I am a language geek, and I’m proud of it. I know its’t not always obvious in this blog, but I am not a native English speaker, and I never proofread my posts (I’m not much of a perfectionist..). I came across a text by Mark Twain while I was in secondary school, going through my fifth year of German. The text was published as an appendix to ‘A Tramp Abroad’. I was only days away from an exam or important test and was given this text to read by a friend. And boy does Twain put words to some of the frustrations I was faced with:
“Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me.”
Anyone who has attended any German classes in Norway know at least one group of prepositions by heart (aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu) and unfortunately for many of us, when trying to utter a sentence in German any preposition will trigger these lists. I am one of those who made it through the German classes quite well, as long as I had a dictionary nearby, and the tests were written. When trying to speak German, I stink. A sentence, or the attempt to answer a question using a full sentence, usually results in:
Ehm, ja, der, nein, das, nein, nein, die Kirche ist in (then the head races: an, auf, hinter, in, neben, unter, vor, zwischen – moving indicates accusative, no movement is dative) das, ehm, nein (ehm, the gender of Park? der Park? das Park? die Park? ‘der’ feels more natural, I’ll go for that) der, nein, scheisse (if Park is masculine and the church is in the park, it is not moving, Park must thus be in dative) der, den, dem, ja, DEM, die Kirche ist in dem Park! Nein! (fuck! ‘in’ and ‘dem’ gives ‘im’. Try again) Die kirche ist im Park!! Ja, die Kirche ist im Park!! (But by this time the poor Germans have already found the church…)
Twain deals well with the problems related to linguistic gender in German, but also quite fittingly describe the syntax (how sentences are created):
“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech—not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary—six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam—that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses, making pens with pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it—after which comes the verb, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; 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.”
You can read the text in its entirety here.