Twain on German

If you’ve ever had to learn German, you would probably agree with Twain’s musing that the German sentence is like a dog that jumped into the Atlantic Ocean, swam to the other side, and got out with a verb in its mouth. In his autobiography, Twain also humorously pokes at the German tendency to create new compound words by pushing smaller words together (p. 118-19). He writes:

“The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham. It has no recognition by the dictionary, and is not found there. It is made by jumbling a lot of words into one, in a quite unnecessary way, it is a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language.

Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: ‘Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-Chief of the Police Department,’ yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble: ‘Mrslatecommanderinchiefofthepolicedepartment’swidowSmith.’”

Then Twain told this story, which he said would have brought the house down had he used it in his speech (I repeat it verbatim, noting that the phrase “stupid and stuttering children” doesn’t seem germane to the story and illustrates perhaps the insensitivities of Twain’s era):

“A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (kotter) provided with covers (lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo Lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte. One day an assassin (attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrotel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotenstrottermutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo’s cage—Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter—whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor’s office with a beaming face. ‘I have captured the Beutelratte,’ said he. ‘Which one?’ said the mayor; ‘we have several.’ ‘The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte.’ ‘Then why don’t you say at once the Hottentotenstrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?’”






7 responses to “Twain on German”

  1. david sims

    ha ha ha….derlaffinalotherr!

  2. And that is why I did French and Dutch.

  3. You should see what innovators like the neo-orthodox or God forbid – Heidegger!
    He should apologize for:
    his Nazi lovefest
    his contributions to the mess of theological German.
    Sorry universalist types out there – some of them just need killing…

  4. what the innovators DID I mean. way to late to think or write.

  5. Gary


  6. Helga

    Sehr lustig.

  7. Henk van Ewijk

    You mist a word. Its a Hottentotenstottertrottelmutterattentaterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte and
    if you want to descrbe where she lived you get:

    An other nice word is a: Eisenbahnknotenpunktschienenhienundherschieber. or on English
    A guy operating a railway exchange. Please finish the story of the Hottentoten attentater being a former railway exchange operator. That would be something.
    Have a nice day !

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