The Awful German Language

I just cracked up while reading this essay by Mark Twain entitled “The Awful German Language”. I like languages so taking German courses at the university wasn’t too much of a hassle, and I aced all of them, but still I couldn’t speak fluently. So as I recently attempted to improve my language by reading German newspapers or watching German movies, I realized what a truly messed up language it can be.

Twain describes it best with much sarcasm in the following paragraphs:

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 inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within 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 haben 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.


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.”

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4 responses to “The Awful German Language

  1. Heh-heh, I love German! Learning German grammar helped me understand English grammar.

    Reading it is no problem for me. Making sense of a sentence is quick guesswork until that magic verb appears at the end of the sentence.

  2. haha guesswork indeed!

  3. True, I already spent my GJU year in Germany, had no problems communicating with people in German the entire time, however the newspapers are a whole other story… You literally have to highlight the beginning of the separable verb to get the ending. Mr. Twain forgot to mention that the prefix can TOTALLY change the meaning of the verb, for example, if I remember correctly, “bringen” which would normally mean “bring”, can be altered into “kill” by adding “um” to it.

    Ich bringe meiner Bruder mit, is a lot different from Ich bringe meiner Bruder um.

  4. That’s good news. I’ll pass on newspapers for the time being. What city did you go to?

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