The Awful German Language
by Mark Twain
[This is Appendix D from A Tramp Abroad (1880).
Please note that the German orthography is that of the late 19th century. The HTML text
is complemented by two illustrations from the original edition.]
A little learning makes the whole world kin.
-- Proverbs xxxii, 7.
I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg
Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke
entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked
a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a "unique";
and wanted to add it to his museum.
If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art, he would also
have known that it would break any collector to buy it. Harris and I had
been hard at work on our German during several weeks at that time, and although
we had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great difficulty
and annoyance, for three of our teachers had died in the mean time. A person
who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language
Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless,
and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither
and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has
captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general
rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and
reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions."
He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule
than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat
and find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience.
Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing "cases"
where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes
itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and
crumbles the ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after
a certain bird -- (it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort
of consequence to anybody): "Where is the bird?" Now the answer
to this question -- according to the book -- is that the bird is waiting
in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do
that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher
out the German for that answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for
that is the German idea. I say to myself, "Regen (rain) is masculine
-- or maybe it is feminine -- or possibly neuter -- it is too much trouble
to look now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die
(the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may
turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it
out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well -- then the
rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being
mentioned, without enlargement or discussion -- Nominative case;
but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground,
it is then definitely located, it is doing something -- that is,
resting (which is one of the German grammar's ideas of doing something),
and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen.
However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively,
-- it is falling -- to interfere with the bird, likely -- and this indicates
movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative
case and changing dem Regen into den Regen." Having completed
the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state
in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop "wegen (on
account of) den Regen." Then the teacher lets me softly down
with the remark that whenever the word "wegen" drops into a sentence,
it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless
of consequences -- and that therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith
shop "wegen des Regens."
N. B. -- I was informed, later, by a higher authority, that there was
an "exception" which permits one to say "wegen den
Regen" in certain peculiar and complex circumstances, but that this
exception is not extended to anything but rain.
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.
Yet even the German books are not entirely free from attacks of the Parenthesis
distemper -- though they are usually so mild as to cover only a few lines,
and therefore when you at last get down to the verb it carries some meaning
to your mind because you are able to remember a good deal of what has gone
before. Now here is a sentence from a popular and excellent German novel
-- which a slight parenthesis in it. I will make a perfectly literal translation,
and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens for the assistance of
the reader -- though in the original there are no parenthesis-marks or hyphens,
and the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb the best way
"But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed)
government counselor's wife met," etc., etc. 
1. Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten
jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin
That is from The Old Mamselle's Secret, by Mrs. Marlitt.
And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved German model. You
observe how far that verb is from the reader's base of operations; well,
in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and
I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries
and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go
to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader
is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.
We have the Parenthesis disease in our literature, too; and one may see
cases of it every day in our books and newspapers: but with us it is the
mark and sign of an unpracticed writer or a cloudy intellect, whereas with
the Germans it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen and of
the presence of that sort of luminous intellectual fog which stands for
clearness among these people. For surely it is not clearness -- it
necessarily can't be clearness. Even a jury would have penetration enough
to discover that. A writer's ideas must be a good deal confused, a good
deal out of line and sequence, when he starts out to say that a man met
a counselor's wife in the street, and then right in the midst of this so
simple undertaking halts these approaching people and makes them stand still
until he jots down an inventory of the woman's dress. That is manifestly
absurd. It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant and
breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it with the forceps,
and then stand there and drawl through a tedious anecdote before they give
the dreaded jerk. Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste.
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting
a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter
and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything
more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs."
The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider
the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author
of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste
ab -- which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a
novel and reduced to English:
"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother
and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who,
dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds
of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale
from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay
her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved
more dearly than life itself, PARTED."
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One
is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will
not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. Personal
pronouns and adjectives 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 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.
Now observe the Adjective. Here was a case where simplicity would have
been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason, the inventor of this
language complicated it all he could. When we wish to speak of our "good
friend or friends," in our enlightened tongue, we stick to the one
form and have no trouble or hard feeling about it; but with the German tongue
it is different. When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines
it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out
of it. It is as bad as Latin. He says, for instance:
- Nominative -- Mein guter Freund, my good friend.
- Genitive -- Meines guten Freundes, of my good
- Dative -- Meinem guten Freund, to my good friend.
- Accusative -- Meinen guten Freund, my good friend.
- N. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
- G. -- Meiner guten Freunde, of my good friends.
- D. -- Meinen guten Freunden, to my good friends.
