Sonntag, 1. Juli 2012

Mark Twain and The Awful German Language

And there I thought I was having a difficult relationship with German! Compared to Mark Twain I am a faithful and devoted admirer of its curiosities. In his essay The Awful German Language he spares no pains to prove its horrible shortcomings, complete disorder and lack of system; in fact Mark Twain takes his criticism as far as the boundaries of satire and his imagination will let him.

First off: I don't really know how I liked this "brilliantly witty piece of literature" as the blurb of my edition states. It is a very light, short and entertaining read for anyone who has ever had troubles learning an illogical and complicated language. While I of course could not relate to the problems any foreigner must have learning German (for I admit it has a horribly difficult grammar), I remembered a lot of similar difficulties I had with other languages such as French, Spanish and Italian. And this is where my criticism begins.
I am by no means influenced by national pride -there is hardly a harsher critic of my land and language than a true Austrian-  but for a native speaker of German some of Twain's remarks are simply ridiculous.

Mark Twain cannot have had much experience studying foreign languages, because the predominant part of his critique can be applied to almost any European language, not just German. The completely random distribution of sexes for example is a part of any language I have ever studied (except for Japanese, but that has its own stumbling blocks). That the English language is free from grammatical sexes of any kind is a wonderful relief, but then I don't know any other language whose grammar is so simple and clear as the English. I can tell you, though, that English has its own difficulties for eager students (vocabulary! You have so many words for one and the same thing! And then tenses! In my opinion there are roughly twenty ways of expressing that something will happen in the future...but I'm departing from the topic).

What really irritated me was that some of Twain's points of criticism are simply wrong. In one paragraph he talks for instance about the German habit of over-describing things.

"A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman -- Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerinn," -- which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described."

Now, first of all the particle to signalise a woman is -in, not -inn (the multitude of spelling mistakes in this short essay makes Twain's authority as a competent judge of the language somewhat less believable). Secondly, "die" means exactly the same as "the", so "die Engländerin" translates literally to "the Englishwoman", which makes it exactly the same as in English. In my opinion it is even easier, because an -in at the end of a word always means that the person is a woman, which avoids a lot of confusion. I can have a male friend, "Freund", and a female friend, "Freundin" and instantly know the difference, whereas when someone talks in English about a friend I am always wondering whether this is a woman or a man.

Then at one point Twain moans about the long German words. It is true, we tend to use only one word when the English use several, but I don't really see why "Unabhängigkeitserklärung" which literally translates to "independencedeclaration" should be so much worse than "declaration of independence". And some of his remarks are nothing but inaccurate: contrary to Twain's claim there is no German word which changes its meaning depending on which syllable is emphasised. Also, I get the impression that he never learned French, which is far, far more intricate and haphazard, since he believes that "a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in 30 hours, French in 30 days and German in 30 years".
Obviously I cannot consider myself as gifted, for I have spent the last five years studying French and am nowhere near fluent. 
But who would dare to question Mark Twain's expertise in German, a language he has studied for nine whole weeks?

I have just noticed that this post sounds much harsher than I intended it to be. Who would have thought that? Perhaps I am a tiny little bit proud of my mother tongue after all? Anyway, I admit: German grammar is systemless and this essay really amusing, just don't take it too serious. It is probably more enjoyable and easier to dwell in Twain's dry humour for someone who cannot control the accuracy of all of his critical remarks.


  1. Yeah, that's Twain for you--he'll take something he knows nothing about, rip it to shreds for amusement, and leave you incredulous. Don't believe a word he says. :)

    Do you think English grammar is easy? I've never heard anyone say that before! I think the easiest grammar is in Danish, which has hardly any--there are genders, true, but only two. Other than that, the only peculiarity is with articles and it's just fun--definite articles go on the end of the word, so you say en pige (a girl---the g is silent), pigen (the girl), piger (girls), and pigerne (the girls).

    I took some German in college, couldn't make head or tail of some of the grammar, and switched to Russian. Now there is some truly fiendish grammar! German looks easy in retrospect.

    1. Good Heavens! If that's true I'm not so sure I want to make any further acquaintance with Mr Twain...

      Here in Austria everyone is talking about how easy English is. The irony behind it is that hardly anyone is able to really speak, let alone write it. I am not presumptuous enough to claim the whole grammar was easy, but I would say compared to other languages where you have to learn conjugations, cases and genders before you can start using them even in simple sentences it is relatively easy to achieve a level on which you can communicate, simply because there aren't so many rules. For example I have been learning French only one year less than English, and while I like to think (or imagine) that I can express myself fairly well in English, I can hardly form coherent sentences in French because of all the genders and unnecessary tenses. But because there are not so many firm rules it is harder to gain refinement in English than in any other language I know, and I am still a long way from it.

