CLASSICAL TRIVIA! The Awful German Language

If you’ve ever studied German (and maybe even if you haven’t), you’re likely to find this short essay to be hilarious. Published as Appendix D from Twain’s 1880 book A Tramp Abroad, this comedic gem outlines the pitfalls one will encounter when trying to wrap one’s mind around the torturous German cases, adjective endings, noun genders, and verb placement.

Twain made his first unsuccessful attempt to learn German in 1850 at age fifteen. He resumed his study 28 years later in preparation for a trip to Europe. While in Germany his language skill actually progressed to the point where a friend suggested, “Speak in German, Mark. Some of these people may understand English.” During this 1878 stay in Germany, Twain had a dream in which, according to his notebook, “all bad foreigners went to German Heaven—couldn’t talk and wished they had gone to the other place.”

If you have ever been frustrated in your effort to learn a second language, any language, you will feel somewhat vindicated by reading Mark Twain’s  The Awful German Language.

No German required for our Made in Germany trip, June 11-25, 2011, where we will explore tales of three cities: Dresden, Weimar and Berlin.

One Comment

  1. Hannelore Krome

    Native speakers of German may not be aware of the (sometimes unnecessarily) complex and illogic grammar and the bold way of building long words and sentences with several subordinate clauses inside. It needed an American visitor and author to reveal these peculiarities to us, someone whose mother language is definitely easier to acquire and who has after all achieved an excellent insight into the subject of his highly humorous analysis. Mark Twain´s entertaining essay is a great and unique description of how frustrating it can be to learn a foreign language, of the endless struggle to master unfamiliar linguistic laws. Thanks to his genius he creates sentences and words based on typical principles of German, but go way beyond what native speakers and writers would use. It is like looking at a caricature of well-known persons whose traits have been highlighted with a few lines. His lively and passionately written analysis culminates in his 4th of July oration in the final chapter, where he incorporates on purpose all oddities and possible mistakes a foreigner can make when speaking German. It is simply hilarious, but should perhaps better be kept hidden from all serious students of the German language.

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