Why you should care
Because hopeless inadequacy is so much more pleasant with a great man of letters at your side.
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.”