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Monday, March 05, 2018

Beauties of the German Language

Guest Blogger Dept.: Mark Twain’s diaries finally have been published in their entirety, and they’re a joy. (At least until you get halfway through the third and final volume, where you’ll bog down in an appendix in which Twain details the perfidy of a pair of employees.) Here’s a delightfully politically incorrect excerpt. The story has been told by many, but rarely so well.


Mark Twain
February 3, Vienna. (1898) Lectured for the benefit of a charity last night, in the Bösendorfersaal. Just as I was going on the platform a messenger delivered to me an envelope with my name on it, and this written under it: “Please read one of these tonight.” Enclosed were a couple of newspaper clippings—two versions of an anecdote, one German, the other English. I was minded to try the German one on those people, just to see what would happen, but my courage weakened when I noticed the formidable look of the closing word, and I gave it up. A pity, too, for it ought to read well on the platform, and get an encore. That or a brickbat, there is never any telling what a new audience will do; their tastes are capricious. The point of this anecdote is a justifiable gibe at the German long word, and is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think. The German long word is not a legitimate construction, but an ignoble artificiality, a sham. It has no recognition by the dictionary, and is not found there. It is made by jumbling a lot of words into one, in a quite unnecessary way, it is a lazy device of the vulgar and a crime against the language. Nothing can be gained, no valuable amount of space saved, by jumbling the following words together on a visiting card: “Mrs. Smith, widow of the late Commander-in-Chief of the Police Department,” yet a German widow can persuade herself to do it, without much trouble:
“Mrslatecommanderinchiefofthepolicedepartment’swidow Smith.” This is the English version of the anecdote:
A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (kotter) provided with covers (lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo Lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte. One day an assassin (attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrotel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotenstrottertrottelmutter, and her assassin takes the name Hottentotenstrottermutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo’s cage—Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter—whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor’s office with beaming face. “I have captured the Beutelratte,” said he. “Which one?” said the mayor; “we have several.” “The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotter-beutelratte.” “Which attentäter are you talking about?” “About the Hottentotenstrotter-trottelmutterattentäter.” “Then why don’t you say at once the Hottentotenstrottelmutter-attentaterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?”
– Mark Twain

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