Friday Fun: Mark Twain’s German

25 May

Today’s post is for the German speakers out there. When people ask me which languages I speak, the word ‘German’ often provokes a response something along the lines of: “That must be so difficult” or “Aren’t all of the words in the wrong order?”

German is of course known for its lengthy words, some of my favourites being Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit), and Niederschlags-wahrscheinlichkeit (chance of rain) and Schwarzwälderkirschtorte (the famous black forest gâteau).

It is true that there are some particularly complicated grammatical structures, but isn’t that true of any language? That said, any learner of German will be faced with the infamous subordinating conjunctions such as weil (because), which ‘send’ the verb to the end of the clause. This is described to great effect by one of my favourite quotations on language by the wonderful Mark Twain:

“When a German dives into a sentence, you won’t see him again until he emerges at the other end with the verb between his teeth.”

Twain was a speaker of German and wrote about his experiences (and frustrations), with getting to grips with the language. In 1880, he wrote an essay entitled “The Awful German Language“, which contains some hilarious gems that I would like to share with you here:

“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.”

“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 ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, 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.”

“In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not — which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither.”


Are there any aspects of your second or third languages that drive you mad sometimes?


3 Responses to “Friday Fun: Mark Twain’s German”

  1. Allison Wright 09/06/2012 at 21:47 #

    Fancy that! I was ignorant of the fact that Mark Twain knew German. Thank you for the link to his writings on the matter of learning the language. I do not share Mark Twain’s general discomfort with word order issues. In fact, the part I love best about translating from German into English is getting the word order right in English.

    • Megan Onions 10/06/2012 at 18:57 #

      Hi Allison, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you liked the post, and I agree with you that some of the intricacies of German make it all the more satisfying to translate!


  1. Weekly favorites (June 11-17) | Adventures in Freelance Translation - 18/06/2012

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