Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"The Awful German Language" by Mark Twain

While here in Bochum I thought it might be wise to improve my command of the German language. I learned German in high school for four years, and by the end could read fairly sophisticated texts. (I don't know how well I spoke it, however, since I didn't have the opportunity to visit a German-speaking country and talk to people). I didn't take any more German until graduate school, when I took an intensive German reading course in order to pass an exam (Ph.D. students were required to learn both German and French). That helped my reading but not my speaking.

When I got to Bochum I had some hope that the German I learned in high school would return, and that I would be able to have simple conversations with people. Unfortunately, this has not happened. I signed up for a German class, and I have remembered the grammar I learned, and some vocabulary, but I still find it hard to get out a simple sentence. It would be very useful to be able to speak better, because I find that many people in Bochum simply don't know any English, or if they do, they're unwilling/unable to speak it.

I just read what Mark Twain wrote on The Awful German Language. Well worth a read - funny and accurate!

A sample:
There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. 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.


  1. Ah, yes, the compound words, these were all the bane of our existence! Thank you for the smile and the memory of my college German classes.

  2. I don't remember them as being so difficult in high school, but I'm sure my language-learning ability has decreased since then.