December 20, 1812 The Horrors of the German 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 teaching myself 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 inquisition 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?

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

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 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.’

Der Zungenbrecker: Tongue Twister, or literally, The Tongue Breaker

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.

“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!? The native speaker will tell you that means, General Assemblies. For the rest of us 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 on this day 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 the work of these two but, did you know? The Grimm brothers also wrote the dictionary of the German language? Well, sort of.

Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm needed to pay the rent. Taking a local publisher up on its offer to create a dictionary of the German language the first part was released on this day, in 1852. Two years later, the project included ‘A’ all the was to “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 coming at last to completion, in 1961.

The “Deutsches Wörterbuch“, the dictionary of the German language fills a whopping 330,000 headwords in 32 volumes, but that’s not all. The structure of the language allows users to stay within grammatical rules and yet combine words in ways bewildering to the non-native speaker. This tower of babel amounts to a befuddling 5.3 million words according to some sources with as many as a third, introduced in the last 100 years.

By way of comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary is enough to make a bookshelf groan with 171,146 words plus another 47,156 obsolete terms all contained, in 20 bound volumes. 

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

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