- A. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations,
and see how soon he will be elected. One might better go without friends
in Germany than take all this trouble about them. I have shown what a bother
it is to decline a good (male) friend; well this is only a third of the
work, for there is a variety of new distortions of the adjective to be learned
when the object is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter.
Now there are more adjectives in this language than there are black cats
in Switzerland, and they must all be as elaborately declined as the examples
above suggested. Difficult? -- troublesome? -- these words cannot describe
it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest
moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.
The inventor of the language seems to have taken pleasure in complicating
it in every way he could think of. For instance, if one is casually referring
to a house, Haus, or a horse, Pferd, or a dog, Hund,
he spells these words as I have indicated; but if he is referring to them
in the Dative case, he sticks on a foolish and unnecessary e and
spells them Hause, Pferde, Hunde. So, as an added e
often signifies the plural, as the s does with us, the new student
is likely to go on for a month making twins out of a Dative dog before he
discovers his mistake; and on the other hand, many a new student who could
ill afford loss, has bought and paid for two dogs and only got one of them,
because he ignorantly bought that dog in the Dative singular when he really
supposed he was talking plural -- which left the law on the seller's side,
of course, by the strict rules of grammar, and therefore a suit for recovery
could not lie.
In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good
idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from
its lonesomeness. I consider this capitalizing of nouns a good idea, because
by reason of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute you
see it. You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name of
a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to
dig a meaning out of it. 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.
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. There is
no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book.
In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought
reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the
girl. See how it looks in print -- I translate this from a conversation
in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
- Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
- She has gone to the kitchen.
- Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
- It has gone to the opera."
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 -- for in Germany all the women either
male heads or sexless ones; a person's nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands,
and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees,
heart, and conscience haven't any sex at all. The inventor of the language
probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.
Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man
may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter
closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he
is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself
with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as
being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind
him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the
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. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description;
that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. 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.
Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns,
he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade
his tongue to refer to things as "he" and "she,"
and "him" and "her," which it has been
always accustomed to refer to it as "it." When he even
frames a German sentence in his mind, with the hims and hers in the right
places, and then works up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use
-- the moment he begins to speak his tongue flies the track and all those
labored males and females come out as "its." And even when
he is reading German to himself, he always calls those things "it,"
where as he ought to read in this way:
TALE OF THE FISHWIFE AND ITS SAD FATE
2. I capitalize the nouns, in the German (and ancient English) fashion.
It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he
rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep
he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped
its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized
some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye,
and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any
Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And
now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him.
No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth -- will she swallow
her? No, the Fishwife's brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues
the Fin -- which he eats, himself, as his Reward. O, horror, the Lightning
has struck the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she
licks the doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks
the helpless Fishwife's Foot -- she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and
even she is partly consumed; and still she spreads, still she waves
her fiery Tongues; she attacks the Fishwife's Leg and destroys it;
she attacks its Hand and destroys her also; she attacks the Fishwife's
Leg and destroys her also; she attacks its Body and consumes him;
she wreathes herself about its Heart and it is consumed; next about
its Breast, and in a Moment she is a Cinder; now she reaches its
Neck -- he goes; now its Chin -- it goes; now its Nose --
she goes. In another Moment, except Help come, the Fishwife will
be no more. Time presses -- is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy,
joy, with flying Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas, the generous
she-Female is too late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from
its Sufferings, it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for
its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful,
woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly
Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises
again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible
Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted
Sexes scattered all over him in Spots.
There, now, the reader can see for himself that this pronoun business
is a very awkward thing for the unaccustomed tongue. I suppose that in all
languages the similarities of look and sound between words which have no
similarity in meaning are a fruitful source of perplexity to the foreigner.
It is so in our tongue, and it is notably the case in the German. Now there
is that troublesome word vermählt: to me it has so close a resemblance
-- either real or fancied -- to three or four other words, that I never
know whether it means despised, painted, suspected, or married; until I
look in the dictionary, and then I find it means the latter. There are lots
of such words and they are a great torment. To increase the difficulty there
are words which seem to resemble each other, and yet do not; but
they make just as much trouble as if they did. For instance, there is the
word vermiethen (to let, to lease, to hire); and the word verheirathen
(another way of saying to marry). I heard of an Englishman who knocked at
a man's door in Heidelberg and proposed, in the best German he could command,
to "verheirathen" that house. Then there are some words which
mean one thing when you emphasize the first syllable, but mean something
very different if you throw the emphasis on the last syllable. For instance,
there is a word which means a runaway, or the act of glancing through a
book, according to the placing of the emphasis; and another word which signifies
to associate with a man, or to avoid him, according to where
you put the emphasis -- and you can generally depend on putting it in the
wrong place and getting into trouble.
