The (not so) Awful German Language

A German Learning Experience

Anybody who’s ever attempted to learn German will have encountered Mark Twain’s hilarious essay documenting his struggle to conquer The Awful German Language.

Although written almost 140 years ago, Twain’s words still resonate loudly with modern Germanophiles who still can’t quite understand why girls have no gender but turnips are female, and who are beginning to believe that ‘only the dead have time to learn it.’

But if German really is such an awful language, then why are we still bothering? In 2015, the Goethe-Institut published a study which demonstrated that the number of people learning German as a foreign language around the world was close to 15.4 million – so it can’t be that bad, can it?       

Mark Twain on German

Throughout his essay, Twain highlights the trials and tribulations faced by learners of German, which range from gender to … pretty much everything. Here’s a quickfire list of the top 5 things that give learners of German sleepless nights.

  1. Exceptions to rules

We all know that feeling – we’ve spent hours on end chanting ‘der, die, das, die, den, die, das, die…’ and been reduced to tears trying to memorise which word goes with which gender goes with which case… only to find that for no apparent reason (and only sometimes), one particular word or phrase follows none of these painstaking rules and just kind of does its own thing. Yoghurt is simultaneously masculine, feminine AND neuter? Why not!

  1. Never-ending sentences (and the verb comes last, of course!)

It is also absolutely normal to find yourself facing a sentence which lasts for almost an entire page, with endless commas and a whole variety of information that would usually take up an entire chapter in an English-speaking novel. If this isn’t bad enough, as Twain so poignantly points out, the verb comes at the end, and only then do you ‘find out for the first time what the man has been talking about.’ (Of course, you then have no choice but to start all over again because you’ve forgotten how the sentence started. Yay!).

  1. Separable verbs

To make these impossible sentences just that little bit more confusing, sometimes the Germans even split their verbs in half, so then you suddenly find yourself attempting to complete a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle instead of simply trying to read the morning newspaper. Twain’s example of the English equivalent is just too good to leave out, so here you go:

„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.“

  1. Adjective endings

I, for one, can fully relate to the student in Twain’s essay who is quoted as saying “I would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective,” and coming from a Brit, that’s saying something. For Germans, it’s not enough to simply have one way of describing something, i.e. ‘good’.  Instead, you have to have 3 different tables worth (each containing 16 varieties) of ways in which you write said word (which all still mean ‘good’, by the way). These vary depending on whether you say, ‘the good beer’, ‘a good beer’ or ‘good German beer’, and whether or not the beer is yours, someone else’s, is moving, not moving etc etc etc… and if the word is a different gender from beer (which is apparently sexless), then it all changes again. Fun, right?

  1. Genders (and referring to inanimate objects like people)

I’ve already mentioned the bizarre nature of the German gender system, (namely: giving everything random genders that have no intrinsic link to the object itself), but what is even more bizarre, is referring to everything by these genders. Twain nicely demonstrates this in the following:

Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

She has gone to the kitchen.

Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

It has gone to the opera.“

Should I learn German

The fact that Mark Twain (and roughly 15.4 million others like myself) have dedicated so much time and effort trying to conquer the awful German language speaks for itself. Sure, she[1] (see what I did there?) might be annoying, frustrating and at times down-right infuriating – but isn’t that what keeps us coming back for more? Don’t pretend that you don’t do a silent lap of honour each time you manage to get all the parts of a German sentence in the correct position, gender AND case!

Aside from feeling like an absolute ace in a foreign language, German is one of the most useful languages in the world to learn (rated no. 4 in this funky infographic from Mosalingua). Germany is arguably the powerhouse of Europe, and knowing German does wonders for your employability in a whole range of different areas including business, economics, politics, science, research, tourism, hospitality, and technology to name but a few.

Speaking German also grants you the golden key to one of the most interesting cultures on the planet. For me personally, the best thing about speaking German is experiencing the literature, history and culture first-hand – and it is a skill I would not trade for anything in the world!

The Aw(esome) German language

Twain was right for many reasons. ‘A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.’ True, perplexing it may be, but what’s life without a little challenge? And besides, it’s not as if our own language is a walk in the park either!

Why do you learn German? Which language makes you want to tear your hair out? And why do you still love it!?

[1] The German word for language is die Sprache, which is feminine!