Monday, 17 December 2007

The Awful German Language!

Mark Twain's The Awful German Language (1880) is one of the most hilarious essays I have read for a long long time; it literally had me on my knees, slapping the floor in howls of laughter! Maybe it's because I happen to be reading through Karl Barth in German at the moment that I can so totally identify with the frustrations he's going through. After making the general diagnosis that "there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp," he goes on, in the most ingenious manner, to describe the linguistic insanity that really is just a reflection of the overall German tendency to make everything as obscure, opaque and complicated as possible.

Because of it's relevance to anyone trying to read Barth in the original, and because it's the funniest part of the essay, here is an excerpt on what Twain calls "the Parenthesis distemper":
"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 he can:

"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]
  1. Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin begegnet.
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."


Bob MacDonald said...

No wonder God gave theology to the Germans - you have to have so much in the context before you can close the bracket.

voxstefani said...

I gave my Godson, now a PhD student in early Christian history, a copy of this essay in order to buttress my own view that German should be learned by no one, since anything of worth written in that Awful Language has already been translated into another, more civilized tongue. ;-)


Phil Sumpter said...

Bob - good point. Another thing that makes German great for such things is its flexibility, you can make an adjective out of any noun, turn it into a verb and vice versa.

Stefan - apart from a foundational commentary and article for my doctorate (by Hossfeld and Zenger). I have to say, I didn't marry a German in order to help me with my studies, but with hindsight it seems to have been a strategic move!

Anonymous said...

Twain's text is funny to read, but there are a lot of mistakes. Two examples:
1) I never understand what he wanted to say with "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein".
2) He criticizes the numerous meanings of "sie", but he didn't see the numerous meanings of the english word you: Sie, Ihnen, ihr, euch, man, du, dich.

Twain: "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."

Phil Sumpter said...

Good point about English 'you', Anonymous. As for the string of auxiliary verbs at the end, you're right, Twain's selection doesn't make sense. I think he just wanted to exagerate for humour's sake. You can string quite a few at the end of a sentence however, such as "hätte gemacht worden sein können". Admittedly, you can do this in English too: "could have been being built.".

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm a big fan of Mark Twain. Not so much his novels as his short stories: there he was at his best, in my opinion.

Years ago, I had come across a quote from this essay somewhere or other. I found it wildly amusing even though I don't speak German. So I'm delighted to read your reaction to it, as someone who has struggled to learn the language.

Twain had an ascerbic wit, of course, and I'm sure he isn't entirely fair to the German language here. All languages have irrational and perplexing elements: look up the Greek word epi in BADG sometime and see how many different uses it has. (There's something about those three-letter words, it seems.)

And of course English is notoriously difficult, given that it borrowed words from several languages and mashed them all together indiscriminately. So I don't read the essay as a swipe at German, per se, so much as the irrationality of all languages other than one's native tongue.

Phil Sumpter said...

I wouldn't take Twain's comments too seriously, he exagerates for effect. I don't think there's ever been a case where a journalist wrote a sentence that ran into several pages, so that he ran out of time and didn't put the verb on the end! But, for a learner of the language, you can almost imagine it happening, which is what makes it so funny.

As an English teacher, I can say that the English verb system, though structurally easier, is conceptually far harder to grasp then the German system.