The Awful German Language…

by Travis Pickell

In the late 1870s Mark Twain, having achieved major acclaim in the United States and abroad, set off on a walking trip through Europe with his friend Joseph Twichell. The account of his trip was later published under the title A Tramp Abroad. I recently came across the appendix to this volume, entitled “The Awful German Language.” During his trip, apparently, Twain found himself the victim of critiques from the European “high society.” He was simply a “popular” artist in the eyes of many Europeans in both senses of the word. As a result, he spent much of his time attempting to broaden his horizons by learning French and German language and culture. (The French he got, the German was more difficult). I am currently taking a summer German course at the university and so I was naturally interested. Twain does not disappoint (do yourself a favor, especially if you have ever tried to learn German, and read the entire essay here). As my friend Nate so eloquently and accurately stated “If you don’t laugh at this — you’re a bag of hammers.”

Here are a few of the highlights:

“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.”

“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 let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected.”

“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.”

“I wish to submit the following local item, from a Mannheim journal, by way of illustration [of German compound words]:’In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called ‘The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-Stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.'”

“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. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”