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The Awful German Language (6)

by Mark Twain, from A Tramp Abroad

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Stories for Young
People: Mark Twain

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There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person. I have shown that the German language needs reforming. Very well, I am ready to reform it. At least I am ready to make the proper suggestions. Such a course as this might be immodest in another; but I have devoted upward of nine full weeks, first and last, to a careful and critical study of this tongue, and thus have acquired a confidence in my ability to reform it which no mere superficial culture could have conferred upon me.

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 going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly -- it is better to discard it.

In the next place, I would move the Verb further up to the front. You may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really bring down a subject with it at the present German range -- you only cripple it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.

Thirdly, I would import some strong words from the English tongue -- to swear with, and also to use in describing all sorts of vigorous things in a vigorous ways. [4]

Fourthly, I would reorganizes the sexes, and distribute them accordingly to the will of the creator. This as a tribute of respect, if nothing else.

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.

Sixthly, I would require a speaker to stop when he is done, and not hang a string of those useless "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden seins" to the end of his oration. This sort of gewgaws undignify a speech, instead of adding a grace. They are, therefore, an offense, and should be discarded.

Seventhly, I would discard the Parenthesis. Also the reparenthesis, the re-reparenthesis, and the re-re-re-re-re-reparentheses, and likewise the final wide-reaching all-enclosing king-parenthesis. I would require every individual, be he high or low, to unfold a plain straightforward tale, or else coil it and sit on it and hold his peace. Infractions of this law should be punishable with death.

And eighthly, and last, I would retain ZUG and SCHLAG, with their pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary. This would simplify the language.

I have now named what I regard as the most necessary and important changes. These are perhaps all I could be expected to name for nothing; but there are other suggestions which I can and will make in case my proposed application shall result in my being formally employed by the government in the work of reforming the language.

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. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. 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.


Gentlemen: Since I arrived, a month ago, in this old wonderland, this vast garden of Germany, my English tongue has so often proved a useless piece of baggage to me, and so troublesome to carry around, in a country where they haven't the checking system for luggage, that I finally set to work, and learned the German language. Also! Es freut mich dass dies so ist, denn es muss, in ein hauptsaechlich degree, hoeflich sein, dass man auf ein occasion like this, sein Rede in die Sprache des Landes worin he boards, aussprechen soll. Dafuer habe ich, aus reinische Verlegenheit -- no, Vergangenheit -- no, I mean Hoflichkeit -- aus reinishe Hoflichkeit habe ich resolved to tackle this business in the German language, um Gottes willen! Also! Sie muessen so freundlich sein, und verzeih mich die interlarding von ein oder zwei Englischer Worte, hie und da, denn ich finde dass die deutsche is not a very copious language, and so when you've really got anything to say, you've got to draw on a language that can stand the strain.

Wenn haber man kann nicht meinem Rede Verstehen, so werde ich ihm spaeter dasselbe uebersetz, wenn er solche Dienst verlangen wollen haben werden sollen sein haette. (I don't know what wollen haben werden sollen sein haette means, but I notice they always put it at the end of a German sentence -- merely for general literary gorgeousness, I suppose.)

This is a great and justly honored day -- a day which is worthy of the veneration in which it is held by the true patriots of all climes and nationalities -- a day which offers a fruitful theme for thought and speech; und meinem Freunde -- no, meinEN FreundEN -- meinES FreundES -- well, take your choice, they're all the same price; I don't know which one is right -- also! ich habe gehabt haben worden gewesen sein, as Goethe says in his Paradise Lost -- ich -- ich -- that is to say -- ich -- but let us change cars.

Also! Die Anblich so viele Grossbrittanischer und Amerikanischer hier zusammengetroffen in Bruderliche concord, ist zwar a welcome and inspiriting spectacle. And what has moved you to it? Can the terse German tongue rise to the expression of this impulse? Is it Freundschaftsbezeigungenstadtverordnetenversammlungenfamilieneigenthuemlichkeiten? Nein, o nein! This is a crisp and noble word, but it fails to pierce the marrow of the impulse which has gathered this friendly meeting and produced diese Anblick -- eine Anblich welche ist gut zu sehen -- gut fuer die Augen in a foreign land and a far country -- eine Anblick solche als in die gewoehnliche Heidelberger phrase nennt man ein "schoenes Aussicht!" Ja, freilich natuerlich wahrscheinlich ebensowohl! Also! Die Aussicht auf dem Koenigsstuhl mehr groesser ist, aber geistlische sprechend nicht so schoen, lob' Gott! Because sie sind hier zusammengetroffen, in Bruderlichem concord, ein grossen Tag zu feirn, whose high benefits were not for one land and one locality, but have conferred a measure of good upon all lands that know liberty today, and love it. Hundert Jahre vorueber, waren die Englaender und die Amerikaner Feinde; aber heut sind sie herzlichen Freunde, Gott sei Dank! May this good-fellowship endure; may these banners here blended in amity so remain; may they never any more wave over opposing hosts, or be stained with blood which was kindred, is kindred, and always will be kindred, until a line drawn upon a map shall be able to say: "THIS bars the ancestral blood from flowing in the veins of the descendant!"

[4] "Verdammt," and its variations and enlargements, are words which have plenty of meaning, but the SOUNDS are so mild and ineffectual that German ladies can use them without sin. German ladies who could not be induced to commit a sin by any persuasion or compulsion, promptly rip out one of these harmless little words when they tear their dresses or don't like the soup. It sounds about as wicked as our "My gracious." German ladies are constantly saying, "Ach! Gott!" "Mein Gott!" "Gott in Himmel!" "Herr Gott" "Der Herr Jesus!" etc. They think our ladies have the same custom, perhaps; for I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet young American girl: "The two languages are so alike -- how pleasant that is; we say 'Ach! Gott!' you say 'Goddamn.'"

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