There are some exceedingly useful words in this language. Schlag,
for example; and Zug. There are three-quarters of a column of Schlags
in the dictionary, and a column and a half of Zugs. The word Schlag
means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp,
Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure, Field, Forest-clearing.
This is its simple and exact meaning -- that is to say, its restricted,
its fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so
that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest.
You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything
you want to. You can begin with Schlag-ader, which means artery,
and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the
alphabet to Schlag-wasser, which means bilge-water -- and including
Schlag-mutter, which means mother-in-law.
Just the same with Zug. Strictly speaking, Zug means Pull,
Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition,
Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character,
Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity,
Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does not mean --
when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered
One cannot overestimate the usefulness of Schlag and Zug.
Armed just with these two, and the word also, what cannot the foreigner
on German soil accomplish? The German word also is the equivalent
of the English phrase "You know," and does not mean anything at
all -- in talk, though it sometimes does in print. Every time a German
opens his mouth an also falls out; and every time he shuts it he
bites one in two that was trying to get out.
Now, the foreigner, equipped with these three noble words, is master
of the situation. Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his
indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a
Schlag into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits it like
a plug, but if it doesn't let him promptly heave a Zug after it;
the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle,
they should fail, let him simply say also! and this will give
him a moment's chance to think of the needful word. In Germany, when you
load your conversational gun it is always best to throw in a Schlag
or two and a Zug or two, because it doesn't make any difference how
much the rest of the charge may scatter, you are bound to bag something
with them. Then you blandly say also, and load up again. Nothing
gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or
an English conversation as to scatter it full of "Also's" or "You
In my note-book I find this entry:
July 1. -- In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables
was successfully removed from a patient -- a North German from near Hamburg;
but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place,
under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event
has cast a gloom over the whole community.
That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most
curious and notable features of my subject -- the length of German words.
Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these
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. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever
I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way
I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange
with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock. Here are
some specimens which I lately bought at an auction sale of the effects of
a bankrupt bric-a-brac hunter:
Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching
across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape
-- but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it
blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel
through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help
there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere -- so it leaves this
sort of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly
legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor
of them ought to have been killed. They are compound words with the hyphens
left out. The various words used in building them are in the dictionary,
but in a very scattered condition; so you can hunt the materials out, one
by one, and get at the meaning at last, but it is a tedious and harassing
business. I have tried this process upon some of the above examples. "Freundschaftsbezeigungen"
seems to be "Friendship demonstrations," which is only a foolish
and clumsy way of saying "demonstrations of friendship." "Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen"
seems to be "Independencedeclarations," which is no improvement
upon "Declarations of Independence," so far as I can see. "Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen"
seems to be "General-statesrepresentativesmeetings," as nearly
as I can get at it -- a mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for "meetings
of the legislature," I judge. We used to have a good deal of this sort
of crime in our literature, but it has gone out now. We used to speak of
a things as a "never-to-be-forgotten" circumstance, instead of
cramping it into the simple and sufficient word "memorable" and
then going calmly about our business as if nothing had happened. In those
days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury it decently, we wanted
to build a monument over it.
But in our newspapers the compounding-disease lingers a little to the
present day, but with the hyphens left out, in the German fashion. This
is the shape it takes: instead of saying "Mr. Simmons, clerk of the
county and district courts, was in town yesterday," the new form put
it thus: "Clerk of the County and District Courts Simmons was in town
yesterday." This saves neither time nor ink, and has an awkward sound
besides. One often sees a remark like this in our papers: "Mrs.
Assistant District Attorney Johnson returned to her city residence yesterday
for the season." That is a case of really unjustifiable compounding;
because it not only saves no time or trouble, but confers a title on Mrs.
Johnson which she has no right to. But these little instances are trifles
indeed, contrasted with the ponderous and dismal German system of piling
jumbled compounds together. I wish to submit the following local item, from
a Mannheim journal, by way of illustration:
"In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno'clock Night, the
inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner' was downburnt. When the fire
to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork's Nest reached, flew the parent
Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself
caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the
Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread."
Even the cumbersome German construction is not able to take the pathos
out of that picture -- indeed, it somehow seems to strengthen it. This item
is dated away back yonder months ago. I could have used it sooner, but I
was waiting to hear from the Father-stork. I am still waiting.
