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The (Not So) Awful German Language

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The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.

Mark Twain once penned an essay titled, “The Awful German Language” that originally appeared in his book A Tramp Abroad. The book takes place in the late 1870s shortly after the unification of Germany’s hodgepodge of kingdoms in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck, a frumpy Prussian man with an overhanging mustache, with the assistance of Kaiser Wilhelm I, another Prussian man but this time with a curly mustache and mutton chops that looked like a loofah.

Twain plays the role of an American tourist fascinated by just about everything––at least that’s what I gleaned from my repeated attempts at reading the thing. Look, I know American writers are supposed to adore all things Mark Twain, especially those of us who fancy ourselves moderately humorous memorists, but the third chapter focuses entirely on a fictional blue jay language. What’s a contemporary reader to do with that? But he did, supposedly, find inspiration for the riverboat scenes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during his own riverboat excursions down the Neckar River outside of Heidelberg, and if that’s true, then I suppose the endeavor was worthwhile.

Without question, the most popular essay in the book was the aforementioned penning that tore the German language a new one.

If your experience with German is limited, then yes, I suspect it will be a rather miserable experience. If you tell me to lace on some ice skates and chase a puck around a rink while shouting phrases like “blue line!” during a vacation, I’m certain I would report back that hockey is an absurd venture––especially if I had never before interacted with the sport, as I’m sure Twain hadn’t with German. (He did attempt to learn German when he was about 15, but I suspect he wasn’t surrounded by many native speakers in Hannibal, Missouri.)

Nevertheless, Twain wrote his essay and it’s one even Germans themselves often cite to the cerebral masochists among us who wish to learn the language. You’ll even find German-language editions of the essay in bookshops around major cities in the country. Die schreckliche deutsche Sprache as it’s known in the language Twain mocks.

Let’s start here, with the title. The German language is many things, but “awful” is not one of them. It’s trying, challenging, and at worse, headache-inducing. But it’s also wonderful and pointedly-accurate with moderately-sized compound words that describe emotions that would take an English sentence. “Awful” is far too extreme and makes me think the German language did something wrong.

Frustrated students may disagree, but the German language did nothing wrong and certainly nothing awful. It didn’t hit its older brother on the knee with an aluminum baseball bat (a troubling sign of my childhood that I fortunately outgrew) nor did it employ the likes of Michael Bay to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. (I’m sure Megan Fox is a nice person, but it’s ludicrous to believe she’s the gutsy, take-no-shits-from-anybody April-freaking-O’Neil.)

Twain’s primary issues with the languages are the grammar. He starts off on fair enough footing, taking aim at the various grammatical cases that result in sixteen different ways to say the word, “the.” Das, die, der, dem, den, des are all of the spellings, but whether you’re speaking in the singular or plural; masculine, feminine or neuter; in the nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive changes the meaning of the “the.” I’m sure you’ll agree that this explanation alone supports Twain’s central argument, and you certainly wouldn’t see me protesting in der Straße if someone took his suggestion and updated the language by removing some of these cases entirely. But stick with me.

Next, he takes issue with the existence of separable verbs. Abreisen (to depart), for instance. Er reist Morgen ab. He departs tomorrow. See how the “ab” moved to the end of the sentence and basically created a new word? This is different than Er reist Morgen––He travels tomorrow (reist conjugated from the simple reisen or “to travel”).

In the essay, Twain gives an exaggerated example of how ridiculous the separable verb is by offering a run-on sentence in English, separating the English verb “de-parted.” Unfortunately, his example is nonsense, stuffing a number of other verbs in between to stretch out his sentence before plopping the second half of a severed English verb at the end for dramatic effect. German doesn’t allow for verbs between separable verbs. His example is linguistic scaremongering.

There’s a better way to prove Twain’s point of overbearing complexity. All we have to do is add a “who” or “which” or “that” that refers to a noun in the middle of a sentence to really muck things up. The English, “I am the man who will save your life” becomes “Ich bin der Mann, der dein Leben retten wird.”

A direct translation of that German would be, “I am the man who your life save will.” But if I simply said, “Who will save your life?” It would be, “Wer wird dein Leben retten?” This directly translated is just as silly, “Who will your life save?”

Twain does briefly pause his hysteria to complement German for its use of capitalizing all nouns. “Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness,” read his backhanded compliment in typical, Twansian, overtly fanciful prose.

But this praise is but a breath in his diatribe. A fart in his diarrhea, if you will. He continues his linguistic onslaught in the next paragraph, complaining that “every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution, so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart.”

