IT goes; now its Nose--SHE goes.  In another Moment,
except Help come, the Fishwife will be no more. 
Time presses--is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy,
joy, with flying Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas,
the generous she-Female is too late: where now is
the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings,
it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it
for its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering
Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him
up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear
him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises
again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square
responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of
having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him
in Spots. 

-----------

There, now, the reader can see for himself that this pronoun
business is a very awkward thing for the unaccustomed tongue. 
I suppose that in all languages the similarities of look
and sound between words which have no similarity in meaning
are a fruitful source of perplexity to the foreigner. 
It is so in our tongue, and it is notably the case in
the German.  Now there is that troublesome word VERMA"HLT:
to me it has so close a resemblance--either real or
fancied--to three or four other words, that I never know
whether it means despised, painted, suspected, or married;
until I look in the dictionary, and then I find it means
the latter.  There are lots of such words and they are
a great torment.  To increase the difficulty there are
words which SEEM to resemble each other, and yet do not;
but they make just as much trouble as if they did. 
For instance, there is the word VERMIETHEN (to let,
to lease, to hire); and the word VERHEIRATHEN (another way
of saying to marry). I heard of an Englishman who knocked
at a man's door in Heidelberg and proposed, in the best
German he could command, to "verheirathen" that house. 
Then there are some words which mean one thing when you
emphasize the first syllable, but mean something very
different if you throw the emphasis on the last syllable. 
For instance, there is a word which means a runaway,
or the act of glancing through a book, according to the
placing of the emphasis; and another word which signifies
to ASSOCIATE with a man, or to AVOID him, according to
where you put the emphasis--and you can generally depend
on putting it in the wrong place and getting into trouble. 

There are some exceedingly useful words in this language. 
SCHLAG, for example; and ZUG.  There are three-quarters
of a column of SCHLAGS in the dictonary, and a column
and a half of ZUGS.  The word SCHLAG means Blow, Stroke,
Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind,
Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure,
Field, Forest-clearing. This is its simple and EXACT
meaning--that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning;
but there are ways by which you can set it free,
so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning,
and never be at rest.  You can hang any word you please
to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to. 
You can begin with SCHLAG-ADER, which means artery,
and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word,
clear through the alphabet to SCHLAG-WASSER, which means
bilge-water--and including SCHLAG-MUTTER, which means
mother-in-law.

Just the same with ZUG.  Strictly speaking, ZUG means Pull,
Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction,
Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line,
Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move,
Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation,
Disposition: but that thing which it does NOT mean--when
all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been
discovered yet. 

One cannot overestimate the usefulness of SCHLAG and ZUG. 
Armed just with these two, and the word ALSO, what cannot
the foreigner on German soil accomplish? The German word
ALSO is the equivalent of the English phrase "You know,"
and does not mean anything at all--in TALK, though it
sometimes does in print.  Every time a German opens his
mouth an ALSO falls out; and every time he shuts it he bites
one in two that was trying to GET out. 

Continued... The Awful German Language Part 2

"My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years."

"The Awful German Language" is an essay written by the great American humorist Mark Twain and published as Appendix D in his book A Tramp Abroad. This book was written as a description of an extended visit to Europe in 1878 and 1879, partly motivated by the desire of Twain's readers (and publisher) to see another one of his travel books. He and his family made their primary home in the Schloss Hotel in Heidelberg, Germany, and through study develop a working knowledge of the language surprisingly quickly. Note the phrase "working knowledge" -- the learning was by no means easy or joyful for any of the family. More than once Mark Twain became so fed up with the "outrageous and impossible German grammar" that he simply abandoned it.

And he was (and is) right -- German is a dreadful language, at least from the stance of a native English speaker. In a couple of ways, it's a terrific improvement on English; in the rest, it's utterly illogical and worthy of at least a little mockery. Summing up what one really ought to read in Twain's own words:

  • Nouns with gender. Many European languages possess this feature, and to an English speaker, it's both confusing and pointless -- confusing because there is no consistency to the application of masculine, feminine and neuter qualities to assorted nouns, and pointless because most of them clearly have no sexual identity at all. In German, each gender possesses its own article, which may or may not change depending on what part of the sentence it belongs in, and every single one of these articles translates as "the". Worse, the gender alters the ending of every single adjective attributed to the noun, just because it can, as well as the pronoun that may be used to stand in for the noun. As far as communicating useful information is concerned, it's a perfect waste of syllables.
  • Subjects and verbs don't necessarily sit together. Or rather, part of the verb sits near the subject, and the other part sits clear at the end of the sentence. In English, the verb "run" may be preceded by "will" or "could" or "have" or "had" in order to communicate a particular meaning, and most other languages have something similar. German is peculiar in that when this happens, half the verb is placed after the subject and the other half clear at the end of the sentence. And of course, it's the useful half that goes to the end, so you have to read through the entire predicate (which can be uncomfortably long, especially in older texts) and remember it just to get to the word that tells you what's actually happening.
  • Proper nouns look just like regular ones. On the one hand, it's handy that all nouns in German are capitalized, because it distinguishes them from the adjectives and verbs littering the sentence left and right. On the other, it leads to confusion for a non-German when the proper name of a person or place also happens to be an ordinary noun. It's left to speculation as to whether this confusion could be prevented by assigning genders only to nouns that have one.
  • The words are too darn long. In Twain's own words, "Some German words are so long that they have a perspective." This is because while German normally keeps adjectives and nouns properly separated, it often forms new words simply by gluing one or more adjectives to the start of the noun and running it all together. Where English and most other languages would use two or three words to represent a single noun (think "House of Representatives" or "sport utility vehicle"), German considers this a waste of whitespace. The result is an entire unprinted dictionary of words two dozen or more letters long, impossible for a beginner to digest and at least as difficult to print in a newspaper column.
  • The dative case. Nonexistant in English, and so confusing to the student that it should qualify as as violation of international human rights law.

The one bright spot in the German language -- aside from the incredibly useful words "schlag", "zug" and "also" -- is its consistent spelling. German has no need for "Hooked on Phonics" or the spelling bee because every phonetic sound has exactly one spelling, and vice versa. Consequently, a student reading a sentence can know exactly how to pronounce it after just an hour of training, and can write a sentence spoken to him with equal precision, even if every last word is an unknown. Germans will even "correct" words imported from other languages to make them conform to the standard spelling. Sadly, this is of no real benefit to the elementary German student, because the hour saved learning spelling and phonics every day is replaced by two hours of learning the randomly-assigned genders of assorted nouns.

No wonder most Germans are capable of communicating freely in English by the age of sixteen, I say. It must be a pleasant change of pace from reading their own tongue.


Disclaimer: I myself am a former student of the German language, descended from native and non-native German speakers. It is with the greatest possible love for my ancestral heritage that I write the above; heaven knows the language needs it.

Sources:

  • Mark Twain, A Biography, 1875-1886 by Albert Bigelow Paine (http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext01/mt3bg10.txt)
  • A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain (http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext94/tramp10.txt)

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