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Mark twain essay on the english language

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

Background[ edit ] Twain made his first unsuccessful attempt to learn German in 1850 at age fifteen. He resumed his study 28 years later in preparation for a trip to Europe.

  1. For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet.
  2. Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected.
  3. Then you blandly say also, and load up again. Every time a German opens his mouth an also falls out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to get out.
  4. Now observe the Adjective. And of course, the other meaning of twain that might be mentioned is its use as an acronym in computers, standing for "Technology Without An Interesting Name".
  5. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him.

Upon his arrival in Germany, the fruit of this recent scholarship was attested to in the advice of a friend: Some of these people may understand English. Gunnar Magnusson describes the work as "Twain's most famous philological essay".

  • Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six -- and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that;
  • A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither;
  • You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name of a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning out of it.

This allows for an analysis in linguistic weight assigned to various typological and stylistic aspects of language which revolve around the difference between an analytic language like English with a language like German that is a synthetic language with some analytic characteristics.

Twain emphasizes these changes through interlinear translationa manner of translation which tries to preserve the original language without context and in a literal manner, and this method emphasizes the mechanics of the language translated.

One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions. The inflections within the language are used to represent both syntax and semantics, and function is assigned in hard to grasp ways, which combine with Twain's claim about exceptions being rather common in the German language.

Part of this stems from the language's word order, along with gender, number, and other linguistic aspects, being connected to the morphology of individual words.

Twain plays with the differences in natural or sexual gender and linguistic or grammatical gender by pointing out that the German for girl is grammatically neuter, unlike many sexless items such as turnips: There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book.

In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.

The Awful German Language

Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. The problem with the linguistic gender is that it appears to make sense in theory, but it operates in an illogical manner. When Twain translates the "Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate", he expresses feelings of anger that result from his attempt to learn the language: Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and oh the Mud, how deep he is!

  • So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand;
  • So is the text "Shania".

Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye. And it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm.

  • That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject -- the length of German words;
  • Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that?
  • I say to myself, "Regen rain is masculine -- or maybe it is feminine -- or possibly neuter -- it is too much trouble to look now;
  • I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man's signature -- not necessary, but pretty;
  • Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl;
  • Background[ edit ] Twain made his first unsuccessful attempt to learn German in 1850 at age fifteen.

German is not special in this manner, but, as the linguist Guy Deutscher observes, it was simply the language that Twain was learning at the time of the work. Many other languages contain some or all of the idiosyncrasies that Twain pokes fun at, including French, Russian, and Latin.