26 January 2016

The “Awful German Language” or How to Remove your Pickelhaube

The following was originally written for my English for Scientists class at the Leibniz Institute in Potsdam for doctoral students. Enjoy.

The following is just my opinion, and should be taken with good humor. However, it is worthwhile for you to consider as students of writing in English. When Germans start to write in English, there are certain habits they keep from how they learned to write in German. This is natural. Nonetheless what may seem like good style to a German will not be appreciated by an English speaker. Instead, it can be very frustrating and annoying.

In the English-speaking world, a very different style is considered better than in the German-speaking world. When Germans write in English — and their Germanness is plainly obvious — and I have to proofread and correct it, I call it “removing the Pickelhaube” from the text.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the culture clash that results from this difference in style than the classic text The Awful German Language by Mark Twain. In that article, the famous American author and satirist savagely (but hilariously) described German grammar.1 He wrote:

There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed [sic] in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose [sic] three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

This shows the kind of frustration that an English speaker feels when reading a text that is opaque and hard to understand, especially when it comes from a German trying to write German in English. (It is worth noting that modern 21st century editors would heavily criticize even Mark Twain’s 19th century text for being too complicated and not simple enough.)

My observation is that German writers and readers want and expect a kind of intellectual fireworks. It goes like this: If the text is ornate, complex, and elaborate, then the content is also more highly valued. I see it all the time in popular German newspapers and magazines, from Die Zeit to Der Spiegel to Der Tagesspiegel to any given literary or scientific publication. The contrast with English could hardly be greater: The English-speaking world by and large prefers a purely pragmatic, utilitarian, simple style. English texts should be clear, simple, easy to understand: These are the hallmarks of good writing in English, whether scientific, journalistic, or creative.

We must always remember this basic law of writing — you are not writing for yourself, but for your audience. Your readers will probably not be fellow Germans, but English speakers from all over the world. They will be both native and non-native speakers, with all sorts of reading levels. These poor souls may struggle to understand your “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein”, no matter how much effort you may have put into your rhetorical flourishes. Thus you are doing your readers a great service by keeping your text as simple and direct as possible. They will thank you for it.

So how do you do it? What are some signs of Pickelhauben in your text? Here are a few examples:

Run-on sentences. If you have a sentence that contains more than one complete thought — or worse, many — then you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text. Try to keep your sentences short and sweet. Avoid running sentences together with commas, colons, semicolons, or (God forbid) parenthesis. A “complete thought” is generally said to contain one subject and one verb. If your sentence contains more than one of each, it is probably a run-on sentence.

Long paragraphs. A paragraph generally should have one “main idea” and move on to the next paragraph, rather than try to cover too much ground. If your paragraphs take up whole columns and pages, you probably have a Pickelhaube staring you in the face.

Inverted or convoluted sentence order. German is a very flexible language thanks to its complex sentence structure — which is what made Mark Twain tear out his hair trying to understand it. For better or “wurst”, English can’t do anywhere near the kind of varied sentence order and structure that German can. So don’t even try. While you should vary sentence order a little, straying too far from the basic Subject-Verb-Object is usually not a good idea. If most of your sentences don’t follow SVO order, you probably have yet more Pickelhauben in your text.

Mangled prefixes and suffixes. This is a curse for anyone learning English. As one good example, is it “economic policy” or “economical policy”? (It’s “economic”.) For some reason, Germans love to add the suffix “-al” to adjectives ending in “-ic” where the German equivalent is “-isch”. If you have a lot of adjectives ending in doubled-up prefixes or suffixes like “-ical”, you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text.

Gender-specific language. While German values, even requires, naming the gender of the subject — der Lehrer/die Lehrerin — English absolutely tries to avoid it. At one time the feminine ending “-ess” was common and is on rare occasions still used (such as “hostess”), but today should be avoided. Thus steward/stewardess is frowned upon; flight attendant is preferred. Mailman is considered hopelessly sexist; mail carrier is now the “correct” term. Chairman is disliked; chairperson or even just chair is now the norm. In some style manuals, however, sometimes gender does slip through — so you may come across chairwoman — and in some cases simple tradition has preserved older forms, like Congressman/Congresswoman. Still, the trend in the English-speaking world is definitely towards a truly gender-neutral language. You are on the safer side if you avoid gender-specific terms, especially the gendertyping suffix “-ess”, in your writing altogether. On occasion I have seen German writers insist on using gender-specific terms (a favorite was “professoress”). Don’t.

Misuse of the genitive. Germans often try to literally translate the German genitive case into English, such as die Wohnung meines Freundes is translated as “the apartment of my friend”. This is very awkward in English. Instead, English speakers prefer to simply use the apostrophe S for the possessive case, like “my friend’s apartment”. This applies even when it is a double possessive, like “my friend’s apartment’s windows”.

