The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay aims to preserve the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature. The winner receives a $10,000 prize and will be honored at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony.
To celebrate we’re posting an excerpt from an essay in the memoir called “The Not-So-Awful (Swiss) German Language,” which, we think, illustrates why the book is a finalist for this prestigious award:
The Not-So-Awful (Swiss) German Language
In 1878, Mark Twain toured southern and central Europe, a trip that resulted in his famous fiction/memoir hybrid A Tramp Abroad. It’s one of three travel books and includes as appendix D the most hilarious essay ever written about a foreigner’s struggle to learn a new tongue—“The Awful German Language.” Even if it refers to the particularly overwrought German of the late nineteenth century, many of his complaints remain relevant:
- Too many rules and far too many exceptions to those rules.
- Too many novel-long words that “require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments.”
- Never-ending sentences that, with no reasonable explanation, split verbs in two and withhold half till the bitter end. Depending how long the sentence is, it’s possible to forget there’s an action word on its way. And imagine the United Nations translator who must thrum her fingers, waiting for the longed-for reunion of “was” and “born,” then rush to catch up while dignitaries from other countries have moved on to another subject entirely. Why so complicated? Why not lasso that all-important verb from the hinterland and place it righteously up front, side-by-side with its subject?
Twain sums it up like this: “A gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired.”
Ach, but my blood is a kind of German stone soup: Homanns, Dunkelmeiers, Goldfarbs, Goldmans, and Goldbergs with a few Russians and Poles for good measure, most of them poor, many of them peasants. I imagine them bobbing gently in swim caps and old-fashioned bathing suits, perhaps with a few root vegetables thrown in. My mother’s people mixed with my father’s people, Christian and Jew, intelligent and slow, solemnly stroking toward or away from each other depending on the current. When she cracked a dirty joke, my grandmother switched the punch line to Yiddish. My grandfather muttered, “Ja, ja,” when he didn’t care to engage.
It’s one reason why I took to the language, why I picked up conversational German in under three months at an international boarding school in Switzerland. I liked its exactitude. The ch sound, with tongue pressed against upper palate. Tz zipped through the right and left cuspids. And the wonderful rolling rs when a bit of fun and flourish was called for. Instead of Italian’s romantic breezes and milkweed, German lets us speak in blades, diamond-sharp, flipped and whizzing through the air at supersonic speed. No fluff in sight.
I loved that nouns are capitalized—like a cheat sheet when forced to diagram a sentence. And once you mastered the alphabet, you could sound out any word, unlike the English nightmare of thought, laughter, night, and cough.
I collected what Twain disparaged. Big words were a sign of sophistication, grown-up talk. Here’s an incredibly muscular Word of the Year named by the German Language Society: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, or “Beef Labeling Supervision Delegation Act.” That’s sixty-three letters, no list of exceptions required for perfect pronunciation. It’s so determined, so clear-cut in its authority, so intensely cadenced in a snare drum kind of way, making it the perfect soundtrack for musical chairs or chopping a sausage into bite-sized pieces. Yes sir. Right sir. You either comply or you don’t and suffer the consequences.
And oh, I must disagree with Mr. Twain. Examine the exquisite architecture of German sentences where verbs were sliced up and shuffled about like Scrabble pieces. Not only could you place one section in the center and toss its mate to the end. You could also nestle other verbs nearby or squeeze in a verb-syllable or two to really stretch that thing out. The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote a novella (The Assignment) in twenty-four sentences, each chapter inspired by Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” each sentence running an average of 5.375 pages long before landing a single period. Those were some high-scoring sentences.
As for noun gender, I had to admit there was a problem. Forget English with its all-inclusive “the” and French, which limits gender to le and la, male and female. German employs male, female, and neuter. On top of that der, die, and das do not necessarily follow the obvious category of word, as in das Mädchen, dehumanizing a pretty girl by referring to her as “it.” For example, this snippet of dialogue Twain translated from a German Sunday school book:
GRETCHEN: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
WILHELM: She has gone to the kitchen.
GRETCHEN: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
WILHELM: It has gone to the opera.
Before long, I had to face German Declension, wherein articles, adjectives, nouns, and pronouns themselves change form depending on not just their gender but also their number and position in the sentence, whether nominative, accusative, genitive, or dative, so that the word “regiment” can appear as das Regiment, des Regiments, or die Regimenter. Well, I basically gave up and resorted to mumbling like a mustachioed Australian. Dropped my chin as the article and noun came around and rushed to the end of the sentence with hope in my heart. Most German speakers forgive you the confusion, and the nice ones jump in to help.
My German teacher bought me a little vocab book, schoolgirl blue, designed to fit neatly in the back pocket of my jeans. And though I hated to pause in conversation, not wanting to appear stupid or weak, I referred to it whenever I could.
