Mark Twain’s drollery about the German language: Verboten today?

by Rashmee

Posted on October 19, 2014



awfgrmlgReading a hilarious piece on Mark Twain’s droll horror at the German language, as expressed in his memorable essay The Awful German Language, I couldn’t help but wonder if a writer would be able to be so rude anymore. Which is to say, would they be allowed to speak at will about something that belongs to someone else. A language. A cultural trait. A belief. A predilection. Anything that might be said to define another.

Would anyone allow such satirical observations today as Mr Twain’s long-ago words about anything so significant as their native language. Consider the following:

“Surely there is not another language that is so slip-shod and
systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.

“Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:
Freundschaftsbezeigungen.
Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten.
Stadtverordnetenversammlungen.
“These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.
Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen.
Alterthumswissenschaften.
Kinderbewahrungsanstalten.
Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen.
Wiedererstellungbestrebungen.
Waffenstillstandsunterhandlungen.
“Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up his way; … ”

Would anyone today suffer such absolute Anglophone certainty without launching a Twitter-war and troll-attacks:

“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”

We seem to grow ever more narrow in these broad-minded times, brooking no criticism from those outside the communal, cultural or religious particular in question. In other words, you have to demonstrably be of, for, or by the very thing you are criticizing. Being Indian gives one license, of sorts, to make penetrating, often rude, observations about one’s own. If others were to say it they would be described as ignorant, racist or neo-imperialist.

Postscript: Interestingly, Twain’s essay on the awfulness of the German language can be easily found through on a link that appears somehow connected to the US Embassy in Berlin:

that http://usa.usembassy.de/classroom/Mark%20Twain/Mark%20Twain%20Awful%20Broschuere.pdf


Rashmee has lived and worked in several countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Tunisia, the UAE, US and UK

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