In the Archives: Sprachen Studies (1917 then 1897)

Not Zach Galifianakis

Not Zach Galifianakis, around 1906

So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.

But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.

War is Hell

War is Hell

I’ve examined the past through Harper’s Monthly previously. The focus was on explosive chaos in 1920, but America was also dealing with its first go at organized modern war. Trenches and mechanical weapons and mustard gas. Oh my. In 1917, America stopped spectating the European campaign, and started participating. Our xenophobia to the Hun was being fostered by teetotalers pushing for Prohibition. And in the midst of this fury, periodicals of note were examining the topic with macroscopic lenses. In 1917, William Dean Howells wrote his editorials for Harper’s Monthly in “The Easy Chair,” a monthly column. But he did not edit the magazine alone. Henry Mills Alden edited Harper’s for fifty years, longer than Howells. He, too, received a column, and it was called “The Study.” In the September issue, many of the articles concern current events.

Ninety-six years ago...

Ninety-six years ago…

But why tell you about it, when it can be shown. The “Editor’s Study” begins on page 583:



Of all modern languages the German is the most peculiar, as we should expect the speech of the most peculiar of all modern peoples to be.

The significance of this peculiarity—whether of the people or of the language, or of the one as associated with the other—escapes any casual judgment. We saw recently in a daily paper a letter from a Canadian, inquiring, “What ails the Germans?” and attributing to their language every manifestation of their schrecklichkeit during the current war. “The more a man uses the German language the more brutal and vulgar he becomes.”

Such an indictment of a language is as unreasonable as the “indictment of a whole people.” There is nothing in his speech to bedevil a German or to excuse his bedevilment.

It is in contrast with the languages of Italy, France, and England that that of Germany seems so unique. When we compare it with the Slavonic and other languages of Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, we are not so much surprised by the peculiarity itself of the German language as by the fact that Germany has preserved it intact in a civilization which has advanced so far beyond that of these other countries.

The distinctive singularity of the Deutsche Sprache is that, from first to last, it is simply Deutsche, owing almost nothing to the Classic or the Romance languages, to which the English, French, Spanish and, of course, the Italian owe so much. It is as if English had remained what it was in the writings of King Alfred, instead of becoming a language which, while in structure it is still Anglo-Saxon, is in its content more than half made up of foreign elements, mainly derivative from Latin, either directly or through Romance modification.

The isolation of the Continental Germans, so much more complete than that of the closely allied Anglo-Saxon insular people, and tending to a slow and backward development, enabled them to conserve their peculiar characteristics of race, language, and customs, undisturbed by alien influences and impacts, so significant to the Northmen, to the ancient Phoenicians, to the Ionian Greeks, and to the coasts they invaded, colonized, or traded with. Islands have always been, if not the sources of progressive culture, at least the steppingstones of its traditions.

The limitations imposed upon Germany by her largely inland situation affected not only the development of her language, but of her whole popular life, which, because of the confinement, became so distinctively “popular,” so independent and self-sufficing—as we see it to have been when Tacitus described it in its still pagan habit. The term Deutsche means “after the manner of the people”—a most democratic self-designation. “Social Democracy” is but its modern recrudescence. Natively having the forest rather than the sea habit, the German was for centuries confined to germane contacts, sequestered from the intimate and abiding influences of any outside culture.

The singular integrity of the German language which has been maintained for literary purposes since the sixteenth century, when Luther’s translation of the Scriptures fixed it in its mature, High-German form, would easily mislead us if we inferred from it a like homogeneity of the various peoples now united in the German Empire, including also its Austrian ally, or if we were led to ignore the previous dialectic variations in the language as spoken by these peoples—variations that have not yet entirely disappeared. The integrity of the language as manifest during three centuries of German literature is, therefore, the more remarkable.

It is wholly in keeping with what we have said of the German repellence to the intimate adoption of foreign elements that this people should have become the foremost champion of the Reformation—a movement which has so largely affected its own destiny. We have alluded to the impress which, in connection with this movement, Luther put upon the language and, through that, upon the literature of his countrymen, thus giving it something beyond a religious significance, as confirming the protestant disposition of the German people in its attitude toward the whole non-German world, leading up to its assumption, in our day, of being the Lord’s chosen people in as peculiar a sense as the Hebrew people claimed to be: only, in the German case, it is the ultimate manifestation of a long nourished military ambition in a special class and encouraged by a specious school of prophecy, whereas, in the Hebrew, it dated from that meekest of men, the Prophet Moses and was nourished by quite a different school of prophecy as a spiritual aspiration that found its highest expression in Isaiah.