Okay, the man had a point. Perhaps it was the budding gender nonconformist in me, but I even recall taking issue with gendered words when learning Spanish and taking great joy in learning how modern speakers now use the at symbol to remove the gender from words when referring to groups of people who might not be comprised entirely of men. Buenos días, tod@s, for example.

To Twain’s credit, he pointed out this gender disparity in the language long ago, noting that a little girl, Das Mädchen, lacks a gender but a turnip is female. Not that German is alone in its guilt of arbitrary gender apportion. A problem is masculine in Spanish (el problema), a cappuccino is hiding a pair of testes in Italian (il cappuccino), and life itself is feminine in French (la vie). (Hey, that could be the slogan for the next Women’s March on Washington!)

Unfortunately, the language’s grammar relies almost entirely on gender and to simply remove it would make it impossible to tell someone whether you’re riding comfortably inside of a train or riding on top like a bank robber in an old western from the silent film era.

Since we have gendered nouns, that means “it” now gets a gender. Meaning, if you were to ask where the condoms are, you might be told either “Sie sind in der Schublade” or “Es ist in der Schublade.” Our first “Sie” means “they,” covering essentially plural “it.” But if your partner has been having lots of sex and only has one left, they would say “Es” to refer to the neuter “Das Kondom.” That example may not seem too far removed from English, but imagine if “Das Kondom” were “Der” or “Die Kondom.” Then your eager lover would say either “Er” or “Sie ist in der Schublade” effectively “He” or “She is in the drawer.” Unless you’re planning a ménage à trois with your favorite fantasy characters from The Lord of the Rings and Game Of Thrones, accessed through the portal in your drawer, it sounds a bit off and needlessly complicated.

So I tend to agree with Twain’s argument here, but the language would simply fall apart without gender. Gender is like the awkward stage of a relationship when you obsess over text read messages and how long it takes to reply. Annoying, but necessary to get to the good stuff. So that means we’re stuck with neuter condoms, unless of course, you’re down to clown for multiple rounds. Either way, kudos to you for practicing safe sex.

Putting a pin in that sex scene you’ve inevitably drifted off to, let’s consider Twain’s next grievance. Looking at the words Schlag and Zug, Twain wrote, “There are three-quarters of a column of Schlags in the dictionary, and a column and a half of Zugs.” This is Twain, as hyperbolic as ever, complaining that words mean multiple things in a language. He laments that a student who looks up the word Zug in a dictionary will find translations of “Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress,” and so on. As if a German student of English wouldn’t search “train” and find, “Zug, Bahn, Schleppe, Eisenbahn, Folge, Reihe, Räderwerk.”

Perhaps most bewildering of all of Twain’s petty charges is his attack on compound words–those orgies of letters that look like a spilled bowl of alphabet soup to the untrained eye. I suspect at face value you’d agree. To a non-German speaker, they look ridiculous and impossible to pronounce. That’s true, especially if you consider the examples that Twain offers, such as Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen, Altertumswissenschaften, and Kinderbewahrungsanstalten. (That’s roughly State General Assembly, Ancient Studies, and Children’s Shelters, respectively.)

What’s truly ridiculous is the idea or even implication by Twain that a German, much less a student of the language or a practiced immigrant, uses these words. Imagine a student of English writing home to complain about words like “onomatopoeia” as an example of the complexity of the language. It’s the linguistic equivalent of pointing out a person in line at the airport because they remind you of someone you saw on Homeland.

I suspect Twain was insistent on making his point at the expense of offering the most obvious example that proves the worth of German compound words–Schadenfreude. That is, joy at the expense of someone else’s misery.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting kicked out of a Mexican restaurant? Schadenfreude.

The alt-right’s Richard Spencer getting punched in the face? Schadenfreude.

Any asshole on a plane who bangs their head on the overhead after forcing themselves in front of you? Schaden-fucking-freude.

German proves its worth as a language with that word alone.

An argument of Twain’s that certainly hasn’t aged well is that “a description of any loud, stirring, tumultuous episode must be tamer in German than in English. Our descriptive words of this character have such a deep, strong, resonant sound, while their German equivalents do seem so thin and mild and energyless.”

Many things can be said (and have been) about German. But that it’s an energyless, tame language without tumult or a deep, strong, resonant sound is not one of them. Ask any non-German speaker to do their best impression of a German accent and they’ll either slip into a Lederhosen-clad, sing-songy simpleton or they’ll scream gibberish like a comic book supervillain freshly delivered to the insane asylum. Granted the latter stereotype is likely left over from the repulsive dramatics of Hitler, but you can also find popular videos of language learners comparing the word “butterfly” in French (papillon), Spanish (mariposa), and Italian (farfalle) to the arresting, guttural German of Schmetterling.

