Mark Twain on the German Language

If you are interested in how German works, Mark Twain’s attempt to rationalize grammatical patterns in German is an entertaining read! Thanks to DK for sending this.

Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience. Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after a certain bird — (it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question — according to the book — is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea. I say to myself, “Regen (rain) is masculine — or maybe it is feminine — or possibly neuter — it is too much trouble to look now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die (the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well — then the rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being mentioned, without enlargement or discussion — Nominative case; but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then definitely located, it is doing something — that is, resting (which is one of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively, — it is falling — to interfere with the bird, likely — and this indicates movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing dem Regen into den Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) den Regen.” Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence, it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless of consequences — and that therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop “wegen des Regens.” N. B. — I was informed, later, by a higher authority, that there was an “exception” which permits one to say “wegen den Regen” in certain peculiar and complex circumstances, but that this exception is not extended to anything but rain.

— from Appendix D of Mark Twain’s 1880 book A Tramp Abroad

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