Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Adventures with the (awful) German Language

Mark Twain may be most celebrated for his tales of adventure featuring Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but close to the end of his life he spent some time in Germany, which resulted in a lesser-known but equally entertaining tale of The Awful German Language.

With all the humor you would come to expect from Mark Twain, he writes about his experiences and observations in studying the “perplexing” German language. In an excellent rendering of a sentence the length of which is closer to the German variety, Mark Twain describes the German sentence:

“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 with 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 HABEN GEWORDEN SEIN,’ or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.”

He goes on to critique separable verbs, adjective endings, pronouns, genders, nouns and all the things that make the German language something awful that some of us have come to love. He has some of his own translation stories to tell as well:

“I translated a passage one day, which said that ‘the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest’ (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.”

2010 is the “Year of Mark Twain.” This year marks the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth (November 30), the 100th anniversary of his death (April 21) and the 125th anniversary of the publication of his most beloved work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There is actually one more Mark Twain anniversary in 2010: it was 130 years ago that my favorite work by the American writer was published.  The Awful German Language is a relatively short work and can be downloaded as an ebook here for free.