The awful German language

A plaque just outside of the Hotel Ambassador, Vienna, Austria.

I’m making yet another valiant attempt to conquer the German language — a few years of high school German apparently not enough to set me off the language forever — and as a Mark Twain enthusiast of course I came across his memorable essay about his own experience in trying to learn it. Much of what he says rings true (you can read all of it here), but I understand that Twain became fairly fluent in German, especially during his two-year stay in Austria just at the end of the 19th century. This was, of course, fin de siècle Austria, and also walking those streets were the likes of Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schönberg, and Sigmund Freud, who is said to have attended at least one of Twain’s several lectures there. Carl Dolmetsch has detailed the extent to which his Austrian visit affected his work, including its influence on “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and the still-neglected The Mysterious Stranger, as well as the essays “Stirring Times in Austria” and “Concerning the Jews.” I’ll be in Vienna myself later this month and look forward to making a small bow to the above plaque myself, the honor an acolyte pays to his master.

As I say, I can’t quibble with much of his essay, especially what Twain says about the dative case. “In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case,” he begins his suggestions for reformation. “It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident — and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly — it is better to discard it.” But he is especially right, I think, about the language’s unique beauties. I quote the below, then will return to my homework, perfecting my use of the imperative case:

There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and affective. There are German songs which can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the SOUND of the words is correct — it interprets the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart.

One thought on “The awful German language”

  1. I seem to remember having trouble with the dative case in Latin, when I studied it in high school. But then I had some trouble with high school, or rather during high school, and much that I could’ve learned I didn’t.

    I know you have a taste for Vienna. “Genießen Sie Ihren Besuch” is what Google Translate instructs me to say.

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