<center><h3>The Awful German Language</h3></center>
A little learning makes the whole world kin.
—Proverbs xxxii, 7.
<p>I went often to look at the collection of curiosities
in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper
of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language.
He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while
he said my German was very rare, possibly a "unique";
and wanted to add it to his museum.</p>
<p>If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art,
he would also have known that it would break any
collector to buy it. Harris and I had been hard at
work on our German during several weeks at that time,
and although we had made good progress, it had been
accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance,
for three of our teachers had died in the mean time.
A person who has not studied German can form no idea
of what a perplexing language it is.</p>
<p>Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod
and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.
One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most
helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured
a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid
the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech,
he turns over the page and reads, "Let the pupil make
careful note of the following EXCEPTIONS." He runs his
eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the
rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again,
to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.
Such has been, and continues to be, my experience.
Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing
"cases" where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant
preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with
an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground
from under me. For instance, my book inquires after
a certain bird—(it is always inquiring after things
which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): "Where
is the bird?" Now the answer to this question—according
to the book—is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith
shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would
do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well,
I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin
at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea.
I say to myself, "REGEN (rain) is masculine—or maybe it
is feminine—or possibly neuter—it is too much trouble
to look now. Therefore, it is either DER (the) Regen,
or DIE (the) Regen, or DAS (the) Regen, according to which
gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest
of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it
is masculine. Very well—then THE rain is DER Regen,
if it is simply in the quiescent state of being MENTIONED,
without enlargement or discussion—Nominative case;
but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general
way on the ground, it is then definitely located,
it is DOING SOMETHING—that is, RESTING (which is one
of the German grammar's ideas of doing something), and
this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it
DEM Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is
doing something ACTIVELY,—it is falling—to interfere
with the bird, likely—and this indicates MOVEMENT,
which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case
and changing DEM Regen into DEN Regen." Having completed
the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up
confidently and state in German that the bird is staying
in the blacksmith shop "wegen (on account of) DEN Regen."
Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark
that whenever the word "wegen" drops into a sentence,
it ALWAYS throws that subject into the GENITIVE case,
regardless of consequences—and therefore this bird stayed in
the blacksmith shop "wegen DES Regens."</p>
<p>N.B.—I was informed, later, by a higher authority,
that there was an "exception" which permits one to say "wegen
DEN Regen" in certain peculiar and complex circumstances,
but that this exception is not extended to anything
<p>There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome.
An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime
and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column;
it contains all the ten parts of speech—not in regular order,
but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed
by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any
dictionary—six or seven words compacted into one,
without joint or seam—that is, without hyphens;
it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects,
each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and
there extra parentheses, making pens within pens: finally,
all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together
between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed
in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other
in the middle of the last line of it—AFTER WHICH COMES
THE VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man
has been talking about; and after the verb—merely by way
of ornament, as far as I can make out—the writer shovels
in "HABEN SIND GEWESEN GEHABT HAVEN GEWORDEN SEIN,"
or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.
I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the
flourish to a man's signature—not necessary, but pretty.
German books are easy enough to read when you hold them
before the looking-glass or stand on your head—so as
to reverse the construction—but I think that to learn
to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing
which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.</p>
<p>Yet even the German books are not entirely free from attacks
of the Parenthesis distemper—though they are usually so mild
as to cover only a few lines, and therefore when you at
last get down to the verb it carries some meaning to your
mind because you are able to remember a good deal of what
has gone before. Now here is a sentence from a popular
and excellent German novel—with a slight parenthesis
in it. I will make a perfectly literal translation,
and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens
for the assistance of the reader—though in the original
there are no parenthesis-marks or hyphens, and the reader
is left to flounder through to the remote verb the best way he
<p>"But when he, upon the street, the
government counselor's wife MET," etc., etc. </p>
<p>1. Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide
gehuellten jetz sehr ungenirt nach der neusten mode
gekleideten Regierungsrathin begegnet.</p>
<p>That is from THE OLD MAMSELLE'S SECRET, by Mrs. Marlitt.
And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved
German model. You observe how far that verb is from
the reader's base of operations; well, in a German
newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page;
and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the
exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two,
they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting
to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left
in a very exhausted and ignorant state.</p>
<p>We have the Parenthesis disease in our literature, too; and one
may see cases of it every day in our books and newspapers:
but with us it is the mark and sign of an unpracticed
writer or a cloudy intellect, whereas with the Germans
it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen
and of the presence of that sort of luminous intellectual
fog which stands for clearness among these people.
For surely it is NOT clearness—it necessarily can't
be clearness. Even a jury would have penetration enough
to discover that. A writer's ideas must be a good
deal confused, a good deal out of line and sequence,
when he starts out to say that a man met a counselor's
wife in the street, and then right in the midst of this
so simple undertaking halts these approaching people
and makes them stand still until he jots down an inventory
of the woman's dress. That is manifestly absurd.
It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant
and breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it
with the forceps, and then stand there and drawl through
a tedious anecdote before they give the dreaded jerk.
Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste.</p>
<p>The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they
make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it
at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the OTHER
HALF at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything
more confusing than that? These things are called
"separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered
all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two
portions of one of them are spread apart, the better
the author of the crime is pleased with his performance.
A favorite one is REISTE AB—which means departed.
Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced
<p>"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his
mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom
his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin,
with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich
brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale
from the terror and excitement of the past evening,
but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again
upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than
life itself, PARTED."</p>
<p>However, it is not well to dwell too much on the
separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early;
and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned,
it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it.
Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance
in this language, and should have been left out.
For instance, the same sound, SIE, means YOU, and it means SHE,
and it means HER, and it means IT, and it means THEY,
and it means THEM. Think of the ragged poverty of a
language which has to make one word do the work of six—and
a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that.
But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing
which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey.
This explains why, whenever a person says SIE to me,
I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.</p>
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