To attempt further to pursue the comparison of the German of to-day with the ancient Hebrew would be farcical. But the earlier German—before he had reached his present stage of industrial and military efficiency and of conscious supremacy, or had conceived the idea of his peculiar world destiny—does suggest some likeness to that most singular of all human races. The Hebrew had a more complete inland isolation than the German, though, unlike the German, he seemed to have an actual dread of the sea and never came to resent his confinement, or to react against it. Both peoples spontaneously developed only the lyrical and musical arts. But, as would be expected in the comparison of an Indo-European with a Semitic race, the unlikenesses are far more striking than the resemblances. Every institution the Hebrew ever had he readily adopted from other nations he came in contact with, even those who held him in subjection or temporary captivity. On the contrary, the German held to his own, very backwardly yielding to external influences, as in the adoption of Christianity, feudalism, and the Renaissance.

Whatever progress Germany made, as in the general European enlightenment of the eighteenth century, when she was eagerly receptive to French and English culture, her language remained the same, developing only along the lines which it had followed from the beginning. The attempt to translate into it the finest productions of the English and French poets seemed inevitably to result in disappointment. Frederick the Great repudiated it, as a language “fit only for boors,” and adopted the French. Nevertheless, the German writers of his own and of the next generation developed possibilities of the language which would have surprised the Prussian king, and in the past the Minnesängers and Hans Sachs had shown what these possibilities were in the field of folk-song.

The Volk note is indeed the genuine and natural key of German development, as reflected in the radical constitution of the German language, which rejects all alien roots and, therewith, the complexity and diversity of tone and color that enrich the speech of the great nationalities of Western Europe. Germany has acquired other cultures, holding them alongside her own without intimate assimilation of them. Hence the peculiarity of her own Kultur, which during the last two generations has received the stamp of an imperial autocracy and a perversely singular determination.

As, after the devastation of the country by the Thirty-Years’ War, Frederick the Great’s military leadership seemed to Germany a benefaction, so when, later, she awoke to a full sense of her disadvantage in the international competition for wealth and power, the Empire seemed a promise of triumph; and the military class has made the most of this leverage, transmuting popular resentment into an arrogant and aggressive ambition for world-dominion. The world, embattled to resist the haughty claim, has accepted the challenge. The only hope of peace is in Germany’s reversion to her natural lines of popular development. That way her Deutsche Sprache leads.

Studies are for studying. Men wanted studies before Man Caves became the masculine sanctuary in middle class homes. I’ve shown you before the study Mark Twain used during his most productive summers. Here it is once again, before and after the author’s death.


A studious Twain in 1903

And the study, colorized like a bad Turner Classic, some time later

…and the study, colorized like a bad Turner Classic, some time later

Twenty years—one score—can make a significant difference on geography as much as perspective. About twenty years of floral growth consumed the horizon from Twain’s study. And twenty years separates Alden’s study of German language from that of Mark Twain.

In Vienna, October 31, 1897 (though possibly later), Mark Twain spoke at a Festkneipe—a beer hall social one month after the traditional German Oktoberfest. His audience was Concordia, a social club of authors and journalists. Presented in German, “Die Schrecken der Deutschen Sprache” is Twain’s rhetorical take on the local language. His German was grammatically correct, but the literal translation that follows was redrafted by Twain in a vein of humor he wrote occasionally when encountering his language in foreign translation, retranslated. Both the German and its literal translation can be found in Paul Fatout’s Mark Twain Speaking (1976). It can also be found unreliably online as well. But enough with the telling, let me show you what I mean:


Mark Twain’s Literal Translation of the Concordia Speech

It has me deeply touched, my gentlemen, here so hospitably received to be. From colleagues out of my own profession, in this from my own home so far distant land. My heart is full of gratitude, but my poverty of German words forces me to greater economy of expression. Excuse you, my gentlemen, that I read off, what I you say will. [But he didn’t read.]

The German language speak I not good, but have numerous connoisseurs me assured that I her write like an angel. Maybe—maybe—I know not. Have till now no acquaintance with the angels had. That comes later—when it the dear God please—it has no hurry.

Since long, my gentlemen, have I the passionate longing nursed a speech on German to hold, but one has me not permitted. Men, who no feeling for the art had, laid me ever hindrance in the way and made naught my desire—sometimes by excuses, often by force. Always said these men to me: “Keep you still, your Highness! Silence! For God’s sake seek another way and means yourself obnoxious to make.”

