The awful German language (1)

First some biography: as a child I spoke English, a smattering of German (my father was from Bavaria, Germany) and Portuguese (mother of Portuguese Indian extraction). My German was good enough for me to translate for my mother while shopping in Zurich, Switzerland; and my Portuguese was learned out of necessity: my grandmother spoke no other language, and her son, my uncle, would converse with my mother in that language when the children were not supposed to understand what they were saying. Decades later, when a friend married a Portuguese lady, she tried to extract traces of the long unused language from my brain — to no avail. Her childhood patter, sharp directives, children’s verses, all meant absolutely nothing to me. Portuguese had completely disappeared from my mental hard drives.

With German it was a different matter. I had my father at home, and plenty of German friends visiting. German culture swished around our house: music, poetry, children’s verse, banter. But I was attending English schools and everyday communication was in that language. So in my mid-teens I was sent to a special one-year course to bring my linguistic abilities in German up to standard. These courses were especially set up for children of German parents who had been displaced during the War and grown up in different parts of the world, speaking different languages. The course I attended did not teach just German, but also the whole of the culture: literature, music, philosophy, even etiquette. I had to learn how to use a fork like a shovel, as the Germans do, and not push food up the curved face, as I had learned from my mainly British surroundings.

Anyway, in the refresher course I learned German grammar in a very intense and thorough way, not like a pure native speaker who simply picks it up and usually has no idea of rules and structure. I, on the other hand, know exactly which prepositions take the dative case (aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, gegenüber) and which the accusative (durch, für, gegen, ohne, um, entlang), because I learned grammar formally. I refreshed my childhood German just in time, and with sufficient intensity, to become indistinguishable from a well-educated pure native speaker — apart from some linguistic quirks and idiosyncrasies that I also display in my other language, English.

So I am completely bilingual, and have written copiously — books, magazines, articles — in both languages. My (German) wife Ingrid is also bilingual, having finished high school in the US, studied English and taught it all her life. And both sons are perfectly bilingual as well. We often had exchange teachers and students in our house, and I was the one to instruct them in German grammar, while Ingrid is better able to explain why English people say the things they do, from a grammatical point of view.

After this somewhat lengthy biographical preamble let us turn to our subject of the day: the awful German language. I take this title from a truly wonderful essay written in 1880 by Mark Twain as an appendix to his book A Tramp Abroad.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the great American author and humorist whom we all know as Mark Twain, travelled to Europe in his late twenties, and in preparation attempted to learn German. He was not particularly successful in this endeavour, but even if he never attained fluency it did produce one of the most entertaining pieces he has ever written: “The Awful German Language” is Twain’s famous philological essay, one that I have read with great enthusiasm a number of times. If you do not know this piece you can google it or read a PDF version here.

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp,” writes Twain on the first page. I am going to depart from his narrative and try to explain, in multiple sections, why this would seem to be the case, for a non-native speaker.

Let us start with something very basic: your first words in German. And let us compare that to a foreigner who is starting to learn English. If the latter is told what “give” and “sugar” means, and knows the preposition “me”, he can already put together a simple request: “Give me the sugar.” No effort involved. But compare that to the same fledgling sentence in German. The corresponding words are “geben” and “Zucker”, but constructing the simple request is hideously convoluted. First of all you must establish whom you are directing it at, and your relationship to this person. If it is a distant acquaintance in a formal situation you have to use the respectful “Geben Sie”; if it is a close friend, a relative or a child, you must use the personal “gib”; and if it is more than one person from the latter group, “gebt” is the way to go. With that we have got over the “giving” part.

Now the question of who gets the sugar: since it is to be given to me we must use the dative case, “mir”, and not “mich”, which is the accusative and denotes what is being given away. That of course is not me but the sugar. To which we now turn our attention. All German nouns have a gender, masculine, feminine or neuter, and sugar happens to be (like to guess?) masculine, just like coffee, tea, but unlike butter (feminine) or bread (neuter). So it is “der Zucker” — feminine is “die” and neuter is “das”. But: since the sugar is not acting but being acted upon, it is in the accusative case and has to be inflected to “den”.

After understanding all these connections and subtitles we are ready to make the simple request: “Gib mir den Zucker!” (An aside: in writing German nouns are capitalized, and imperative sentences need an exclamation mark).

The above may sound prohibitively complex, and it does make starting to learn German clearly more difficult than starting English. On the other hand when you see a three-year-old knowing gender, using inflections, and pronoun cases with ease and virtuosity, you know that the barrier is not insurmountable. And indeed all the German grammatical intricacies have one distinctive advantage: they are limited, and with a certain amount of diligence and dedication you can master it all. Which is not the case for English, which is vastly more complex in its vocabulary and idiomology. Foreigners, with the exception of Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, can spend a lifetime speaking it and still not master the idioms and language usage that a native speaker does with the greatest of ease.

This is the end of part one — there will be more to follow on the language of my forefathers. I will link here to upcoming essay as they are uploaded.


The awful German language (2)



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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles


Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.