The Awful German Language

Since I stole his title, I might as well plug his work: probably my favorite of Mark Twain’s writings that doesn’t involve little boys and rivers.

In the past 24 hours, multiple people have told me that I speak the best German of any American they’ve met. That’s insane, and means either that my German has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few days (unlikely) or that they need to get our more and meet some truly linguistically inclined Americans (much more likely). But what’s really struck me is how Germans frame their praise. It’s almost always the same: “Du machst fast keine Fehler.” You make almost no mistakes.

In America, when we judge someone’s English-speaking ability, we tend to say things like, “She speaks haltingly,” or “He’s got some awkward turns of phrase,” or “She doesn’t have a great command of idiom.” Mistakes don’t usually factor in that much. That’s because English is a pretty flexible language with forgiving grammar: extremely loose syntax, nonexistent case or gender, limited conjugation. (The trickiest thing about English is probably its spelling, which most Americans are no good at anyway.) In German, on the other hand, there are pretty much two ways to say a sentence: the right way and the wrong way. And the right way is prescribed by so many rules, and requires so much thinking ahead — you can’t really start a sentence if you don’t know how it’s going to end — that it takes quite a bit of thought to accomplish.

That’s why most of the praise I receive is tempered by, “I mean, you talk pretty slowly.” Because in order to make “keine Fehler,” I really have to think about every construction — not only the one I’m currently wrapping my tongue around, but also the ones lurking in the back of my mind.

Last month, there was a piece in The New York Times about the question of whether language shapes how people think. The long and short of it is, for much of the twentieth century, there was something of an intellectual fad that said that some cultures with different linguistic structures were unable to grasp some of our most basic concepts because they expressed them so differently. It’s been pretty well refuted, but now scientists are reconsidering the ways in which language shapes a person’s thought. Gender, for instance, plays a role in how people think about everyday objects. Studies have shown that Germans tend to think thinks like bridges (die Brücke — feminine) have a more feminine quality than Spanish speakers do (el puente — masculine).

I’d also hazard to guess that Germans take a more comprehensive analytical approach to their thinking in general, simply because they’re so accustomed to it when they speak, while English speakers follow more linear patterns of thought. (I know, I’m treading on thin ice again, but bear with me.) Germans have a reputation for expecting their listeners or readers to “think along with them” — to fill in the gaps and understand the details by first grasping the big picture. This follows directly from the language, where one doesn’t really understand what a sentence is saying until it’s done (since the most important words usually come at the end). English, on the other hand, is far more linear. One discrete thought follows another, without much need to think so far ahead.

I’ve been struck by the implications this has for journalism. In America, the “inverted pyramid” is holy — you start with the most important stuff and work your way down through the details. In Germany, though — a country whose language often saves the verb and the negator and other key words for the end — it’s common to start out with something pretty unrelated to the central idea of the story. I’m often frustrated when I’m reading an article to find that three or four paragraphs in, I still have no idea what it’s about. (And, of course, it doesn’t help that my German’s not as good as some of the locals seem to think.) I’ve heard Germans refer to the inverted pyramid derisively, and even tie it to Americans’ impatience for the written word, their desire to get a quick overview of the key facts on their Blackberrys or Google Readers and then move on to the next task.

Anyway, that’s my on-the-fly (in typical American style) analysis of the German language. For a satirical one, check out Twain.

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