The Awful German Language is an essay by the American author Mark Twain in which he humorously outlines the complexity of the language and the difficulties he encountered while learning it. It is a must-read book for students of the often baffling German language.
Twain, most famous for his Huckleberry Finn stories, travelled extensively through Europe in 1878 and wrote about his experiences, especially in Germany in A Tramp Abroad, which was published in 1880. The Awful German Language is Appendix D of that book and is full of insightful observations.
From the moment I arrived in Berlin learning German has been one of my main priorities and has at times seemed like an impossible task. Like Twain, I have had many moments when I’ve felt like I was getting to grips with the language only to find myself mere hours later feeling like I had no idea what I was hearing or reading.
Anyone who has attempted to learn the language – and anyone who lives in and loves Berlin has hopefully at least tried – will appreciate the difficulties that Twain recounts.
Describing the intricacies of German grammar rules he writes:
…and when at last he thinks he has found 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 then runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.
He also sums up perfectly the problem I have using ‘er’ and ‘sie’ for objects I think of as ‘it’ – it doesn’t matter for instance that I know it is ‘der Tisch’, I somehow can’t persuade my brain to call ‘it’ a ‘he’.
Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns, he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade his tongue to refer to things as “he” and “she” and “him” and “her”, which it has been always accustomed to refer to as “it”. When he even frames a German sentence in his mind, with the hims and hers in the right places, and then works up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use – the moment he begins to speak his tongue flies the track and all those laboured males and females come out as “its”.
Twain’s assessment of the complexity of the language and the time it takes to learn it offers at least a glimmer of hope for those struggling to come to terms with der, die, das and all their Akkusativ, Dativ and Genitiv variations though.
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.
For all his complaints and the impression he gives with the title ‘The Awful German Language’ it is clear that Mark Twain had a good understanding of and appreciation for German grammar and was most likely an accomplished linguist.
Swapping the Mississippi for the Spree, Twain returned to Berlin in October 1891 and spent the winter living in the city. His admiration is clear in his description of the German capital in his account of that time, The Chicago of Europe.
…all of Berlin is stately and substantial, and it is not merely in parts but uniformly beautiful.
If you’d like to read The Awful German Language, and if you’re learning German you really should, there are many print and digital versions of the essay available – I managed to get hold of it for free on Kindle in this version of Mark Twain’s ‘A Tramp Abroad’ compendium.