Humor in Mark Twain’s 'The Awful German Language'

Seminar Paper 2007 20 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Biography

3. Encountering the German language

4. Essay Structure

5. Humor and stylistic devices

6. Impact on success and distinction

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

9. Appendix

1. Introduction

It has been a hundred years since Sigmund Freud, one of the most influential psychologists in history, has suggested that for human nature, humor and wit are tried and tested tools used to cope with conflicts and psychological pressures. In addition, Freud claims that humor is an extremely catching phenomenon that leads to postive emotions and moods making it one of the most important people skills.

The American humorist, lecturer, essayist, satirist and author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was either fully aware of these psychological effects or had a certain distinctive feeling for literary amusement. His unique humor and inimitable genius has made Clemens an American icon who enjoyed immense public acclaim.

Twain’s worldwide fame harkens back to his unique satiric and humorous style. Innumerable works by various authors have been published dealing with Twain’s humor.

In the following paper I am going to analyze Twain’s incomparable and particular usage of humor in his essay The Awful German Language. Therein, Twain uses humor as an instrument to criticize the German language. Without its witty and diversified character the essay would be a provocative and mean accusation. I will support my thesis with the help of additional information about the author’s biography and his first experiences with the German language. To explain my thesis and to understand the author’s concerns it is important to draw these connections. Moreover, I will go into detail about the essay structure to illustrate its critical character and effect. The large amount of stylistic devices that make the essay particularly impressive and remarkable will be parsed and discussed in addition. Eventually, I will comment on the essay’s impact on success and distinction. In doing so, the sustainability of this piece will be explained.

2. Biography

Samuel L. Clemens was born on November 30th in 1835 in a small town in the state of Missouri in an era when the American comic sense was coming to its first full expression1. He spent most of his childhood in Hannibal, a harbor town near the Mississippi. His family consisted of two brothers, one sister and a family-owned slave. The local conditions as well as the slave’s storytelling would later have had enormous influence on Clemens’ literary writings. He had several jobs and worked, among others, as a typesetter, journalist and literary critic at a local newspaper together with his brother who owned various newspapers. In 1857 Clemens left Hannibal and worked as a pilot on a steamboat along the Mississippi. His pen name Mark Twain originates from that particular period date. In the language of boatmen, ‘Twain’ means two fathoms that stands for about 3.7 meters of safe water2. The following years were characterized by several home movings and different jobs for newspapers. By 1863 Clemens officially used his alias and one year later he produced the tale The Jumping Frog of Calavares which first gave him nation-wide fame. Various travels through Europe followed and in 1870 Clemens moved to Connecticut where he married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of an influential industrialist. During that time he worked on many publications and composed his most famous pieces such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which drew on his youth in Hannibal. In 1880 Clemens completed the travel book A Tramp Abroad that details his repeated journeys through Europe and whose appendix is the contemplated essay. Clemens’ major piece, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was finally published in 1884 and is still commonly known as one of the great American novels. The last years of the 19th century were once more characterized by Clemens’ visits to Europe but his lavish lifestyle suddenly changed when his publisher went bankrupt. Thus, Clemens was forced to do various lectur tours. His last years were dramatically influenced by the deaths of his wife and their daughters that also changed his writings. In April 1910 Samuel

L. Clemens died in Redding, Connecticut.

His interest in European countries and their idiosyncrasies are obvious as this abstract about his fulfilled and checkered life illustrates.

Henceforth, I will refer to Clemens’ by his pseudonym Mark Twain while reflecting on literary aspects of his exceedingly fine career.

3. Encountering the German language

Certainly, the question what gave Twain the idea to write about the German tongue must be asked. It is almost impossible to fully answer this question but historical background information help to comprehend his occasions and motivations.

Much earlier, during times of his youth in Hannibal, Twain came in contact with German settlers and immigrants. His excited interest for the German language had largely intensifyed when Twain worked as a journeyman for the local Anzeiger des Westens. This was the largest German language newspaper in the West at that time. Complex features of German but especially this foreign language’s typical compound nouns led to his later efforts to illuminate the German tongue. Decades later Twain planned his first extended journey through Euroupe and seriously learned German.

Desperate efforts characterized his attempts to learn German and he said “it was the beginning of a twenty-year love-hate relationship”.3 Despite all his strain, at the end, Twain never reached a level of proficiency that was satisfactory to him.4 Even within his family circle, the German language played an important role. “German had been part of the family experience ever since his wife Olivia began German lessons in 1871.”5 Twain and his wife also hired German nursemaids for their daughters. These nannies also prepared the family for their German stays and helped them with the complexities of this elusive language. Apparently, German had an enormous impact on Twain and his life and finally was captured largely in his essay The Awful German Language.

Especially the early contact to German settlers and working as a journeyman for the German newspaper awoke Twain’s enthusiams for this language.

4. Essay structure

Mark Twain’s essay The Awful German Language is structured as a typical five paragraph essay and thus, follows a defined format. The first paragraph indicates to the reader the thesis of the essay and gives an idea as to what the essay is about. Effectively, it is the introduction of the short work. Twain starts his essay reporting briefly about his effort and enormous dedication to learn the German language. He presents a certain situation at a German museum where his linguistic competence and abilities regarding his German was noticed and appreciated by the curator. This every day life situation already grabs the reader’s attention and somehow whets the readers appetite for what is coming next.

The main body of the essay begins with the second paragraph. After analyzing the essay I titled the second paragraph ‘Points of criticism or vices’. Here Twain comes up with his strongest arguments and what is more, he substantiates his arguments by presenting extensive aspects concerning the vices of the German language. Beginning the body of the essay by showing several disadvantages of German clearly demonstrates Twain’s provoking attitude and concern. He starts his list of vices with the exceptions of rules. He writes that there are several exceptions for any grammar rule that makes the German language so “slippshod and systemless”6. He continues by criticizing the gender and the random system of irregularity with word gender assignment. The next parts of speech are mentioned and Twain explains his dilemma with these troublesome basic types of words that are never in a regular order. Later, Twain responds to the so called “parenthesis disease”7 and finds fault with the typical German habit of placing certain statements within a sentence. According to him, that certain particularity interrupts the normal syntactical flow and, in the end, leads to great confusion. The pitfall of seperable verbs is another vice Twain explicates in the first body paragraph of the essay.


1 Stuart Hutchinson, Mark Twain. Critical Assessments. Volume IV (Mountfield: Helm Information, 1993) 123.

2 J.R. LeMaster, James D. Wilson, The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993) 166.

3 Norbert Hedderich, “Mark Twain and “The Awful German Language“”, Die Unterrichtspraxis/ Teaching German, 36.1 (2003): 28.

4 Ibid., 28.

5 Holger Kersten. "Mark Twain and the Funny Magic of the German Language", New Directions in American Humor, ed. David E. E. Sloan (Tuscaloosa, 1998) 203.

6 Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”, A Tramp Abroad, (London, 1982) 401.

7 Ibid., 403.


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Martin Luther University – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Mark Twain Humor The Awful German Language



Title: Humor in Mark Twain’s 'The Awful German Language'