"Also!" If I had not shown that the German is a difficult
language, I have at least intended to do so. I have heard of an American
student who was asked how he was getting along with his German, and who
answered promptly: "I am not getting along at all. I have worked at
it hard for three level months, and all I have got to show for it is one
solitary German phrase -- `Zwei Glas'" (two glasses of beer).
He paused for a moment, reflectively; then added with feeling: "But
I've got that solid!"
And if I have not also shown that German is a harassing and infuriating
study, my execution has been at fault, and not my intent. I heard lately
of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain
German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer
-- the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing
to his lacerated spirit. This was the word Damit. It was only the
sound that helped him, not the meaning;  and so, at last, when
he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay
and support was gone, and he faded away and died.
3. It merely means, in its general sense, "herewith."
I think 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. Boom, burst, crash, roar, storm,
bellow, blow, thunder, explosion; howl, cry, shout, yell, groan; battle,
hell. These are magnificent words; the have a force and magnitude of sound
befitting the things which they describe. But their German equivalents would
be ever so nice to sing the children to sleep with, or else my awe-inspiring
ears were made for display and not for superior usefulness in analyzing
sounds. Would any man want to die in a battle which was called by so tame
a term as a Schlacht? Or would not a consumptive feel too much bundled
up, who was about to go out, in a shirt-collar and a seal-ring, into a storm
which the bird-song word Gewitter was employed to describe? And observe
the strongest of the several German equivalents for explosion -- Ausbruch.
Our word Toothbrush is more powerful than that. It seems to me that the
Germans could do worse than import it into their language to describe particularly
tremendous explosions with. The German word for hell -- Hölle -- sounds
more like helly than anything else; therefore, how necessary chipper,
frivolous, and unimpressive it is. If a man were told in German to go there,
could he really rise to thee dignity of feeling insulted?
Having pointed out, in detail, the several vices of this language, I
now come to the brief and pleasant task of pointing out its virtues. The
capitalizing of the nouns I have already mentioned. But far before this
virtue stands another -- that of spelling a word according to the sound
of it. After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how
any German word is pronounced without having to ask; whereas in our language
if a student should inquire of us, "What does B, O, W, spell?"
we should be obliged to reply, "Nobody can tell what it spells when
you set if off by itself; you can only tell by referring to the context
and finding out what it signifies -- whether it is a thing to shoot arrows
with, or a nod of one's head, or the forward end of a boat."
There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective.
For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home
life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly
feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship;
those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects
-- with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine
of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those
which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also
which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly,
in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and
affective. There are German songs which can make a stranger to the language
cry. That shows that the sound of the words is correct -- it interprets
the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed,
and through the ear, the heart.
The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the
right one. they repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But
in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we
imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange
it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what
we wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition may be bad, but surely
inexactness is worse.
There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to
point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about
their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person.
I have shown that the German language needs reforming. Very well, I am ready
to reform it. At least I am ready to make the proper suggestions. Such a
course as this might be immodest in another; but I have devoted upward of
nine full weeks, first and last, to a careful and critical study of this
tongue, and thus have acquired a confidence in my ability to reform it which
no mere superficial culture could have conferred upon me.
In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case. It confuses the
plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case,
except he discover it by accident -- and then he does not know when or where
it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is
going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly
-- it is better to discard it.
In the next place, I would move the Verb further up to the front. You
may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really
bring down a subject with it at the present German range -- you only cripple
it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward
to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.
Thirdly, I would import some strong words from the English tongue --
to swear with, and also to use in describing all sorts of vigorous things
in a vigorous ways. 
4. "Verdammt," and its variations and enlargements, are words
which have plenty of meaning, but the sounds are so mild and ineffectual
that German ladies can use them without sin. German ladies who could not
be induced to commit a sin by any persuasion or compulsion, promptly rip
out one of these harmless little words when they tear their dresses or
don't like the soup. It sounds about as wicked as our "My gracious."
German ladies are constantly saying, "Ach! Gott!" "Mein
Gott!" "Gott in Himmel!" "Herr Gott" "Der
Herr Jesus!" etc. They think our ladies have the same custom, perhaps;
for I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet young
American girl: "The two languages are so alike -- how pleasant that
is; we say `Ach! Gott!' you say `Goddamn.'"
Fourthly, I would reorganizes the sexes, and distribute them accordingly
to the will of the creator. This as a tribute of respect, if nothing else.
Fifthly, I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require
the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments.
To wholly do away with them would be best, for ideas are more easily received
and digested when they come one at a time than when they come in bulk. Intellectual
food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more beneficial to take it
with a spoon than with a shovel.
