In an earlier blog post Heidelberg & Mark Twain, I speculated why Mark Twain had liked the name “Heidelberg,” the city where he stayed with his family for several months in 1878. (This topic had offered itself, as our German 1 traveler during his visit to Heidelberg learns the English translation of the city's name and its relevance to Mark Twain.)
Twain's love-hate relationship with The Awful German Language, published as an Appendix to his “A Tramp Abroad,” makes for amusing reading for anyone grappling with the German language – and is especially hilarious to a native German speaker as he looks at German though Twain's eyes!
A few of his observations:
- Declinations may be the crabgrass on the lawn of many who are learning German. Twain uses “rain” as an example and has some funny explanations for when “der Regen” (nominative) changes to “den Regen” (accusative), “dem Regen” (dative), or “des Regens” (genitive).
- If you add adjectives, it gets even worse and Twain is at his satirical best when he notes:
“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.
- Genitives -- Meines guten Freundes, of my good friend.
- 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.”
Twain also notes, correctly, that “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.” The only way to discover the right meaning is to understand the context in which they are used.
There are a lot more funny and perceptive passages about the German way to create word-monsters, assign genders, separate verbs, etc. (Note also that there are some spelling and grammar changes that have occurred since 1876 e.g. to let, lease, hire is now spelled “vermieten” - not “vermiethen.”)
If you are learning German, his essay - as well as his 4th of July speech at the Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students - might amuse you. And perhaps it also encourages you to keep practicing. Even though German has its tricky moments, it definitely can be learned!
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