Twain does make an accurate observation that “The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the right one.” This remains true. Twain gives the example of the German “Also” used as an equivalent to our “so” (as in, “So what do you think?”).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Genau––exactly––is the language’s bass drum, keeping the beat of the conversation.

“First, we’ll go to the store…”

“Genau.”

“…and find something for the party.”

“Genau.”

“But if we need to make another stop,”

Ge-”

“there’s another shop across the street.”

“nau.”

At a normal pace of conversation, you’ll hear a German say, “Genau, genau, genau, genau” as if humming the melody to a long lost Mary Poppins tune.

“Put all your clothes away right now! Genau, genau, genau!

The way Germans part ways takes more than just a word, but the ceremony is just as repetitive that it warrants mentioning. What we’d accomplish in English with a simple, “Bye” or “Have a good one” is like a pop single to the German composition, usually kicked off by a heartfelt Danke schön to convey the end of either a transaction or exchange. Then you’re off to the duet.

Einen schönen Tag noch.”

“Gleichfalls!”

“Ja, ebenso!”

“TSCHÜSS!”

“TSCHÜSS!”

Essentially, “Have a nice day. Likewise! Yes, you as well! BYE! BYE!”

German speakers or even astute readers such as yourself might question the use of “you as well!” right after a “likewise!” I agree it’s perplexing, but I swear I’ve heard this exchange hundreds of times inadvertently eavesdropping while waiting outside of the grocery store with Moses as two friends part ways before delivering that final, delightfully cooing tschüss!––the linguistic version of the chime of a small town church bell. Even the burliest of men reveal themselves to be angelic fairytale creatures when they part ways with a friend.

Twain leaves these charming details out as he focuses his ire on what is, as I’ve admitted, some pretty complex grammar. He does, however, manage to brush over the fact that he only “devoted upward of nine full weeks” of study before determining the language’s awfulness. Nine weeks. A blip in an American presidential election. The assumption, regardless if overstated for the sake of humor, that one could master something in less time than a season of television––let alone be expert enough to levy serious criticisms and remedies––is the kind of insultingly white male American attitude society only recently decided to challenge. It reminds me of the oh-so-many Americans I’ve encountered in my country’s oh-so-many homogeneous suburbs, ready to offer their diagnosis of how African-Americans can pull themselves out of poverty, their qualification being that the five-lane highway they take to work goes through predominantly African-American neighborhoods and there’s a black guy at the office they like with proper sports opinions.

Yet after nine weeks of study, Twain determined that if it takes thirty days for a gifted person to learn French, it would take that same person thirty years to learn German. And if his suggested remedies are not taken into consideration, then “it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”

A humorous punchline, I grant him, but I will nonetheless continue to play the role of the wet blanket to Twain’s fun. Thirty years, Mark? Have you not heard of Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean? These are all languages ranked in category five of the United States Foreign Service’s language difficulty rankings. This is the most difficult category, requiring eighty-eight weeks or twenty-two hundred hours of study to reach general professional proficiency in speaking and reading. German sits all by itself in the second category. Still more difficult than the romance languages, Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, and Norwegian, but approachable in the grand scheme of things.

Now Mark, if you’ll indulge me from beyond the grave, guess how long they estimate it would take to reach the aforementioned levels of proficiency in German? Seven-hundred-fifty hours or, to put in your increment of choice, thirty weeks. You were just twenty-one weeks away from being able to mix it up with your German contemporaries in Heidelberg. Maybe you should’ve spent a little more time studying and a little less writing a story that would make future elementary school classes dance around reading n-word aloud.

So yes, I understand that Twain would find German to be “awful” given that he was ultimately a tourist passing through just as I found Japanese challenging after a few months of self-study before a two-week trip. But when you apply yourself to learning the language, because you’re gunning for that Niederlassungserlaubnis (permanent residency), you start to find beauty in the language. (Because if you didn’t, you’d go vollig insane.) And despite all of the cognitive malfunctions I’ve experienced when trying to recite a complicated sentence within the natural flow of conversation, my eyes flickering and lips quivering as if I’ve just had a stroke, I can say with confidence that “awful” is flippant at best. Instead, I leave it to the Germans themselves, always ready for an accurate, straight-to-the-point accounting of everything, to describe the complexity of their language.

Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache.

German language, difficult language.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in GermanyGerman language tips, and how to ride the German train system.

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