“The Awful German Language”

For the past eight weeks I have been trying every day to use Duolingo to review my once-decent-but-now-rusty knowledge of German. It has been going pretty well.

I suppose it ought to. My parents, after all, used to tell me how the very first word I ever spoke was actually in German, not English! According to them, this is the 100% verifiably true story:

One day, when I was about 11 months old, my parents went out to dinner and left me with the neighbor to baby-sit, as was their usual practice. The neighbor—Mrs. Schmidt, I believe—was a relatively recent immigrant from Germany and was very excited when my parents returned home. “Watch!” she exclaimed. “Larry said his first word!”

So she went over to the light switch on the wall and flipped it on. “Was ist das?” she asked me, as she pointed to the light.

“Das Licht,” I correctly replied.”

Or so the story goes.

Unfortunately, not being professional linguists, my parents were not pleased, since they wanted me to be speaking English and didn’t realize that being bilingual would actually be helpful, not harmful. (Both of my parents had taken French, Latin, and German in high school, as one did in the 1920s—but that was high school; they believed that learning “foreign” languages should wait for high school and/or college.)

So, after that, my German studies were sadly interrupted for 17 years.

Actually, that’s not true, because…

It was a mere twelve years later, in seventh grade at Newark Academy, that I enjoyed a life-changing experience in the form of a required course called General Language (using the textbook General Principles of Language, with a title page as shown here). A shining beacon amid a sea of mediocrity, this class moved my interest in linguistics from occasional readings (and conversations with my dad) into what would become a lifelong passion. The first semester of this unusual course focused on the history of the English language and related linguistics; the second semester consisted of an introduction to Latin, French, and German (in a ratio of 5–3–2 respectively). What a feast! Although German got the short end of the stick there, it sparked an interest that never went away.

Subsequently, having studied a slightly different set of languages—Latin, Greek, and French—in high school, I found that German kept nagging at me. But there was a simple solution! I spent the summer between 12th grade and college at the Yale Summer Language Institute, where I enrolled in an intensive German course that completed three years of high-school German in seven weeks. “Intensive” is the word for it: with a class of only six students, we met 20 hours per week (8:00 AM to 1:00 PM Monday through Friday, and you can see that that schedule was burned into my brain as I still remember it 56 years later!). Out of our 20 hours, we spoke nothing but German for 17 of them—just German! Those 17 hours were taught by three native German speakers in rotation, an hour at a time. The remaining three hours (12:00–1:00 MWF) were taught by an American, and we were allowed to converse in English at those times, as the purpose was to discuss issues of German grammar and usage.

Late in the course this American instructor recommended that we read Mark Twain’s wonderful 1880 essay, “The Awful German Language,” and I heartily recommend it to you as well. Of course it is intentionally humorous, but it has a serious point behind it. Apparently Twain had a love-hate relationship with German, which came to light during his extended visit to Germany. In the essay you will learn about his struggles with separable verbs, compound nouns, word order, and especially gender—all of which are legitimate stumbling blocks when one attempts to learn German. Being Twain, he has exaggerated many points for comic effect, but the essence of the essay is right on point: words like Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen, which apparently means “General Assemblies of State Councilors”; sentences in which the verb is split in half and you have to wait until the end of the sentence to find the second half of the verb; and mysterious assignment of gender, which not only seems arbitrary most of the time as in Spanish and French but has the added complication of a third gender, the neuter. Whether you know any German or not, do read the essay.

Categories: Linguistics