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10 quotes that get to the heart of the German language

The Local Germany
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10 quotes that get to the heart of the German language
A German dictionary stands on a shelf. How do you feel about learning the language? Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Oliver Berg

The German language divides opinion - even among Germans. Is it caring and romantic, or hard and aggressive? Here are 10 erudite opinions on the tongue of Goethe that shed some light on the debate.


1. "When one is polite in German, one lies."

In Goethe's Faust, Part Two, a character named "the Bachelor" is seen making fun of the devil Mephistopheles's bald head.

"Your bald head is worth nothing more than those empty ones there," he says.

"Don't you understand how rude you are?" replies Mephistopheles, to which the Bachelor replies: "when one is polite in German, one lies."

While clearly a comedic line, Goethe was perhaps making a point that the beauty of German is its bluntness.

Portrait of Goethe by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

2. "It describes things that have no name in English."

“Things could be brought into being that had no name in English - Weltanschauung, Schadenfreude, Sippenhaft, Sonderweg, Scheissfreundlichkeit, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.”

This is what Australian writer Anna Funder said about learning German, in an article for the Guardian. She added that her parents were somewhat confused at her decision to start to learn the "language of the enemy".


There is no one single word translation, but we reckon we could have a good crack at these German words: world view, joy at another's misery, collective punishment, special way, crappy friendliness, coming to terms with the past.

Schadenfreude or Scheissfreundlichkeit? Photo: Kurt Bauschardt / Flickr Creative Commons.

3. "A young lady has no sex, but a turnip has."

“In German, a young lady [das Mädchen] has no sex, but a turnip [die Rübe] has.” American writer Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he highlighted the peculiarities of the language.

In German every noun is assigned one of three "genders": masculine, feminine, and neuter. While it may seem strange that a turnip became feminine noun, and a young lady is neuter - it is due to the fact that all diminutive nouns (with the ending -chen) are neuter.

Mark Twain also wrote an essay entitled The Awful German Language, about the struggles native English speakers have when learning German.  

Photo: DPA

4. "German is only romantic if you have a past in it."

“When people say that German or any other language is romantic...all they really mean is that they've enjoyed a past in the language.” Another American author, John Irving, on the truth behind calling German a romantic language.

A couple of romantic Germans? Photo: DPA

5: A language of "angry, angry poetry"

"The German language is so sonorous, isn't it? Beautiful language...the language of poetry. Angry, angry poetry." British comedian John Oliver reflected on how many people probably view German.


6. "Life is too short to learn German."

Richard Porson, an 18th century classics scholar, on why German really might not be worth learning after all - and that is coming from someone who read Latin and Ancient Greek for a living!

This guy is definitely not learning German. Photo: Good Free Photos/Tim Boganov

7. Learning German is "what eternity was made for."

A very similar sentiment came from the lips of Mark Twain who said that he “never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”

We are guessing he never got his C2 certificate from the Goethe Institute, or not in this life at any rate.

Mark Twain. Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

8. "The entire language is threatening."

“[If I want] to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, [I speak] in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement". These words were attributed to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, who would often have to speak many different languages in his courts.

He supposedly also said that if he wants to talk with God, he speaks Spanish, if he wants to speak with friends, he speaks Italian, and if he wants to flirt, he speaks French.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

9. "No German knows what he actually wants to say."

"[Germans] think that they're profound because their language is unclear; they lack the clarity of the French language, and it never conveys what it should, which means that no German knows what he actually wanted to say."

Italian writer Umberto Eco was very clear about what he saw as the lack of clarity in the German language in his novel The Prague Cemetery. We're not sure how many people agree with this sentiment.

10. It might be hard, but it's still more logical than English

“The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary,” eminent cartoonist Dave Kellett reflected on why you probably have already come across quite a bit of German.



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