Mark Twain and “The Awful German Language”

I found this story on my nerd calendar, Jeff Kacirk's "Forgotten English" for the date of November 30/December 1, 2013.

It quotes from Mark Twain's 1880 essay called "The Awful German Language". Twain writes:

"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 inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor 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 . . . I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner."

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One Response to Mark Twain and “The Awful German Language”

  1. hibiscusrose says:

    My dad used to tell me the problem with German was that they rarely took a new word from outside, but that they proceeded to insert new syllables between the word’s actual syllables, thus creating a new word that was essentially 2-3 times longer than the original word (and IMO probably that much harder to say!). I believe that practice has fallen off, though.


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