The awful German language (2)

When Mark Twain travelled to Europe he tried to learn the German language. He found it hideously complex, and was especially appalled by separable verbs.

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, as a child I spoke English, and a smattering of German and Portuguese (father German, mother Portuguese-Indian). I went to English schools and when, in my late teens, I decided to live in Germany, I took part in a refresher course for children of Germans who had been displaced by the War. I learned German grammar in a very intense and thorough way, becoming completely bilingual in the process, married to a bilingual wife and bringing up two perfectly bilingual sons.

The title of this series is taken from a truly wonderful essay written in 1880 by Mark Twain as an appendix to his book A Tramp Abroad — if you do not know this piece you can google it, or read a PDF version here.

In part one I described how hideously difficult and convoluted it is to get out your first sentence in German, “Give me the sugar” correctly.

Today I will delve in some of the idiosyncrasies that Mark Twain also wrote about, which make this language daunting. We start with a general description given by the great man:

“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; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reenclose three or four of the minor parentheses: 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.”

Twain is especially appalled by separable verbs, which are common in German. “Bringen” means (can you guess?) to bring, but “umbringen” means to kill. Fair enough, but in regular tenses you cut off the “um” and put it at the end. Let us assume there is a similar pattern in English, with the verb “to bring down” meaning to kill. What would you make of a sentence like the following:

At that point he brought the man, who had been directly involved in his education and to whom he owed such a lot, especially with regard to his future as a leading financial advisor in a country where this kind of work is so handsomely rewarded, without so much as a moment’s thought and with a ruthlessness that was shocking to the bystanders who probably had as much reason as him to abhor this loathsome person, with a gun he drew out of his coat, down.

You get it? Nobody knows what you are talking about until you get to the second part of the separable verb: “Er brachte den Mann…. um” (“brachte” is brought, the past tense of bringen). Until you hit the “um” it could be anything: he brought him a sandwich, he brought him a letter from his boss, pleasure, pain, a Pepsi light, anything. And it is further complicated by the fact that “bringen” can take many other particles: “beibringen” for instance means to teach, and so the sentence above could have easily concluded: “er brachte ihm eine wichtige Lektion bei,” i.e. he taught him an important lesson. “Abbringen” means to prevent someone from doing something; “anbringen” means to pin on or attach; “durchbringen” to get someone through something; or “fortbringen”, to carry away.

To make things even harder verbs get relegated to the end of a sentence when a modal (or auxiliary) verb is used: “I visited Munich in May”, but “I could at last Munich, a place I so dearly love and which I had not seen for so many years, etc., etc. in the beautiful month of May visit.” There is an old joke about this: a student enters a lecture at college late, and whispers to his neighbour: “What’s the professor talking about?” The neighbour replies: “I don’t know, he hasn’t come to the verb yet.”

That’s about the placement of verbs in German, which we would say is unnecessarily complex and unpractical, until you hear a three-year-old dealing with them with ease and virtuosity, or his four-year-old brother correcting him if he gets it wrong.

Next time: we take a look at genders of German nouns and try to comprehend the logic behind a sentence like this: The beautiful girl is walking on the street. There is a large stone lying there. I hope it does not trip over him and fall on her.

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