The Awful German Language

Published 3rd October 2011
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I’m sure every language learner has experienced frustration with the complexities of foreign grammar at some point during their studies. It is part and parcel of becoming a speaker of Spanish or Italian for example, that the unfamiliar rules and structures will feel overwhelming at times. All of this makes it all the more satisfying when things ‘click’ and grammatical rules just make sense to you. An extensive understanding of the grammar of both the source and target languages are of course essential for document translation services.

Of course, this comfort of knowledge is not present for many smaller, less common rules, and they become a constant source of uncertainty. During my undergraduate studies, I was introduced to the work of American author Mark Twain (of Huckleberry Finn fame) who wrote about language and, of particular interest to me and my fellow students at the time, the difficulties of learning German as a foreign language. Just as native English speakers (me included) take for granted certain points of grammatical understanding that confuse learners, there are similar such areas in German, which must be examined in order to provide professional document translation services.

The Awful German Language” is an essay that appeared as an appendix to a non-fiction travel book in 1880 and as a speaker of German myself, I find it very funny. All of the beginner’s confusion and frustration surrounding verbs at the end of sentences, genders and cases is captured in the work.

Identifying gender as an area of confusion for learners of German, Twain says:

“Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

He also described the much-discussed long, compound nouns common in German as “alphabetical processions”, a comment which anyone who has learnt or is trying to learn to spell these words will no doubt understand!

The complex sentence structure and word order used in German is also a problem. Twain says:

“…and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.” I know from first-hand experience that lengthy sentences and the use of numerous verbs in a row causes much frustration and confusion, and I can certainly find humour in Twain’s work. When it comes to document translation services, the key is to be able to decode (or ‘deverbalise’, to use a theoretical term) the message in the source language and reconstruct it in the target language.

I hope that this post has been interesting and humorous for the German speakers out there, and also for anyone who enjoys and appreciates the complexities of any language, as I’m sure there are learners of languages everywhere who can empathise with the points raised here. Please do let us know your thoughts!

For more information about the services offered by Lingua Translations, please visit the document translation services page on our website.

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