A piece of spam this morning led me indirectly (by way of a quotation) to Mark Twain's 1880 essay "The Awful German Language," an entertaining complaint about the difficulties of learning German, which apparently appeared as Appendix D from Twain's book A Tramp Abroad.

I was particularly amused by the section on German verb placement, which contains such lines as:

in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all.

(He also mentions that in English, overuse of parentheses "is the mark and sign of an unpracticed writer or a cloudy intellect." To which I say, hmph.)

A couple of other bits I liked:

Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six--and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.


I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.

And another sally against verb order, from the section toward the end about how to improve German:

You may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really bring down a subject with it at the present German range--you only cripple it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.

See also my entry from a few months back on Latin verb placement.

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