The Awful German Language (4)
by Mark Twain, from A Tramp Abroad
There, now, the reader can see for himself that this pronoun business is a very awkward thing for the unaccustomed tongue. I suppose that in all languages the similarities of look and sound between words which have no similarity in meaning are a fruitful source of perplexity to the foreigner. It is so in our tongue, and it is notably the case in the German. Now there is that troublesome word VERMÄHLT: to me it has so close a resemblance -- either real or fancied -- to three or four other words, that I never know whether it means despised, painted, suspected, or married; until I look in the dictionary, and then I find it means the latter. There are lots of such words and they are a great torment. To increase the difficulty there are words which SEEM to resemble each other, and yet do not; but they make just as much trouble as if they did. For instance, there is the word VERMIETHEN (to let, to lease, to hire); and the word VERHEIRATHEN (another way of saying to marry). I heard of an Englishman who knocked at a man's door in Heidelberg and proposed, in the best German he could command, to "verheirathen" that house. Then there are some words which mean one thing when you emphasize the first syllable, but mean something very different if you throw the emphasis on the last syllable. For instance, there is a word which means a runaway, or the act of glancing through a book, according to the placing of the emphasis; and another word which signifies to ASSOCIATE with a man, or to AVOID him, according to where you put the emphasis -- and you can generally depend on putting it in the wrong place and getting into trouble.
There are some exceedingly useful words in this language. SCHLAG, for example; and ZUG. There are three-quarters of a column of SCHLAGS in the dictonary, and a column and a half of ZUGS. The word SCHLAG means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure, Field, Forest-clearing. This is its simple and EXACT meaning -- that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest. You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to. You can begin with SCHLAG-ADER, which means artery, and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet to SCHLAG-WASSER, which means bilge-water -- and including SCHLAG-MUTTER, which means mother-in-law.
Just the same with ZUG. Strictly speaking, ZUG means Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does NOT mean -- when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered yet.
One cannot overestimate the usefulness of SCHLAG and ZUG.
Armed just with these two, and the word ALSO, what cannot
the foreigner on German soil accomplish? The German word ALSO
is the equivalent of the English phrase "You know," and does not
mean anything at all -- in TALK, though it sometimes does
in print. Every time a German opens his mouth an ALSO falls
out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying
to GET out.
Now, the foreigner, equipped with these three noble words, is master of the situation. Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a SCHLAG into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits it like a plug, but if it doesn't let him promptly heave a ZUG after it; the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle, they SHOULD fail, let him simply say ALSO! and this will give him a moment's chance to think of the needful word. In Germany, when you load your conversational gun it is always best to throw in a SCHLAG or two and a ZUG or two, because it doesn't make any difference how much the rest of the charge may scatter, you are bound to bag something with THEM. Then you blandly say ALSO, and load up again. Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of "Also's" or "You knows."
In my note-book I find this entry:
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.
That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject -- the length of German words. Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples: