Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Horrors of the German Language

Jersey Tourism says German speakers are needed after the number of visitors from the country increased by a quarter. The organisation is launching an appeal for local German speakers to train as guides on a new five-day course.(BBC Radio Jersey News)

German is a troublesome language, said Mark Twain. In an essay entitled "The Awful German Language", he noted that:

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.

Twain's main gripe was that while most languages have exceptions to the rule, in German, the exceptions were the rule!

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.

And he provided an extremely comic example of how this works out in practice:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in 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.

In a later essay, "The Horrors of the German Language", he did a "translation" of an address, presenting English as if it followed the same form as the German language:

It has me deeply touched, my gentlemen, here so hospitably received to be.  From colleagues out of my own profession, in this from my own home so far distant land.  My heart is full of gratitude, but my poverty of German words forces me to greater economy of expression.  Excuse you, my gentlemen, that I read off, what I you say will.

The German language speak I not good, but have numerous connoisseurs me assured that I her write like an angel.  Maybe--maybe--I know not.  Have till now no acquaintance with the angels had.  That comes later--when it the dear God please--it has no hurry.

Since long, my gentlemen, have I the passionate longing nursed a speech on German to hold, but one has me not permitted.  Men, who no feeling for the art had, laid me ever hindrance in the way and made naught my desire --sometimes by excuses, often by force.  Always said these men to me: "Keep you still, your Highness!  Silence!  For God's sake seek another way and means yourself obnoxious to make."

In real life, a surprising number of German words have found their way into English. Here are some from Wikipedia:

Delicatessen, speciality food retailer, fine foods (German spelling Delikatessen)

Frankfurter, type of sausage

Hamburger, sandwich with a meat patty and garnishments

Lager, beer made with bottom-fermenting yeast and stored for some time before serving

Spritzer, chilled drink from white wine and soda water (from spritzen = to spray)

Abseil (German spelling: sich abseilen, a reflexive verb, to rope (seil) oneself (sich) down (ab)); the term abseiling is used in the UK and commonwealth countries, "roping (down)" in various English settings, and "rappelling" in the US.

Blitz, taken from Blitzkrieg (lightning war). It is a team defensive play in American or Canadian football in which the defense sends more players than the offense can block.


Doppelgänger, literally double-goer, also spelled in English as doppelganger; a double or look-alike. However, in English the connotation is that of a ghostly apparition of a duplicate living person.

Fest, festival

Kaput (German spelling: kaputt), out-of-order, broken

Kindergarten, literally children's garden; day-care centre, playschool, preschool

Neanderthal (modern German spelling: Neandertal), for German Neandertaler, meaning "of, from, or pertaining to the Neandertal ("Neander Valley")", the site near Düsseldorf where early Homo neanderthalensis fossils were found

Noodle, from German Nudel, a type of food; a string of pasta.

Poltergeist, literally noisy ghost; an alleged paranormal phenomenon where objects appear to move of their own accord

Poodle, from German Pudel, breed of dog

Wanderlust, the yearning to travel

Gestalt (lit. "shape, figure") a word used the same way as "entity" or "thing" in common language. "The Whole is greater than the sum of the parts"


Iceberg (German Eisberg)

Feldspar (German Feldspat)

Quartz (German Quarz)

But it might be easier to use a special English version of German, most famous in the "blinkenlights" text, found on early electronic computers and gadgets:

ACHTUNG! Alles touristen und non-technischen peepers!

Das machine control is nicht fur gerfinger-poken und mittengrabben. Oderwise is easy schnappen der springenwerk, blowen fuse, und poppencorken mit spitzensparken.

Der machine is diggen by experten only. Is nicht fur geverken by das dummkopfen. Das rubbernecken sightseenen keepen das cotten picken hands in das pockets, so relaxen und watchen das blinkenlights.


Mark Forskitt said...

What, no zeitgeist?

Hermine said...

While I really enjoyed reading Mark Twain's address as if it was written using German grammar, you could actually say this about most languages being translated back into English.

Chinese, for example, doesn't use "to be" so a phrase like "I am going to the store" turns into "me go store" when translated back into English.

I like the fact that German is complicated like this... Makes you have to think a little harder.