In the present case, as usual it is me difficult become, for me the permission to obtain. The committee sorrowed deeply, but could me the permission not grant on account of a law which from the Concordia demands she shall the German language protect. Du liebe Zeit! How so had one to me this say could—might—dared—should? I am indeed the truest friend of the German language—and not only now, but from long since—yes, before twenty years already. And never have I the desire had the noble language to hurt; to the contrary, only wished she to improve—I would her only reform. It is the dream of my life been. I have already visits by the various German governments paid and for contracts prayed. I am now to Austria in the same task come. I would only some changes effect. I would only the language method—the luxurious, elaborate construction compress, the eternal parenthesis suppress, do away with, annihilate; the introduction of more than thirteen subjects in one sentence forbid; the verb so far to the front pull that one it without a telescope discover can. With one word, my gentlemen, I would your beloved language simplify so that, my gentlemen, when you her for prayer need, One her yonder-up understands.

I beseech you, from me yourself counsel to let, execute these mentioned reforms. Then will you an elegant language possess, and afterward, when you some thing say will, will you at least yourself understand what you said had. But often nowadays, when you a mile-long sentence from you given and you yourself somewhat have rested, then must you have a touching inquisitiveness have yourself to determine what you actually spoken have. Before several days has the correspondent of a local paper a sentence constructed which hundred and twelve words contain, and therein were seven parentheses smuggled in, and the subject seven times changed. Think you only, my gentlemen, in the course of the voyage of a single sentence must the poor, persecuted, fatigued subject seven times change position!

Now, when we the mentioned reforms execute, will it no longer so bad be. Doch noch eins. I might gladly the separable verb also a little bit reform. I might none do let what Schiller did: he has the whole history of the Thirty Years’ War between the two members of a separable verb in-pushed. That has even Germany itself aroused, and one has Schiller the permission refused the History of the Hundred Years’ War to compose—God be it thanked! After all these reforms established be will, will the German language the noblest and the prettiest on the world be.

Since to you now, my gentlemen, the character of my mission known is, beseech I you so friendly to be and to me your valuable help grant. Mr. Pötzl has the public believed make would that I to Vienna come am in order the bridges to clog up and the traffic to hinder, while I observations gather and note. Allow you yourselves but not from him deceived. My frequent presence on the bridges has an entirely innocent ground. Yonder gives it the necessary space, yonder can one a noble long German sentence elaborate, the bridge-railing along, and his whole contents with one glance overlook. On the one end of the railing pasted I the first member of a separable verb and the final member cleave I to the other end—then spread the body of the sentence between it out! Usually are for my purposes the bridges of the city long enough; when I but Pötzl’s writings study will I ride out and use the glorious endless imperial bridge. But this is a calumny; Pötzl writes the prettiest German. Perhaps not so pliable as the mine, but in many details much better. Excuse you these flatteries. These are well deserved.

Now I my speech execute—no, I would say I bring her to the close. I am a foreigner—but here, under you, have I it entirely forgotten. And so again and yet again proffer I you my heartiest thanks.

I promise to show you more on this topic later. In the interim enjoy the beer and bratwurst of your local Oktoberfest. Zum Wohl!


3 responses

  1. Zum Wohl! We love Oktoberfest!

  2. > ” . . . His German was grammatically correct, . . .”

    It is highly unlikely that Clemens wrote the German version himself. The speech is very articulate, shows a surprisingly broad range of sophisticated vocabulary and very complex syntax. Clemens’s command of German was far below* the level of expertise that is seen in this speech. Someone must have written (or at least heavily edited) this text for him.
    * An entry in SLC’s notebook for 1898 provides a better sense of what kind of German he was capable of: “Es ist über mein Kraft, das grosse Vergnugen welche mir dies so freundliche Empfangen gibt, in Worte fassen zu können — . . . ich kann nur sagen dass ob ich er verdient habe oder nicht, ich bin Ihnen nichtsdestoweniger aufrichtic dankbar dafür.” Spelling, grammar, and punctuation here are far removed from the quality exhibited in the speech read at the “Festkneipe.” — As Twain said himself: “It’s not good German, but the intention is good — better than the clothes it wears.” [Quotation in Paul Fatout, ed. _Mark Twain Speaking._ Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 1976: 665.]

  3. […] on a piece about the comedian Dana Gould, and still figuring out when I would finish writing about Mark Twain and the German language, when an article in my local newspaper caught my […]

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