When Mark Twain wasn’t writing the most adventure-packed stories of our childhood, he was travelling and writing about these in his characteristics way: humorous and insightful. In one of his travels abroad, chronicled in the book A Tramp Abroad (available completely here) he ended up in Germany, where he stayed for several months. Here he studied some German in order to ease his journey and find out more about the people. While he praised many aspects of German society of the late nineteenth century, the German language was not one of them. On the contrary, he criticized (in a charming mocking manner) the language for its numerous intricacies that rendered it close to impossible to master for foreigners.
For those who have already started learning German, Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language” is probably well known to you already. Maybe even those who have yet to learn German have also come across it. It may appear hard to believe and ridiculous at times, but the aspects pointed out here are as valid now as they were then for the American author. Everyone who has studied this language has encountered them and struggled to comprehend them at least partly.
As I was recently reading Ein Bummel durch Europa (the German version of A Tramp Abroad), I found this text again and read it in German, which takes away some of its original humour, but the message is still clear: it’s a bloody strange language. This is the first post from a series of three where I will present some of the traits that make German such a “lovable” language. The quotes are from the German version of the text that I have tried my best to translate.
„Who has never studied German, cannot imagine just how complicated this language is“
German often feels like a forest, in which the farther you go, the darker it gets. When you feel you finally master it, even if only to a certain extent, something new will spring up that doesn’t fit anywhere and you’ll have to rethink all the rules in your head and place it somewhere.
“The examples given to confirm the rule are considerably fewer than those for exceptions”
Of course there are rules and plenty of them, but as concerns nouns, namely the gender of nouns, they are useless. The best method is to memorize each word along with its preceding article, even if this may seem almost impossible. And even if you manage to do this, you will forget about gender when you start talking.
“It is a peculiarity of the German grammar: something is always doing something”
In order to establish how to decline a word, you need to figure out the grammatical case. In German if an object or person is doing something actively, an action designated by a bunch of action verbs, then the case is the accusative. If on the other hand it’s not so active (although it’s still doing something), then you use the dative. For example, if you say “I’m going to school”, then it’s: “Ich gehe in die Schule”. If you say “I’m at school”: “Ich bin in der Schule”. Most verbs in the German language stand for passive action, so the dative is much more common. The table with declinations for the articles was the aspect of grammar I have read and re-read and re-re-read and so on the most times.
Besides this, almost all prepositions are tagged along with a particular case. The list is long and there are no rules, so you’ll have to proceed in the same manner as with the irregular verbs in English: simply memorize them. Since English and German are related, German also has its own bunch of irregular verbs called unregelmäßige Verben (here is a comprehensive list). There are some rules to these verbs, but the best way is to repeat them as often as possible until uttering them becomes an unconscious thing. Good luck for now!