The Mechanical German Language

Book cover of the "Awful German Language" by Mark Twain (source: www.ebook.de)

Book cover of the “Awful German Language” by Mark Twain (source: ebook.de)

In 1880, American famous writer Mark Twain expressed his agonies of learning German in an essay titled The Awful German Language. The essay is a very enjoyable read, especially for German learners, as it satirizes brilliantly the German language and its perplexity. There are many memorable passages to quote. My favorite is this:

Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:

Freundschaftsbezeigungen.
Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten.
Stadtverordnetenversammlungen.

He adds:

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; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel through it.

For more quotes by Mark Twain about German, see here.

Having been learning German for more than two years and a half (not very successfully, to my dismay), I think it is high time I wrote my own version of The Awful German Language. However, a blog post is too short to lay out “the several vices of this language,” to use one of Twain’s expressions. I will therefore limit this blog post to one single aspect of learning German; that is, why German may sound very mechanical for those who attempt to learn it.

Before I embark on my study of the “mechanics” of the German language, I would like to briefly refer to an issue that I find very interesting and worth studying: To what extent our perceptions of foreign languages (whether we can partly understand them or not) are influenced by our perceptions of the people who speak these languages? For example, many people find French to be a very “beautiful” language. But is this high aesthetic value of French is due to its intrinsic nature (how it sounds to the human ear) or to the cultural association between speaking French and being cultured and cultivated or, for some other people, being sexy and attractive?

I have no doubt that these cultural associations play an important role in defining our perceptions of foreign languages. The colonial heritage of France and its political links, for example, have elevated the status of French in some countries to an elite language. Speaking French was (and in some countries still is) an identity marker that distinguishes the upper classes from the masses.

Similarly, our perceptions of German, which has an ill reputation for being “ugly” and “mechanical,” have definitely been influenced by Germany’s Nazi history. If you have not learned German at a very young age, try to remember or imagine your first exposures to this language. What were they? I bet, with a considerable degree of trust, that the first person you have ever heard speaking German was Adolf Hitler. Unless one of your parents or someone very close to you when you were very young spoke German, the odds are that you first heard German in a film, documentary, or a video game about World War II. You might have seen and cheered for the German national football team at the age of 7, like me, but I strongly doubt that you did hear the players talking. Arguably, media items dealing with WWII are the most widespread cultural products featuring the German language.

In this article, however, I intend to show that, in addition to its cultural associations, a foreign language might have some intrinsic features that shape our perceptions of it. In the case of German, the impression of being “mechanical” has in my view something to do with how a sentence is structured in this language.

Of all the languages that I have learned or attempted to learn, German has the most rigid and complicated form of word order. Well, I have tried my luck so far with 4 languages only (Arabic, English, Turkish as well as German), which is of course not enough from a comparative perspective, but I do not think that many languages in the world (at least those which are popular to learn) are more rigid than German in this respect. The positioning of words in a German sentence is indeed one of the most painful experiences a learner of German must go through.

Forming a sentence in any language is certainly not an arbitrary business, where one sticks few words next to each other, and that‘s it. There are rules for where to put the subject, the verb, and the other parts of speech. In a simple English sentence, for example, the subject usually precedes the verb. (There are exceptions, of course, but I am concerned here with the most common form of word order). A simple German sentence follows the same pattern of the subject preceding the verb:

Ich spielte gestern Fußball

I played football yesterday

(Subject–verb–adverb/object)

However, if you decide to start the sentence with the adverb instead of the subject, things become complicated in German. In English, all what you have to do is to place the adverb (“yesterday”) at the beginning of the sentence and keep the rest of the sentence (“I played football”) as it is intact:

G1

In German, on the other hand, there is a very strict rule of where to place the verb. In a normal sentence it must occupy the second position (V2). So if you decide to put the adverb at the beginning, you must have the verb immediately following it, and then comes the subject:

G2i

English is more flexible than German because no matter how many adverbs and extra words you add at the beginning, the subject-verb-object rule still applies. In other words, the core of the sentence “I played football” retains its order, whereas in German any word you put at the beginning other than the subject means that the whole order of the sentence changes.

