"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Saturday, 6 April 2013

On German Words

  Mark Twain's views on race, nationality and class were typical of his time. That is, they are largely unacceptable today.   But the skill of his writing and the fact that he lived over a hundred years ago make those things to some extent forgivable.  Take, for example, his view on the German tendency to string words together  -

    “These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page — and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock.”
- Mark Twain 1880


  1. My views on race, nationality and class are definitely not the same as Mark Twain's, however, I hate (and yes I'm deliberately using a strong word) the way Germans happily run nouns together into exceedingly long unintelligible words.

    While most of my day-to-day work resolves around processing English language documents, I have had to deal with German texts in the past (my ability to speak and read German is rather limited) and this compounding of wards is a real pain. It's especially annoying as there are cases where the word ordering doesn't matter and some where it really does. It's bad enough with everyday German texts but when you start processing medical reports it becomes slightly more difficult (the words are rarer) yet an awfully lot more important to get it right.

  2. Scriptor,
    A delightful quote; well done! Only a wordsmith, someone who lives inside words - and a wordsmith with a sense of humour, yet -could have written so warmly and affectionately of words (that really do have lives of their own!). And this one is a collector with his own "word-hoard" - a memorable phrase from the extant fragments of "The Wanderer" (translation by Michael Alexander). Twain's images are brilliant: words are capricious, they change meanings despite our best efforts to keep them singular, they defy us "to get it right" despite our best efforts, they elude and allude, they trick, amuse, and pain. They communicate, mis-communicate, astonish and astound - and sometimes abandon us entirely - perhaps a good thing - for there are times when we should be silent. Words themselves largely go unheralded, and we depend on them utterly. I wouldn't think that race, nationality, and /or class have much to do with the extract at all. What an image: words as alphabetical processions! Of course they are - in any language (and Twain wouldn't have missed that fact). And think of the grand processions we make of them in English, lining up letters into units called "adjectives" (for instance) to generate pomp and circumstance as occasion demands, or as we think it demands, and then turning those processions into poems and - blogs (among other things).
    Just saying . . ..
    Take care,

  3. As a German, I may be entitled to comment on this post, too :-)
    Of course, to me this was just perfectly normal all my life, and I never thought much about it until Steve came over from England to live with me and marry me. He was often baffled at the length of our words, and made it a fun little game to find really long ones. A favourite we came across one day was Immatrikulationsbescheinigung, but there are so many more, I can imagine Mark Twain's collection to have been rather large!
    (By the way, I love Mark Twain's writing. Not that long ago, I posted a review of one of his lesser known books on my blog.)

    1. I had to look that up, of course - "confirmation of enrollment" was what Google trans;late came up with. GB and I learned some long ones many, many years ago. The only one I can recall now are Arbeitslosenunterstützung - unemployment benefit (an appropriate one with so many unemployed nowadays!).

  4. 'Arbeitslosenunterstützung'. Ah yes. Such fond memories. My other favourite was 'staatsangehoerigkeit' (which is odd given my views on nationalism). Having recently finished Twain's The American Claimant and renewed my acquaintanceship with the beauty of his wordcraft (spillchuicker didn't like that one) I really appreciated this quote.