Mark Twain wrote some entertaining travelogues about his overseas travel. In A Tramp Abroad, he relates a conversation he and a friend had with an American who had been studying veterinary medicine in Germany. The expatriate complains about how long his studies have taken – nearly two years – and proclaims how good it is to hear his native tongue.
The student’s most humorous words relate to his impression of the German language. It’s unusual in its nineteenth century phrasing. However, he does note one rather common opinion in his earthy observation.
“I spotted you for my kind [fellow Americans] the minute I heard your clack. . . .” The young fellow hooked his arm into the Reverend’s, now, with the confiding and grateful air of a waif who has been longing for a friend, and a sympathetic ear, and a chance to lisp once more the
sweet accents of the mother tongue, — and then he limbered up the muscles of his mouth and turned himself loose, — and with such a relish!
Some of his words were not Sunday-school words, so I am obliged to put blanks where they occur. . . . “when I heard you fellows gassing away in the good old American language, I’m – if it wasn’t all I could do to keep from hugging you! My tongue’s all warped with trying to curl it around these forsaken wind-galled nine-jointed, German words here; now I tell you it’s awful good to lay it over a Christian word once more and kind of let the old taste soak in. . . .
“I’m learning to be a horse-doctor! I like that part of it, you know, but ____ these people, they won’t learn a fellow in his own language, they make him learn in German; so before I could tackle the horse-doctoring I had to tackle this miserable language.”
And, as if mastering German wasn’t difficult enough in itself, he continues:
“First-off, I thought it would certainly give me the botts, but I don’t mind it now. I’ve got it where the hair’s short, I think; and dontchuknow, they made me learn Latin, too. Now between you and me, I wouldn’t give a ____ for all the Latin that was ever jabbered; and the first thing I calculate to do when I get through, is to just sit down and forget it. ’Twon’t take me long . . .”
I don’t intend to offend Germans for the challenge their language poses to some. (In fact, one set of my grand-parents named Vonderohe originally came from Pomerania.) But the nature of agglutinative languages is so alien to most of us that the very length of the glued-together words becomes daunting.
Since I’m not a linguist, I had to research to discover as I wrote this post that German is not a truly agglutinative language. It merely uses agglutination. Apparently, the distinction involves distinctions with which most non-linguists need not concern themselves. We can be satisfied with the simplified definition provided by Glottopedia.org – “Agglutinating language is a language which has a morphological system in which words as a rule are polymorphemic and where each morpheme corresponds to a single lexical meaning.”
In truth, it’s quite logical to make new words by stringing them together. Most English compound words are a combination of two elements. Longer Germanic words seem more common. Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, for example, sounds “nine-jointed,” but is actually only two words, meaning motor vehicle liability insurance.
C.S. Lewis and the German Language
C.S. Lewis was multilingual, and studied German while relatively young. He and his wife used every language as a source when playing Scrabble.
Nevertheless, Lewis was quite modest about his grasp of German. In 1954, while thanking a German professor for the offer of a philosophy book he had written, Lewis wrote,
I look forward to reading the book (when the translation arrives! My German is wretched, and what there is of it belongs chiefly to the libretto of the Ring and Grimm’s Märchen – works whose style and vocabulary you very possibly do not closely follow).
The following year Lewis wrote once again to Helmut Kuhn. This time it was to thank him for a review Lewis’ works. Lewis said, “it certainly seems to me that your grasp of the whole situation in which I have written and of the relation of my ideas both to it and to each other, goes far beyond any criticism I have yet had.” Before he makes that noteworthy statement, Lewis makes a playful comment relating to the presumed dignity implicit in the German language itself.
To be written about in the German language is, for an Englishman, a grave temptation to spiritual pride. The sentences are so massive and the words so long that, even if the content were less flattering than it is in your article, the subject can hardly resist feeling that he must be a much weightier phenomenon than he had ever supposed!
Eucestoda Words: Well Worth a Postscript
Germans are an accomplished, literate people who take pride in their language. They have gone so far as to coin a word that specifically identifies these sometimes lengthy compound words. Germans call them bandwurmwörter, which literally means “tapeworm words.” (Mark Twain would have delighted in knowing that.)
Friedrich Akademie, an education website, devotes a page on their website to “Beautiful German Tapeworm Words.”
Tapeworm words . . . what a fascinatinglyinventivesemanticnovelty!
6 thoughts on “Peculiarities of the German Language”
I studied German in my PhD studies, and it was a struggle. My professor thought is was an amazing and flexible language. I thought French was much to be preferred.
I find it interesting how different languages pose different levels of challenge to different people.
I have no aptitude for language, and in junior high, I thought Spanish was pretty difficult. Latin in high school made Spanish seem simple. Classical Greek in college made me long for Latin. And then Hebrew in seminary… well, let’s just say I opted to take it pass-fail, and barely survived.
We spoke German at home when I was a girl. Unfortunately, I never took it up in school, so can only recall a few phrases.
I think that’s the regret of a lot of people whose parents’ first language was something other than English. We take it for granted and later regret not cherishing it.
Of course, on the other hand some families can perpetuate linguistic separation from English, and handicap their children.
(I hope the phrases you recall are the “nice” ones!)
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