Mark Twain’s love-hate relationship with the German language is well-known, but often misunderstood. After the author visited Germany in 1878 — Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, the Black Forest —, he wrote the book, “A Tramp Abroad,” with the now-famous appendix, “The Awful German Language”. Here, Twain gripped with the confusing gender of nouns, long-long sentences and long-long-long words.
This is why many people believe that Twain did not like German, let alone spoke it. Nothing could be more untrue. He even wrote his visa application himself; in German (sort of): “Geborn 1835; 5 Fuss 8 ½ inches hoch; weight doch eher about 145 pfund, sometimes ein wenig unter, sometimes ein wenig oben; dunkel braun Haar und rhotes Moustache, full gesicht, mit sehr hohe Oren und leicht practvolles strahlenden Augen und ein Verdammtes gut moral character, Handlungkeit: Author von Bücher.”
We know this from the recent book, “A Tramp in Berlin,” which is about Twain’s second visit to Germany in 1891. Here, Twain gushes about Germans, and Berliners in particular for being organized. Berlin, he wrote, “seems to be the most governed city in the world, but one must admit that it also seems to be the best governed. It has a rule for everything, and puts the rule in force; puts it in force against the poor and powerful alike, without favor or prejudice.” He noted that: “The streets are very clean. They are kept so—not by prayer and talk and the other New York methods, but by daily and hourly work (… ) this is a city government which seems to stop at no expense where the public convenience, comfort, and health are concerned.”
He also lauded the postal service. “The name of a remote village, mis-spelt & illegibly written can baffle it for a while but not for long; the letter travels swiftly, here & there & everywhere, applying at all sorts of villages in all sorts of regions, till it hits the right place. There seems to be no red tape, no standing on quibbles, anywhere.” Generally, Berlin’s infrastructure seemed to be a far cry from today’s Berlin airport troubles. “There are no telegraph poles, no telephone poles, no electric light poles in Berlin. These insane & exasperating & perilous objects are wholly absent. (…) The electric light wires are under the ground, & the others are in the sky & out of the way. (…) Telegraphing is very cheap & the service is so prompt & so excellent in every way that one doubts that this can be the same vehicle that is used by the Western Union gravel trains. The telephone service here is also excellent. I would like to compare it with ours, if we had one.” So, Twain was wildly in love with the city and how it ran things. “Berlin is a wonderful city”, he wrote. “I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.”
And we’re back at his pet peeve! Twain even gave lectures in Berlin on that “desperate language,” where they “hitch a cattle-train of words together & vestibule it, & because there isn’t a break in it from one end to the other they think that is concentration & and they call it so. An officer gave me this word the other day—got it out of a navel handbook: ‘Marine-intendant-undersecretariats-applicant.’ Great SCOTT!”
But Twain was not driven by making fun of the German language, much rather, he wanted to get it up to code right with the postal service and street cleaning. America’s great humorist saw himself as a teacher who expected Germans to take “The Awful German Langague” to heart. But they did not, as he found out. “I tried my level best to improve it & simplify it for these people—& this is the result”, he complained in Berlin. “It hurts me to know that that chapter is not in any of their text books & they don’t use it in the University. If I could get an imperial decree it would help the reform along.”
Of course, he did not get a decree either. So, did he have any impact at all, if not with the language? In fact, he did. Been interviewed by a local reporter, he complained that Berlin taxed visitors, but not dogs (he disliked barking dogs), Why, this is different in Berlin today! Dogs are taxed, but tourists aren‘t. As for the language, Twain had his beloved wife Livy’s gravestone in Elmira, NY, engraved in German. Gott sei dir gnädig, O meine Wonne! (God be merciful unto you, Oh my Joy!). Well to the point.