May 1, 1852 An Awful Language

“In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language”. – Mark Twain

Planning a business trip from Sunny Cape Cod™ to Presque Isle Maine I found myself pondering. What shall I do with the eternity it will take me to get there or six hours, fifty minutes, whichever comes first. I hit upon the idea of learning German, and why not? Books on Tape are free at my local library. I shall arrive at my meeting with mind fresh and horizons expanded by new adventures, in learning.

Right.

I emerged from my rolling dungeon some seven hours later, blinking like a marmot, flummoxed, exhausted and thoroughly convinced, of my own inadequacy. How the hell is anyone supposed to learn that stuff?

Turns out, I was not alone. No less a giant of the literary world than Mark Twain once said a person of modest gift could learn English in 30 hours, French in thirty days and German, in thirty years.

“I would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”

Mark Twain

Consider for example, verb separation. The German verb ankommen is a separable verb, a trait wisely shunned by the rest of the world’s 6,500 languages save for Dutch, Afrikaans and Hungarian:

a. Sie kommt sofort an. she comes immediately at – ‘She is arriving immediately.’
b. Sie kam sofort an. she came immediately at – ‘She arrived immediately.’
c. Sie wird sofort ankommen. she will immediately at.come – ‘She will arrive immediately.’
d. Sie ist sofort angekommen. she is immediately at.come – ‘She arrived immediately.’

Hat tip Wikipedia for that one

And forget about Gender. Every noun has a gender in German for which there are no means save brute memorization, to learn. Then it turns out, a young lady has no gender at all while a turnip, does. A fish scale has a gender but a fishwife, an actual female, does not.

Illustration by Max Kellerer from German edition of Die Million Pfund-Note from the Dave Thomson collection

“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”.

Mark Twain, a Tramp Abroad

Take an art class sometime and the first thing you’ll learn about, is perspective. In the German language whole sentences run together into single words so long as themselves, to have perspective. Consider, “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen“. For the German as a second language learner, what does that even mean!?

It’s all in the perspective

‘Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.’

Mark Twain

Today we remember Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm for their collection of folklore and fairy tales, first published in 1812 and expanded seven times, by 1857. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. There are few among us not steeped in their work but, did you know. They also wrote the dictionary of the German language? Sort of.

Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm needed to pay the rent. Taking a local publisher up on their offer the first part was released on this day, in 1852. Two years later, the project included ‘A’ through “Biermolke”. (Beer whey). “Biermolke” through E came about in 1860, the year after Wilhelm, died. Jacob died three years later with the last entry, “Frucht,” “Fruit”.

The Grimm brothers project outlived the formation of the German state and two world wars at last coming to completion, in 1961.

The “Deutsches Wörterbuch“, the dictionary of the German language fills a whopping 330,000 headwords in 32 volumes. By way of comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary is enough to make a bookshelf groan, with 20 bound volumes.

124 years in compiling and THAT was all, by native speakers. So, about that 30 years thing, to learn the German language. Sure thing, Mark ol’ pal. Sure thing.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

6 thoughts on “May 1, 1852 An Awful Language”

  1. HA! Well, it was a good goal!
    I was grateful recently for the German speakers in my WWII group for help with phrases- tried including a couple in my book with help from the internet, the found they were all wrong 😂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s