Misuse of the reflexive. German has many reflexive verbs, like sich denken. English, by contrast, generally does not. Thus when a German says “I think myself that this is correct English”, he or she is wrong. The correct form would simply be “I think that this is correct English.” To think to oneself means you think something and keep it to yourself, that is, you don’t tell anyone. Thus “I think to myself that this is correct English” means you don’t actually say it aloud. Similarly, in English you comb your hair, you brush your teeth, and so on — no “self” is needed. “I remember me/myself” is just such a typical mistake. As a rule of thumb, if the German verb uses sich, a reflexive pronoun won’t be needed in English, but if it uses the dative mir/dir/Ihnen, it probably does.

Confusing adverbs and adjectives. In German, adverbs and adjectives can often be used interchangeably, but in English, there is a critical difference. If the word describes or modifies a noun, it is an adjective. If it describes or modifies a verb, it is an adverb. Many adverbs can be identified by the ending “-ly”, as most adjectives can be turned into an adverb simply by adding the “-ly” ending. Thus the sentence “she slammed the door angry” is incorrect; the proper form is “she slammed the door angrily”. We know the adverb angrily describes the verb, bceause it tells us how she slammed the door. Slam is the verb, angrily describes that verb, hence it needs the -ly ending.

Wordiness. The German language is like a highly versatile toolkit of roots, prefixes, and suffixes, with limitless possibilities for new words. That means that German, much more than English, can come up with a new word on the spot and still be understood: Grundgesetz, Vergegenwärtigung, Rentenversicherungsträger, Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitänsgesellschaft. German also loves arcane abbreviations and acronyms much more than English: Kripo, StVO, KaDeWe, Pkw, PS, Hbf, MfG. The problem is that English just doesn’t work very much like that. Where Germans are used to (and expect) long words, technical terms, and obscure jargon, English readers are not. German writers in English therefore often use (or worse, invent) large words and obscure terms that English speakers would rarely choose. If there is a simpler term for what you mean, try to use it. Meanwhile if your vocabulary sounds like you swallowed a thesaurus covered in a sticky Wikipedia sauce, you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text.

Overuse or misuse of commas. Comma rules in English are quite different from those in German. A typical German comma error would be to write “I think, that…” where an English speaker would never use a comma. German generally uses commas to split phrases, but English generally only uses them in lists or to mark independent clauses (an “independent clause” is different from a phrase or dependent clause in that it contains a complete thought, i.e. a subject and a verb).

Overuse or misuse of prepositions. Prepositions in English are a minefield for Germans learning the language. A preposition often modifies the meaning of the verb, sometimes quite drastically. “To knock” means (an-)klopfen, “to knock up” is American slang for “to get someone pregnant”. The sentence “I’m dressing up to go for a run” may seem OK, until you realize that “to dress up” in English means to wear fancy clothing. (The correct form would be “to get dressed”.)

False friends. There are many cases of “false friends” (the proper term is “false cognates”) in German and English. Some of the worst offenders are the verb “to become” (which means werden, not bekommen), “eventually” (possibly, not eventuell), “actual” (wirklich, not aktuell), “delicate” (empfindlich or zerbrechlich, not delikat), “irritate” (reizen, not irritieren), or “objective” (as an adjective, it means sachlich or gegenständlich; as a noun, it means Ziel, not Objektiv, which in English is a lens). There are many, many others.2 Whenever a German says “I am becoming some food”, English speakers wonder if a hungry tiger is lurking nearby.

Mangled prepositions. “Different than” or “different from”? “Since” or “for”? Whenever you use a preposition, keep in mind that you can’t assume that the English “equivalent” to a German preposition is the right one. Chances are it is actually wrong. For example, “seit vielen Jahren”, translated into English, is not “since many years”, but “for many years”. Similarly, “anders als” is not “other as”, but “other than”.

Invented English terms and malapropisms. A famous example of a German “loan word” from English is das Handy. The problem is that no one in the UK or USA calls a mobile telephone a “handy”. Ever. (Americans call it a “cellphone”, the British call it a “mobile”.) In fact the word “handy” in English is never used as a noun. Another example is the bizarre das Basecap, which in “real” English is “baseball cap” or “ballcap” and never “basecap”. There are other examples of this. Beware of using “English” words you know from German. If you do use one, you probably have a Pickelhaube in your text.

A great example of this last point is this gloriously awful text written by a Japanese author, who clearly believed he or she was writing impeccable English. It is so terrible that I memorized it. It goes like this: When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor. No doubt this person congratulated himself or herself on their efforts, but it is a disaster worthy of the Titanic — even though technically it is grammatically correct.3 You can avoid making such a fool of yourself simply by keeping it simple.

Love your Pickelhaube

None of this is means German is a bad language. In no way do I mean to criticize German or the way it is used. German is a wonderful language that I greatly enjoy using, as is English.

However, just like American football and soccer are both wonderful sports that are related and share a common ancestor, it would make little sense to play soccer using the rules of American football. Like those two sports, German and English are closely related and share a common ancestor (Indo-European), but they are still quite different. Thus I invite you to love your Pickelhaube and be proud of it, but it may be a good idea to not wear it when you venture into the Anglosphere. I would be happy to give you a ballcap.


2 See http://german.about.com/library/blfalsef.htm for lots more examples and a quiz.

3 Many more such — ahem — monuments to overly exuberant English may be found on http://www.engrish.com/.