Monday, August 5, 2019

Twain

I first encountered the work of Mark Twain, like many American students, in high school, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in English class. And while as an adult, I'm grateful for the many classics that I was exposed to during my education, I confess that, unlike Dickens or Poe, I was not inspired enough by what I read in school to read more of Twain's work on my own.

It wasn't until a few years ago, while on vacation near Luzern, Switzerland, that my path unexpectedly intersected that of Mr. Twain's once again. We were hiking on Mt. Rigi-Kulm when, to my surprise, a plaque informed us that we were following in the footsteps of Mark Twain. What I didn't realize at that time was how extensively Twain traveled in Switzerland, or that his chronicles of his European travels, including time spent in Switzerland, were published in A Tramp Abroad. 


"A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is." - Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, Appendix D, "The Awful German Language."
My most recent unexpected encounter with Mark Twain took place while cooking pancakes on a Sunday morning. I had recently discovered an audio book entitled "The Awful German Language," by Mark Twain, which is, it turns out, an appendix to A Tramp Abroad. What non-native speaker of German, living in a German (or Swiss-German) speaking place, can resist a title like that?

However, I quickly abandoned the audio book, which was read by a non-native English speaker, in favor of the ebook, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. As soon as breakfast was over, the Husband (natively bilingual in German/Swiss German and English) and I settled on the sofa to read the appendix aloud (a DIY audiobook, if you will).

I was as delighted with this humorous essay as I was unenthused by Huckleberry Finn as a teen! Twain captures perfectly the stumbling blocks native English speakers encounter in their attempts to learn German. From separable verb forms, to declining adjectives, to gendered words - he skewers everything with such perfect accuracy, and dry wit, that there were times when I couldn't keep reading for laughing, and the Husband was literally F.S.O.S.L (Falling Sideways on the Sofa Laughing, which is much more comfortable than R.O.F.L.).

In discussing the cases (Dative, Accusative, Nominative, Genitive), Twain says:
"Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing 'cases' where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me."
Ah yes. This is familiar territory for me. I actually have a chart on my desk with the various forms of the word "the," because it's not enough to learn the gender of a noun when you learn the word. No, you also have to learn what happens to that article when it's declined. The masculine article "der" becomes "den" in the accusative, "dem" in the dative, and "des" in the genitive. Oh, but that's just singular! In the plural it can be "die" (nominative and accusative), "den" (dative) or "der" (genitive).

The essay concludes with the hilarious "A Fourth of July Oration in the German Tongue, Delivered At a Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students by the Author of this Book." Written in a mixture of German and English, anyone who has ever attempted to communicate in their learned language, only to flounder for a word and throw in some English here and there, will relate.

Find a friend. Read it out loud. I'm betting you'll F.S.O.S.L. or maybe even R.O.F.L.

Having been thoroughly delighted with Appendix D, I'm now looking forward to reading the rest of A Tramp Abroad, with particular interest in Twain's Swiss travels, since I can see from the index that he also spent a great deal of time in one of my other favorite places, Zermatt.

Walking in the footsteps of Mark Twain along the top of Mt. Rigi, near Luzern.
photo copyright Elisabeth Norton, 2014 / all rights reserved


1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your new blog adventure, Elisabeth! And yes, Twain, is spot on in his assessment of the complexities (understatement) in learning German, Swiss or otherwise. My sister read "A Tramp Abroad" and raved about it. It is on my To Be Read list. Love your pic, too! =)

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