The Awful German Language

“The inventor of the language seems to have taken pleasure in complicating it in every way he could think of.”

“The Awful German Language” is the most outrageously funny essay I’ve read in a long time. It was written in 1880 by Mark Twain as a part of the book “A Tramp Abroad.”

As an English speaking person learning German as a second language, he explains his exasperation with the language using a bunch of wildly amusing examples. Personally, German being pretty similar to my mother tongue, it wasn’t hard getting used to most of the rules; I can only imagine how complicated it otherwise must be.

The worst are, of course, the genders of the common nouns and Twain has a lot to say about them:

  • To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female – tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it.

The longest English word has forty five letters and no one bothers using it!! That’s more than you can say for most German words!

  • Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page – and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen” seems to be “General-states-representatives-meetings,” as nearly as I can get at it – a mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for “meetings of the legislature,” I judge.
It’s not just the words that seem to irritate the writer, it is also the names! This incident had me laughing for an hour:

  • German names almost always do mean something, and this helps to deceive the student. I translated a passage one day, which said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.

The writer doesn’t stop at calling German language ridiculous – he does suggest ways to improve it. One of these includes removing the Dative case entirely!!

  • Personal pronouns 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 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.

Of course, this essay is pretty biased, because English is basically built on exceptions and German rarely strays from the rules, making it much easier to learn! Still, I loved it. And I’m sure anyone who has ever learnt German as a second language will agree with every single thing Mr. Twain has to say!!