Note the use of all caps, hopeful bulbous print meant to convey a bigger me. Note the one word I illustrated, der Säufer. No room for pink elephants, though the exploded bubbles (or were they belches?) sufficed. After a night or two of verboten wine, I knew exactly how a drunk felt. Note the words I would never need, or only as an adult, like der Notar, die Taufe, der Witwer. The vocabulary that stuck with me was specific to my age. Only later did I attempt the grown-up stuff.
Even then I made some awful mistakes. You’d think “That is my friend” would translate Das ist mein Freund, right? No, the German construction is more awkward: Das ist ein Freund von mir (That is a friend of mine). The former translates “That is my boyfriend,” a socially slippery slope, depending on whom you are referring to. Alas, I was referring to Tobias Loosli, my first and most devastating crush. Oh, his adorable globe of a face, swept with bangs that roughly matched his windburned cheeks. Stocky is what we might call him now but on skis he floated, drawing a rippled line down the steepest slopes. He was from Ottikon, near Zurich, and his parents were marionetteers. How cool was that? As soon as he slid into my radar my body followed him like a caboose. Flirting with Tobias during the peak of an unusual heat wave I ripped off my jacket and swore, “Scheisse, ich bin heiss!” (Shit, I’m hot!) I could not imagine what he was laughing about, slapping his knees till they burned red. Someone finally whispered, did I really want to admit I was that horny?
No one can argue that German does not contain some of the coolest words and expressions in the world, virtually untranslatable into any other language. Beyond the well-known prince der Weltschmerz and princess die Schadenfreude, and even the slumming Katzenjammer, here are a few I adopted quickly and learned to love.
Keine Angst. No fear, my scaredy-cat. Strong but soothing as if your father were a war hero and stood by you in his olive-green uniform and maybe he is not alive and maybe he is, but if he isn’t, you’ve internalized his reassurance, a tea light glowing inside your solar plexus.
Zimmer. Room. Pure and simple. In origins it mixes easily with timber, and most rooms I slept in were made of wood. But my primary association rests with Hans Zimmer, that ten year old with ice-blue eyes and shiny brown hair who socialized like a horsefly. Picture a bunch of tall guys around a hoop. Uninvited Hansi swoops in to grab the ball and refuses to give it back. Or he’s a poor little Waise with no money from home, down on his knees begging for a bite of your chocolate bar. Go away Hans, bitte. Decades later it occurs to me: This is the same Hans Zimmer whose soundtrack for The Lion King wins an Oscar and Gladiator a Golden Globe. But little Hansi didn’t last long, barely a year before he was shipped off to an even stricter boarding school in England. No one suspected he’d wind up among a handful of internationally famous alum.
Mach doch kein Theater. Quit playacting. Quit pretending the world has come to an end because Tobias is ignoring you. Maybe it feels that way, but catch a view from the outside. No one cares as much as you. My God how you care. Ridiculous. Get over yourself.
And, sandwiched inside that little phrase, the excellent doch. Emphatic, like Er ist doch so blöd (He is so stupid). Or Das war doch Katarina (That was actually Katarina). Versatile, used in various instances as “though,” “after all,” “however,” “yet,” “nevertheless,” “why don’t you,” and trickiest of all, a kind of yes-no response rather like the French si, which doesn’t exist in English. “So are you going or not?” Doch doch (Yes, yes, implying, “Of course I’m going”). Finally, someone might argue Das stimmt nicht! (That’s not true!), provoking the response Doch! Das stimmt! (I beg to differ. It is true!).
Genau. Exactly. Smooth things out. Just what I was thinking. Spoken with little effort to make you sound smart. You knew all along; you’re just confirming the obvious. And in the process you transform the person you are speaking to. He too feels validated and that warms his heart. It’s all good, one little word that might be, in Africa, the name for a swift, striped, gracefully horned animal.
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht: a carol to coax heaven toward earth, but how prickly the sound in German, as if a subtext quietly muttered, Don’t believe it. Like the word Weihnachten, Christmas, when we threw sheets over our winter coats and lay evergreen wreathes on our hair and how they stabbed our scalps, making them itch. In our hands, homemade candles, their aluminum holders threaded with wire and tinsel. We sang like angels, walking single file along the icy road after dark. Hair just long enough to sway into the fire behind and, with a snap, flash up in foul-smelling smoke.
Kuchen, Kirche, Kirsch. As if all three were birthed by one enormously pregnant mother—the first named “cake,” followed by “church,” finally “cherry schnapps.” I knew them as the family of K, words that somehow linked human experience: sweet, Godly, sinful. In my mind their alphabetic similarity was no coincidence: the baker spikes the cake, the church welcomes the lost, the blood of our Savior cures despair.