To speak or not to speak – that’s the question!

Even though I’ve never been a student of Anthropology but then I didn’t know as a child that my curiosity about other cultures, languages and the overall human race is what is called “Anthropology” by academicians. By the time I came to know of this word, I was already recruited by the “Scientific” world of Physics and Chemistry. Nonetheless, now I know what it is and therefore can label my quest with this word!
(On a side note – I was happy earlier without categorizing every feeling, every thought, every desire but now with the concept of tagging, it seems inefficient not to assign labels to the thoughts! Though what can be gained by it, is another question – after all you cannot search the thoughts in your brain with tags! )

You have to excuse me for being side-tracked – what I wanted to tell here was about a wonderful essay on the perils of learning a foreign language – especially if it is German :-). No offence intended towards my German friends ! You see, I’ve never learnt German myself – and after reading this essay, I’ll be very much cautious while using my limited German vocabulary – lest I may convey a wrong meaning! I didn’t know that the same word can mean twenty different things! The essay informs that instead of going through the rigors of learning German completely – with its more exceptions than rules – learning just two words “zug” and “schlag” and the adjective “auch”, are sufficient for a foreigner to survive in Germany – provided that he uses the words in the right context!
Now without much ado, I’d direct you to the essay by Mark Twain – it’s titled The Awful German Language . Enjoy the essay and don’t get intimidated like me. After all, if the German language was not there, how else would you have expressed your politeness so succinctly without using “Gesundheit” to someone who sneezed beside you? Until next, – “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein”!

P.S. I’ve read Mark Twain’s other and more popular works but I’d definitely not have known about this one if my German colleague hadn’t told me about it! Thanks to him for this introduction!


6 thoughts on “To speak or not to speak – that’s the question!

  1. The gender of a German word is really a hard thing. Mark Twain, however, has one tiny imprecision in his article. He states: “To continue with the German genders: […] cats are female — tomcats included” which is not entirely true. As a matter of fact a cat is “eine Katze” (female article). However, the translation of a tomcat clearly is “ein Kater” (male cat also having a male article in German). However, things may become confusing: Especially in the German language “Katze” is also the superordinated/general noun indicating that the speaker does not know anything about the sex of the animal. This means that for example the German sentence “Die Katze liegt auf dem Sofa” (“The cat is laying on the sofa”) does not provide any information to the listener whether the speaker was aware of the sex of the cat or not (something very similar happens also in English which in turn is resolved with the counter-question “Is it a he- or a she-cat?”). At last the consistency-loving Germans had mercy with the rest of the world in this special case: In both cases the article for the female gender is being used. Thus, you may safely remember that “a cat” is always female – regardless if in reality it is a tomcat…


  2. Thanks Nico 🙂 for providing the native speaker's perspective. I'm sure that the author would have exaggerated a bit taking advantage the “Poetic License”. And it's a normal evolutionary thing to change the language as the time goes by. Thus the usage in the 20th century must be quite different as compared to today! It's the same with English..people would laugh if one would start normal conversations with “Thou hast” and “Thou shalt”!


  3. “To typo or not to typo”?
    Half way down Mark is talking about the length of German composite nouns where he refers to the noun “Freundschaftsbezeigungen” – a very odd one, even for me as a German. What Mark is hiding from the reader is the fact there is a very easy procedure to dismantle these kind of giant words: Go from right to left and split those words up. As an intermediate “s” (or plural “en”) often is the “glue” with which words are concatenated, you easily get two blocks here:


    The second word is quite easy to get: Any dictionary will provide you with the translation of “friendship”. Looking for “bezeigung” (“en” is just the suffix for plural again) this might become more complicated – no dictionary will list it. Let's tear it apart as well:
    – “ung” indicates: I am a noun
    – “zeig” is the core of the noun and is derived from the German verb “zeigen” (“to point”, “to direct”, “to show”)
    – “be” is a prefix which one could refer best by stating that it “makes you do something”.

    So, as a matter of composition “bezeigung” would mean something like “some entity that makes you point to something”. Though, I was not able find the German word “Bezeigung” or “bezeigen” (verb form of it) in any of my dictionaries – I assume it does not exist, as I never heared anyone using it.

    At the end I assume that he – in fact – wanted to refer to “Freundschaftsbezeugungen” (with an U instead of an I). If someone is “bezeugen” something, then he is witnessing something. At the end this then would really would lead to the before-mentioned “demonstration of friendship”…


  4. Mark Twain really is providing a very interesting insight to my mother tongue. However, at some points his executions are – in the meantime naturally – oldish: For example, the additional suffix “e” of nouns in the dative case may have been used in the 19th centurary very widely, but already at the end of the 20th centuary it has been abandonded in normal speech. Though it can be found in literature, even today's novels do not make use of it anymore. Yet if seen, many Germans still consider them as “classic” and “high-classed” constructions. But in any case it is considered “old-fashioned”.


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