This is Twain’s essay on the difficulties of learning the German language and what could be done to remedy them. It’s… well, hilarious. Especially if you happen to know anything about German. (I was fortunate enough to take through third-year German in high school, and I didn’t find it nearly as obstinate as Twain does, but — to each his own…)
In warning, I should let you know that this post will be mostly quotes straight from Twain. He’s just so funny, I think it’s best to let him speak for himself. Prepare yourself to be amused.
As a general introduction to his subject, Twain writes:
“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, 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.”
Some further of his complaints against the German language:
- Word order: “…well, in a German newspaper they put their verb way over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along on exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.”
- Separable-prefix 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.”
- Compound words: An entry from his notebook: “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 must unfortunately surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died.”
Then, there’s this. It doesn’t fall neatly into a category, but it’s hilarious.
“I head lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer – the only word in the whole language whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word Damit. It was only the sound that helped him, not the meaning [footnote: It merely means, in its general sense, ‘herewith.’]; and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.”
Some of Twain’s suggestions for improving the language:
- “In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case. It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident – and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is ever going to get out of it again.”
- “Fourthly, I would reorganize the sexes, and distribute them according to the will of the Creator. This as a tribute of respect, if nothing else.” (As just one example, he said earlier that the word for turnip is feminine, while the word for girl is neuter.)
- “Fifthly, I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments. To wholly do away with them would be best, for ideas are more easily received and digested when they come one at a time than when they come in bulk. Intellectual food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more beneficial to take it with a spoon than with a shovel.”
- “…And eighthly, and last, I would retain Zug and Schlag, with their pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary.”
- “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.”
So amusing. Twain continues to crack me up.