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The Awful German Language, Revisited

In 1880 Mark Twain wrote the now infamous essay, "The Awful German Language", an account of his frustrations with the German language. It’s about time we update his marvelous essay and see what has changed in the intervening years.

Dear Mr Twain,

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your essay, The Awful German Language. It hit home not only because of its humor and accuracy, but because I embarked on a similarly painful voyage of discovery as that which you describe. When I started learning German a few years ago in a cramped Berlin classroom, my most frequent question was, “Why?”

Why do we need four cases for our nouns? Why do verbs sometimes split in two and run away from each other? Why do adjectives need to be declined? To this day, if I may quote you, I “would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”


Well, Mr Twain, you have been dead for over a century now, so maybe it’s about time to have another look at your marvelous essay and see if anything has changed in the intervening years.

Most of your suggestions for how to slim German down into a more manageable tongue have been ignored. I regret to inform you that the Dative case is well and truly alive, and in fact it is the Genitive case — the one which adds the sneaky S to its nouns as in wegen des Regens, “because of the rain” — which seems most under threat. In some dialects it’s being replaced by a clunky Dative form.

Your recommendations to move the verb up to the front, reorganize the sexes according to the will of the creator, and do away with long compound words, have largely gone unheeded. Not that they aren’t good ideas in principle, but the first would allow people to interrupt each other in the middle of arguments, the second would cause a lot of arguments, and the third would remove most of the best words to use in arguments.

There have been a few improvements over the last century that you would appreciate. Those confusing Ss that look like Fs, which I imagine were still around when you were learning German, are only seen behind the glass cases of museum cabinets and in second hand bookstores. There have been several useful Rechtschreibreformen, or spelling reforms. German spelling is almost perfectly phonetic; what you see is what you get. I can quite confidently read long passages from Kafka, the meaning of which I am completely and utterly ignorant. It’s a great party trick if you’re at the right sort of party.

The Germans continue to capitalize their nouns, which, frankly, is the least they could do. There’s still some confusion over capitalizing pronouns, like Du / du and Sie / sie, but it’s only a matter of time until a verdict is reached.

But noun cases are exactly as they were when you were writing over 130 years ago, and for anyone without prior experience they are as fresh, painful and tricky as you describe. I am still haunted by the difference between Accusative and Dative. Even to this day, my eyes will occasionally glaze over mid-sentence and you can be fairly sure I’m either wondering if I left the iron on or worrying about noun cases.

Not to mention the adjectives that precede them. For a while, I just tried to leave out all adjectives while speaking:

“See that car over there?” “Which one?” “Yes.”

Part of the problem with learning German is figuring out what order to put the words in. A good rule of thumb is if it feels backwards and strange, it’s probably correct. It’s a bit like trying to organize the contents of a briefcase while cycling down a steep slope: you’re trying to apply the brakes and fit everything in before the verb arrives like an oncoming car. Heaven help you if it’s a separable verb, one of those that splits in two and hides at opposite ends of the sentence. “Only a German is so discourteous to his verbs” was how your contemporary from the other side of the pond Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it.

Your claim that “to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner,” is, happily, no longer true. Nowadays there’s no need to slog through the cerebral ones like Die Zeit and Der Spiegel. Why bother when you can immerse yourself in Bild Zeitung, which has short sentences and lots of pictures of football players and scantily-clad women.

Academic writing on the other hand frequently features sentences that last a paragraph, or a page, depending on how much intellectual posturing the writer felt compelled to exhibit on that particular day.

Your attachment to Schlag and Zug should also be updated. Modern German fillers include doch, mal, bloß, denn, eben, schon, ja, halt and eigentlich. Don’t ask me what they mean, just sprinkle your speech liberally with them. If in doubt, throw in a vielleicht and a wohl. I also would thoroughly recommend genau, “exactly”: I’ve seen non-German speakers have half-hour-long telephone conversations using only this word.

You can also add super and mega to any almost any adjective. Go on, try it.

One final observation, Mark (may I call you Mark?). Your essay is full of the awfulness of German, focusing on the remarkable difficulties and curves that lie ahead for the poor unsuspecting learner. And yet, is there a slight, coy affection behind all that snarkiness? For all your complaints, I can’t help but think that in spite of all the difficulties – or maybe because of them – you are really quite fond of German.

But that can be our little secret.

Read Twain’s full essay, The Awful German Language, here. See more illustrations by Chaim Garcia here.

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