Honestly I do not understand the point of the V2 rule. What on Earth would happen if one said “Gestern ich spielte Fußball”? Is the sentence not clear or understandable? Could there be any confusion over which the subject or which the object is? If it goes with English, why doesn’t it go with German, which is linguistically a cousin of English? All I know is that I lose marks for this in the exam and the teacher would not be pleased with me at all. I even believe that if beating was still allowed in schools like the good old days, the teacher would punch me in the face for saying that. This is why when I construct a sentence in German starting it with an adverb, I feel like I pause for a split second to make sure that I place the verb at the second position and then proceed with the rest of the sentence normally. These momentary pauses constitute a necessary element of the experience of making a sentence in German, and give the feeling of doing something mechanical.

If the problem with word order in German was limited to positioning the verb at the second position, I think it would not be that awful. Unfortunately for me and other German learners, it does not stop here. There are plenty of other rigid rules about word order in German. For example, once an auxiliary or a modal verb is inserted in the sentence, the main verb has to be thrown away at the end no matter how long the sentence is. Note the following sentence in German, which I have first formulated in the simple past tense (Präteritum), so there is no need for an auxiliary verb:

Die deutsche Nationalelf gewann die Fußball-Weltmeisterschaft 1990 durch hervorragendes Spiel, außerordentliche Strategie, körperliche Fitness und nicht zuletzt durch einen Elfmeter, das erste Mal gegen eine südamerikanische Mannschaft.

The German national football team won the 1990 World Cup for the first time against a South American team, thanks to an outstanding performance, an extraordinary strategy, physical fitness, and not least a penalty.

(The German sentence is adapted from this video, in which a German comedian explains in English why Germans like sometimes to have the verb at the end. The translation into English is mine.)

As you can see, the main verb gewann (the past form of gewinnen) is in the second position in the sentence right after the subject, just like English. Now let us make it in the perfect tense by adding hat (has) and notice how the main verb gwonnen (this is the perfect participle of gwinnen) is going to be thrown away at the end:

Die deutsche Nationalelf hat die Fußball-Weltmeisterschaft 1990 durch hervorragendes Spiel, außerordentliche Strategie, körperliche Fitness und nicht zuletzt durch einen Elfmeter, das erste Mal gegen eine südamerikanische Mannschaft gewonnen.

The German national football team has won the 1990 World Cup for the first time against a South American team, thanks to an outstanding performance, an extraordinary strategy, physical fitness, and not least a penalty.

Note that in English all what you had to do is to place the auxiliary verb (has) before the main verb (won) and that’s it, whereas in the German sentence the main verb (gewonnen) had to be transferred miles away to the very end of the sentence. I think you can see clearly now why one of the most common mistakes made by German learners is to forget the verb at the end!

Some people say that waiting for the verb at the end gives German sentences a sense of suspense, because you do not know what verb will come at the end. This is actually a literary technique used by authors in German (most famously Franz Kafka) to create a sense of anticipation or deliver an unexpected impact. Even if you guessed the verb in advance, you might be (pleasantly or unpleasantly) surprised that it is actually negated. Imagine that you are hearing or reading in German the decision of a committee regarding an application you have made that may change the course of your life (the sentence is formulated in English, but the position of the verb is changed in accordance with German syntax):

The committee has your application, which you submitted on the 23rd of July 2013, to receive a $10,000 grant to cover the fees and the expenses of your study for a master’s degree in applied mathematics at the Faculty of Sciences of the National University of Singapore NOT accepted.

You really have some time to imagine many things before you reach the end of the sentence and find the verb!

Things become even messier when you insert several auxiliary verbs into the sentence. In English, each additional auxiliary verb you add does not change the relative order of the other verbs in the sentence:

He killed the young man.

He was killed by the young man.

He has been killed by the young man.

He must have been killed by the young man.

It is pretty simple and straightforward. In the first sentence you had one verb “killed;” then you added “was,” which pushed “killed” one position further and occupied its place. After that, you added “has,” which pushed “was” and “killed” together without mixing them up (it only inflected “was” into “been”). Finally you added “must,” which pushed “has,” “been,” and “killed” together, preserving their relative positions to each other, and seated itself at the second position of the sentence. Relations of inflections are also clear and straightforward: each verb inflects (i.e. determines the form) of the one immediately following it. So “must” inflects “have;” “have” inflects “be;” and “be” inflects “kill.”