      Danish is so funny! I think that's the language I need to learn next :)
      Don't laugh, but Chinese grammar is really easy too: no cases, no genders, no articles, no conjugations or declinations. Unfortunately the reast of the language is rather unlearnable.

      I admire you for learning Russian. I am always giving up when learning a language involves learning a new writing system. Somehow my brain doesn't manage that.

    2. It's true that I'm not a big fan of his satiric essays, but I do like the stories--Connecticut Yankee, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn are more my style. :)

      I have forgotten nearly all of the Russian I ever learned, but I did enjoy it and I can still read the writing. The Greek alphabet defeats me, though, and I wish I could learn Hindi but devanagari seems impossible!

  2. Fascinating post! I read that Twain learned French when a woman poorly reviewed the French translation of his story "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." I assume it was a quick few weeks of study -- certainly not years of study.

    1. Really? How dare he complain about German then?! French is THE WORST. I'd rather learn Chinese.

  3. What a title for an essay - don't mince your words, Twain! And really, if you are going to criticise something, you must make sure you know it thoroughly and don't make any spelling mistakes!

    I studied German for 5 years in secondary school and must say that I found it easier to learn than Spanish. It has a nice logic to it, especially in the longer words made up as smaller ones. As a native English speaker, the hardest thing to get used to was that nouns have gender. I dread to think how hard English must be in comparison to non-native speakers though!

    1. That's what one would think isn't it? But of course we are not Mark Twain.

      Dankeschön! I love the long words because they mean exactly what they say. That's not confusing at all!

      It's funny, because the hardest thing about learning English for me was having to say "it" to every noun which is not a person. When I was talking about a flower, "eine Blume", I used to say "She (die Blume) is very beautiful."

  4. I don't speak any German, but your examples certainly make it sound no harder than Spanish or Italian. That Twain! I wonder if he actually meant anything he said? (Although I can see his point about the really long words--when you don't know the language they look really intimidating! :) )

    I'm surprised you think that English grammar is so easy; I've always thought English must be a difficult language to learn. (As I occasionally yell at it for its difficult spellings and stumble over just which pronoun I should be using.) I suppose the basic structure might not be too bad, but given that English words come from so many different languages, I'm not surprised that vocabulary is a complaint!

    1. Except for the cases it is not, and once you have learned them they are not so very difficult anymore - Certainly easier than in Latin!
      I've been wondering about that too. Perhaps I'm just not understanding some of his humour?

      Did you ever learn French? No language is difficult in comparison. It's general consensus here that English is easy to learn, but only up to a certain level. In other words, it is very easy to communicate and impossible to achieve perfection. How I wish I had been born in England!

    2. I only know a very little French, and only individual words, nothing of the grammar or structure. I find it interesting that the Romance languages can vary so much--I've heard that Portuguese is supposed to be the easiest language to learn (fewest irregular verbs, apparently). And I would say Spanish is easier than Italian.

      Don't worry, it can be difficult for native speakers to achieve perfection, too!

  5. So true, Amanda. Cassandra, have you ever heard this popular quotation? "We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." (--James D. Nicoll)

    We figure, why have one or two words for something when 40 would be even better? :)

    1. I have not, but I'm loving it! I just looked a certain word up and do you know what I found? The German is "verworren" and there is only one synonym for it, but in English my dictionary suggests: confused, convoluted, intricate, involute,labyrinthine, misty, muddle-headed, nebulous, obscure, promiscuous, promiscuously, sinuous
      and tangled.

      Someone truly should write about The Awful English Language ;)

  6. Cassandra in the defense of the German language... I didn't think I would ever see that day... Anyway, did you notice that he is contradicting himself? On the one hand he is going on endlessly about "the Fishwife" and how the genders didn't match, and on the other hand he complains just because Englishwoman is feminine and thus has a feminine article...
    Anyway, I loved your review. I read the essay one or two years ago, but I have to admit that I have totally forgotten about it. Reading your review brought it all back, and now I would really like to reread it. I remember being indignant over the spelling mistakes and over the fact that some things, as you said, were simply WRONG, but I also remember finding it very amusing. I just hope Mark Twain never worked as a German teacher...

  7. The “spelling mistakes” are just archaic spellings.

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  9. German is a most beautiful language for all the word. I like Spooking German language...
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