Mark Twain on Learning German

I am continuing to try and learn German, studying about thirty minutes a day on Duolingo, and at times I feel like I have reached a plateau.  The more words I learn, the more I forget the ones I learned just a month ago.  All those words that end in –ung and/or start with ver- are getting too hard to keep straight.  And why are there at least two words for so many things?  Sure, I know that’s true in English also, but it was a lot easier learning English when my brain was young and flexible and everyone around me spoke it all the time.  Learning German at my age without some immersion is, to the say least, a challenge.

So I took great comfort in Mark Twain’s 1880 essay, “The Awful German Language.” Vera Meyer of the Facebook group “JEWS—Jekkes Engaged Worldwide” (“Jekke” or “yekke” has various specific meanings, but most broadly refers to a person of German-Jewish background) sent me a link to Twain’s essay the other day, and it made me laugh out loud several times over.

By Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) By Matthew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMark_Twain%2C_Brady-Handy_photo_portrait%2C_Feb_7%2C_1871%2C_cropped.jpg

Twain is one of my favorite authors, but I’d never before read this essay, and if I had, I would not have appreciated it before my own struggles with German.  You can find the entire essay here and I recommend it highly, but I want to quote just a few of my favorite passages.  Favorite because I relate so well to what Twain is saying.

This complaint is one that also gives me great frustration:

Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

And then there is the endless battle to figure out what is the gender of a particular noun so that you know what articles, pronouns, and adjectives to use:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the 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. ….

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

And then finally, Twain’s overall lament about learning German:

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.

Alas, at my age, if it really takes thirty years, it will take the rest of my life (if I am very lucky) to learn German.

But like Mark Twain, I will continue to muddle along, at least knowing that I am in good company in my struggles.

Why I Am Studying German

Along with researching, blogging, working on my novel, and doing other ordinary things with my days, I have started studying German.  I took French in high school and college, and I learned some Italian from a travel experience I had after college, but I knew no German.  Well, other than a word here and there like Danke and Gesundheit.

So why, you might ask, did I decide to learn German? It certainly is a challenge.  Although I’ve been delighted to see how many words are similar to English (like wein/wine and bier/beer) or Yiddish (like schön/shayne and schmutzig/schmutzy), German grammar is tough.  The sentence structure is hard.  The various cases are confusing; the articles and pronouns are a constant source of bewilderment.  But I am enjoying the challenge.

But that doesn’t address the question of why German.  Sure, I have many ancestors with German roots, and yes, it would be helpful to read the birth, marriage, and death records without depending on the generosity of people like Matthias Steinke, Ute Brandenburg, Ralph Baer, Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler. and others.  But I had already figured out the words for birth, death, marriage, mother, father, and even the months of the year.  So why struggle to learn ordinary vocabulary and grammar?

Yes, I am planning a trip to Germany for next year, and I do want to be able to get by as much as possible without expecting people to know English.  But I also know that I won’t be fluent enough really to do that, and I know that most people in Germany involved in the tourist industry will speak English, just as they did in Prague, Budapest, Vienna, and Krakow.

So why bother trying to learn German? It all started with Mathilde Mayer-Gross.  Who was she? She was my second cousin, three times removed:

Relationship_ Amy Cohen to Mathilde Gross part 1

Relationship_ Amy Cohen to Mathilde Gross part 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That is, Mathilde’s grandmother Martha Seligmann and my three-time great-grandfather Moritz Seligmann were sister and brother.  We are both direct descendants of Jacob Seligmann

Mathilde is also related to me through her grandfather Benjamin Seligmann since he was his wife Martha’s first cousin; Martha’s grandfather Jacob Seligmann and Benjamin’s grandfather Hirsch Seligmann were brothers.

But I digress.

 

Mathilde was born in Bingen, Germany, in April 1869. She left in 1937 to escape from Nazi persecution when she was almost 68 years old and a grandmother; she lived over thirty years in the United States, dying in September, 1969, when she was a hundred years old.  She wrote a book about her remarkable life called Die Alte und Die Neu Welt.  [The Old and The New World] (1951).

Mathilde Mayer book cover

And I want to read her book.  But I can only find it in German. Ute Brandenburg did a wonderful job of translating one of the chapters, but I can’t afford to pay what it would cost to translate the rest of the book.

I used Google Translate to read some other excerpts from Mathilde’s book that appear on the Arbeitskreis Judische- Bingen website. I also read the memoir written by Mathilde’s granddaughter Ellen Kann Pine, One Life in Two Worlds (2009). But I still want to read Mathilde’s book itself.

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So I decided to learn German.  After about four months of using the Duolingo program online, I can write a simple sentence or two to my cousin Wolfgang and his young daughter Milena, and I can understand enough to read simple sentences.  The Duolingo program is wonderful; I study every day about 30 minutes a day, and I am having a lot of fun. But so far my ten year old fourth cousin Milena knows a lot more English than I know German.

duolingo icon

Will I ever be able to read Mathilde’s book? I don’t know.  I may never be fluent enough to read it without a dictionary in hand (and Google Translate), but perhaps I will be able to read and understand enough to satisfy my curiosity about her life.

In the meantime, in my next few posts, I will take a break from the Schoenthal clan, and I will share some of what I learned about Mathilde and her family from the other sources I mentioned, including Arbeitskreis Judische-Bingen, Ellen Kann Pine’s book, and Chapter 2 of Mathilde’s own book as translated by Ute Brandenburg.  Maybe someday I will be able to fill in the rest of the stories of her life.