Sixthly, I would require a speaker to stop when he is done, and not hang
a string of those useless "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden
seins" to the end of his oration. This sort of gewgaws undignify
a speech, instead of adding a grace. They are, therefore, an offense, and
should be discarded.
Seventhly, I would discard the Parenthesis. Also the reparenthesis, the
re-reparenthesis, and the re-re-re-re-re-reparentheses, and likewise the
final wide-reaching all-inclosing king-parenthesis. I would require every
individual, be he high or low, to unfold a plain straightforward tale, or
else coil it and sit on it and hold his peace. Infractions of this law should
be punishable with death.
And eighthly, and last, I would retain Zug and Schlag,
with their pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary. This would
simplify the language.
I have now named what I regard as the most necessary and important changes.
These are perhaps all I could be expected to name for nothing; but there
are other suggestions which I can and will make in case my proposed application
shall result in my being formally employed by the government in the work
of reforming the language.
My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought
to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French
in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that
the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain
as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead
languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.
A Fourth of July Oration in the German Tongue, Delivered at
a Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students by the Author of This Book
GENTLEMEN: Since I arrived,
a month ago, in this old wonderland, this vast garden of Germany, my English
tongue has so often proved a useless piece of baggage to me, and so troublesome
to carry around, in a country where they haven't the checking system for
luggage, that I finally set to work, and learned the German language. Also!
Es freut mich dass dies so ist, denn es muss, in ein hauptsächlich
degree, höflich sein, dass man auf ein occasion like this, sein Rede
in die Sprache des Landes worin he boards, aussprechen soll. Dafür
habe ich, aus reinische Verlegenheit -- no, Vergangenheit -- no, I mean
Höflichkeit -- aus reinische Höflichkeit habe ich resolved to
tackle this business in the German language, um Gottes willen! Also! Sie
müssen so freundlich sein, und verzeih mich die interlarding von ein
oder zwei Englischer Worte, hie und da, denn ich finde dass die deutsche
is not a very copious language, and so when you've really got anything to
say, you've got to draw on a language that can stand the strain.
Wenn haber man kann nicht meinem Rede Verstehen, so werde ich ihm später
dasselbe übersetz, wenn er solche Dienst verlangen wollen haben werden
sollen sein hätte. (I don't know what "wollen haben werden sollen
sein hätte" means, but I notice they always put it at the end
of a German sentence -- merely for general literary gorgeousness, I suppose.)
This is a great and justly honored day -- a day which is worthy of the
veneration in which it is held by the true patriots of all climes and nationalities
-- a day which offers a fruitful theme for thought and speech; und meinem
Freunde -- no, meinen Freunden -- meines Freundes
-- well, take your choice, they're all the same price; I don't know which
one is right -- also! ich habe gehabt haben worden gewesen sein, as Goethe
says in his Paradise Lost -- ich -- ich -- that is to say --
ich -- but let us change cars.
Also! Die Anblich so viele Grossbrittanischer und Amerikanischer hier
zusammengetroffen in Bruderliche concord, ist zwar a welcome and inspiriting
spectacle. And what has moved you to it? Can the terse German tongue rise
to the expression of this impulse? Is it Freundschaftsbezeigungenstadtverordnetenversammlungenfamilieneigenthümlichkeiten?
Nein, o nein! This is a crisp and noble word, but it fails to pierce the
marrow of the impulse which has gathered this friendly meeting and produced
diese Anblick -- eine Anblich welche ist gut zu sehen -- gut für die
Augen in a foreign land and a far country -- eine Anblick solche als in
die gewöhnliche Heidelberger phrase nennt man ein "schönes
Aussicht!" Ja, freilich natürlich wahrscheinlich ebensowohl! Also!
Die Aussicht auf dem Königsstuhl mehr grösser ist, aber geistlische
sprechend nicht so schön, lob' Gott! Because sie sind hier zusammengetroffen,
in Bruderlichem concord, ein grossen Tag zu feiern, whose high benefits
were not for one land and one locality, but have conferred a measure of
good upon all lands that know liberty today, and love it. Hundert Jahre
vorüber, waren die Engländer und die Amerikaner Feinde; aber heute
sind sie herzlichen Freunde, Gott sei Dank! May this good-fellowship endure;
may these banners here blended in amity so remain; may they never any more
wave over opposing hosts, or be stained with blood which was kindred, is
kindred, and always will be kindred, until a line drawn upon a map shall
be able to say: "This bars the ancestral blood from flowing
in the veins of the descendant!"