G3

In German, you need some engineering skills and possibly a protractor and a ruler in order to figure out the correct positions of the verbs:

G8

Note also how relations of inflection appear more complicated than English:

G6

The verb at the second position (muss) inflects the last verb of the sentence (sein), whereas each of the verbs at the end inflects the one immediately preceding it. I think you can see clearly the complicatedness of German compared with English in this respect.

There are other cases in which the verb in German must be placed at the end. In embedded phrases (i.e. those which start with conjunctions like “because,” “although,” “that,” “before,” etc.) all the verbs including the auxiliary verbs must be placed at the end. The last sentence above would become after adding “I believe that” as follows:

G7

There is another tragic chapter in the book of learning German called “separable verbs”, but I will not confuse you with it now. Suffice it to say that some verbs in German are split into two halves; one sits at the second position (in normal sentences without auxiliary verbs), whereas the other half travels to the very end. This means again that you have to wait till the very end of the sentence to figure out which verb exactly is being used.

I think just by looking at the English equivalents or the color codes above, you might see clearly that word order in German is far more complicated than English. I have not even talked about articles and adjectives. For the definite article there are 16 different cases in German, and for adjectives there are 48 different cases. In English, on the other hand, there is one single definite article (the) and one single way to use adjectives; you just put the adjective before the noun without worrying about anything.This is why when I construct a sentence in German, I need these momentary pauses to figure out where to position the verbs and how to inflect them. This sometimes makes me, and possibly other German learners as well, feel that I am talking like a robot.

My mental image of constructing a German sentence is an assembly line. You have an ordered line of workers with each one working on a specific part of the product. Any change in the order of workers or any part that is not placed properly will lead to a defective product (kaput, which is borrowed from German by the way).

Beetle Assembly Line

You may say that the problem is not in German; it is in my head. It is not German that is mechanical; it is me who is viewing it in very narrow mechanical lens. German is like any other language; it has its own logic and grammar, which might be more or less difficult than other languages. I need just to practice it and train myself to speak it without worrying so much about these syntactic rules.

I admit this is partly true. I tend to be very analytical and focused on the details of Grammar than other students of foreign languages. This might be related to the way my mind works. Although I am studying social science at the moment, my undergraduate degree was in mathematics, so I have this tendency to look very analytically at languages, even though most human beings learn to speak a language without worrying about such details. However, this does not mean that one should not occasionally compare languages from this perspective. It is interesting, for me at least, to see how the structure of one language differs from another and how this might influence our perceptions of them.

One more thing, Germans themselves hold partly the responsibility for the mechanical reputation of their language. For example, when you learn about the subjective use of modal verbs—that is, when a modal verb like “must” or “could” is used to indicate the probability of an action, just like the sentence above “He must have been killed” (almost certain) or “He could have been killed” (possible, but not sure)—you are given a table of probability in percentage. So, müssen, for example, indicates 95% certainty; dürften 75%; könnten 45%. Germans, in other words, sometimes quantify the meanings of their words. This is no strange for Germans. Even daily temperatures are displayed with decimal fractions!

Temperature- Germany

At the end of this post, I would like to say that I do not consider German to be really an “ugly” language, even phonetically. It has its own beauty that I occasionally appreciate, particularly when I listen to bands such as Laibach and Rammstein. German is aesthetically a “mighty” language and it suits very well themes of power and might regardless of any association between German and abuse of political and military power.


“Ich Will” by Rammstein with German lyrics and English translation

Literary German may as well have its own beauty and elegance, but please excuse me I have not yet reached the level of being able to read it. Once I can read it, I will write another blog post about it. I just hope that Mark Twain overestimated the time required to master German:

Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.

Disclaimer: I am neither a linguist nor a competent speaker of German. The analysis I presented above of German syntax may not be very scientific or accurate. It mostly expresses my own experience of learning German and the agonies that I suffer therewith!

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