Awful German Language

The other day I came across this book called “The Awful German Language” by Mark Twain. As I had just been contemplating whether to start learning German in Melbourne, I started reading it and simply could not put the book down.

Twain hilariously documented his laborious relationship with German in this essay. He spent time in Germany and Switzerland where he grappled with the language to then deliver a lecture in Vienna titled “Die Schrecken der deutschen Sprache”, translating to “The Horrors of the German Language”. The comedic take on German and its difficulties is not to be taken as an insult, but rather a demonstration of affection towards the challenge that mastering the art of language is.

Twain finds several points of confusion in the syntax of the German language, and makes a number of suggestions to remedy its complexity. Sadly, for German beginners, none of these suggestions have been taken on board in the past 100+ years! Mark Twain’s major issues concern the use of separable verbs, gender and compound nouns – and how these are integrated into a structured German sentence.

Separable verbs
In the German language, a prefix can be added to a verb to change its meaning, and in the finite form, some prefixes are separated from the verb. In these situations, the prefix usually moves to the end of the sentence.

For example: the word “fangen” means “to catch”. However, “anfangen” means “to begin”. And if I wanted to say “I will begin”, I would say “Ich fange an”!

German, like other languages such as French and Italian, have a gender for their nouns. In German, nouns can either be masculine, feminine or neuter. The accompanying article for a noun is dependent on that noun’s gender. An example of this is the singular form of the definite article – where die is used for feminine nouns, der is for masculine nouns and das is used for neuter nouns.

The allocation of a particular gender to a noun is seemingly nonsensical to an English speaker. Twain humorously comments on this by stating that in German, a young lady has no gender, while a turnip is considered a feminine noun. He laments this confusion in the short passage “The Tale of The Fishwife and its Sad Fate”, a whimsical literal translation of a German story into English, documenting the gender for every noun.

Compound Nouns
And of course, Twain could not go without commenting on the famous German language compound nouns! These are words that have an unlimited length, formed by nouns being clustered together without hyphens to provide meaning. At his lecture in Vienna, Twain claimed to have received a telegram containing the word “Personaleinkommensteuerschätzungskommissionsmitgliedsreisekostenrechnungsergänzungsrevisionsfund.” I think even the Germans need luck deciphering that one.

Happily, Twain had many positive notes on the German language to document too. He applauded the German practice of nouns being capitalised in sentences and was a massive fan of words that could be used as sentence fillers. The simple fact that he persisted with the language and impressed experts with his fluency, despite his complaints, shows that he had a deep appreciation of the German language and culture.

According to Twain, English can be learnt in 30 hours, French in 30 days and German in 30 years. This language centre in Melbourne stands to prove otherwise, with some of the best teachers in Melbourne!