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12. "The Awful German Language"?

The first encounter with the German language can be a disorientating experience. English speakers find it hard to decide which of three genders a German noun possesses, especially as many nouns have a gender which defies logic. The disentangling of the precise meaning of lengthy compound nouns requires training, and the chains of genitives stretching ever onwards in official documents can bring the beginner to despair.

The fact that many sentence structures place the verb right at the end of the clause means that the listener often has to wait like a frustrated commuter for the meaning of the clause to come along. It also renders the task of simultaneous translation a particularly tricky one. French writer Madame de Stael once complained that it was impossible to have a good conversation in Germany because the grammatical construction of the language always put the meaning at the end of the sentence and thus made impossible "the pleasure of interrupting, which makes discussion so animated in France."

All of these complaints and many more were famously gathered together by the American author Mark Twain in his essay "The Awful German Language". It appears as an appendix to his travel book A Tramp Abroad (1880), which chronicles a journey through Europe which Twain undertook between April 1878 and September 1879. Below you can read a selection of the many points that Mark Twain had to make about the German language not only in this essay, but also from comments in his other printed works and notebooks:

1. On how the German language was created: "In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language."

2. On how difficult it is to read German: "It is easier for a cannibal to enter the Kingdom of Heaven through the eye of a rich man's needle that it is for any other foreigner to read the terrible German script."

3. On the effects of the German language on the brain: "It's awful undermining to the intellect, German is; you want to take it in small doses, or first you know your brains all run together, and you feel them flapping around in your head same as so much drawn butter."

4. On the amount of time that it takes to master German: "My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it."

Mark Twain

5. On German genders: "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."

6. On German separable verbs: "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."

7. And in more detail on German 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."

8. On German sentence structure: "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."

9. On the German subjunctive: "It is not like studying German, where you mull along, in a groping, uncertain way, for thirty years; and at last, just as you think you've got it, they spring the subjunctive on you, and there you are. No--and I see now plainly enough, that the great pity about the German language is, that you can't fall off it and hurt yourself. There is nothing like that feature to make you attend strictly to business."

10. On German compound nouns: "July 1. -- In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient -- a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community."

In a speech given in Vienna in March 1899, Twain imparted to the audience an 95 letter word which he claimed had recently been sent to him in a telegram from Linz:
Twain added: "If I could get a similar word engraved upon my tombstone I should sleep beneath it in peace."

Mark TwainA love-hate relationship
For all of Twain's witticisms at the expense of German, his fascination for the language is evident both in the above quotations and the amount of time that he spent doggedly trying to learn it. After all, if it was as off-putting as he seems to suggest, he would simply have given up when confronted with his first German sentence. Instead, Twain's love-hate relationship with "The Awful German Language" meant that he was in for the long haul, as he stated in his notebooks: "Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German."

And his linguistic perseverance was such that in a speech in 1897, he felt able to state: "I don't speak German well but several experts have assured me that I write it like an angel. Maybe so, maybe so--I don't know. I've not yet made any acquaintances among the angels. That comes later, whenever it please the Deity. I'm not in any hurry."

An update on German compound nouns for Mark Twain

Were he still alive, Mark Twain would undoubtedly be delighted to know that the record for the longest valid German word in official usage has recently been broken - twice. Although the formation of words of unlimited length is possible in the German language by means of combinaing nouns to form one huge unhyphenated word, common sense ensures that this rarely happens in practice. But in the Bundesland of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a law was introduced on 19 January 2000 to supervise the labeling of beef in the wake of the BSE crisis. It was called:

Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

To be fair to the North German legislators, this term was the short (!) one-word form of the law whose full title was: "Gesetz zur Übertragung der Aufgaben für die Überwachung der Rinderkennzeichnung und Rindfleischetikettierung", which might be translated by a patient man or woman as "the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef."

Yet even this 63-letter monstrosity was topped in December 2003 by a 67-letter word which summarised a regulation introduced by the German Ministry of Justice concerning who is responsible for the settlement of unresolved disputes property ownership:


The regulation disappeared from the statute books in December 2007 however, much to the relief of typesetters everywhere.

 Web Links 

Mark Twain The full text of "The Awful German Language". Maintained by Klaus A. Hansen.
Mark Twain Listen to Mark Twain speak about the German Language.
...and the labelling of beef The full text of the law introduced in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2000 that has the very long name.
Gründstücks... And the text of the law introduced in 2003 whose one-word form contained 67 letters.

Weiter!13. Links between German and English

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