"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.


  • 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)