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Fun with German

Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that the process is a mixture of excitement and discouragement, fun and frustration, and is ultimately plenty of hard work. I realize that most of my French and German students are a "captive audience" — they have a language requirement for whatever they are actually majoring in. Depending on their major, the requirement is anywhere from one semester to four semesters. My goal is to make the process as enjoyable and rewarding as possible for my students, mixing in enough humor and fun to make the necessary work less tedious, and to make some of the linguistic oddities stick in the students' minds.

When you learn another language, you learn things about your own language — things you probably would never learn any other way. I love to witness a student's realizing he or she finally understands things studied in English classes for years. It's not uncommon for someone to say, "So that is what a direct object is!" or "Oh, yeah, subject-verb agreement!" 🙂

This summer I am spending lots of time with German since I'll resume teaching that language this fall. Picking it up again after not using it much in recent years has reminded me of some of the things I enjoy most about German. Today's post pokes fun at several of those things. I've put some fairly technical stuff in this post, but stay with me — I think you'll enjoy it, even if grammar isn't on your top ten list of fun stuff to do.

I'll start off with a joke. If you've studied German, you will get it right away. If you haven't, the explanation follows.

    An American businessman goes into negotiations with a German company. The company sends over a representative, who speaks no English. The American businessman speaks no German. So he hires an interpreter. The conference goes smoothly until, at one point, the interpreter stops translating as the German is still speaking.

    The American gets impatient and asks the interpreter, "Why aren't you translating?"

    The interpreter answers, "I'm waiting for the verb."

Here's the explanation for those who have never studied German:

The syntax of German is such that the whole verb or at least part of the verb often comes last in a sentence ... I'll spare you the details. And believe me, Germans love long sentences! Such a sentence would go something like this (The verb is bolded and the subject underlined):

Sie war am 27. März, in Frankfurt am Main, zu ihrem Vater, ein Künstler und ehemaliger Student bei der Universität in Heidelberg, wo er Naturwissenschaft studiert hatte, und ihrer Mutter, eine Lehrerin bei der Schule für die Begabten in Mainz, geboren.

Here's a literal translation: She was on March 27th in Frankfurt am Main to her father, an artist and former student at Heidelberg University, where he science studied had, and to her mother, a teacher in a school for the gifted in Mainz born.

Now in normal English: She was born on March 27th in Frankfurt am Main to her father, an artist and formerly a student at Heidelberg University where he had studied science, and to her mother, a teacher in a school for the gifted in Mainz.

Mark Twain thoroughly loved poking fun at the German language. Here's a great quotation from Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court:

"Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him until he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."


Another feature about German that I love is the ability to form and use "extended attribute phrases" — noun phrases that can include prepositional phrases, adjectives, verbal constructions, and more. These are used mostly in scholarly literature or in both written and spoken journalism because of the conciseness possible, enabling the writer or speaker to avoid relative clauses. While these phrases come across as perfectly normal in German, when translated literally into English, they produce some very funny sounding results to our English way of thinking ... something like "the up to her knees in mud standing cow." Here are several I saw recently in print:

"die alte, schon seit vielen Jahren an Rheumatismus leidende Dame" (literally: the old already for many years from rheumatism suffering lady)

"die noch zu Anfang des Kurses relativ kleinen, aber doch merklichen Verständigungsschwierigkeiten" (literally: the still at the beginning of the course relatively small but nevertheless noticeable communication difficulties)


Dave Morrah, who wrote humorous articles and cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post was perhaps best known for his mock German style of writing, using mostly English, but making it sound German. Here are several nursery rhymes he rewrote in that style in various books in the 1950's, such as Tales Mein Grossfader Told

Fraulein Bo-Peepen ben losen der sheepen
Und puzzlen mit der gelooken.
Later der sheepen ben homen gecreepen
Mit tailers behinder geshooken

Jack der Spratt ben liken lean
Der frau ben liken fat
Und mit der up-gerisen cost
Der bankenroll ben flat!

Taking a small departure from that thought...

Compound words are no stranger to speakers of English. For example, the room where we bathe is a bathroom. (So what, pray tell, is a mushroom?) The tendency to make compound words comes from the German parentage of the English language. Romance languages tend to use prepositional phrases. For example, bathroom in French is la salle de bains (literally: the room of baths). Some German compounds are simply wonderful! For example, in German gloves are Handschuhe (hand shoes). When one of our children was learning to talk, we thought we might be raising a German child. One day, said child was upset to have dirt on the "hand elbow." Another time that child saw a tiger horse at the zoo. Any way, back to some fun German...

In English, we do not carry compounding to the extreme that German does. In German, you can keep adding words to the compound noun, making it longer and longer. For example:

die Gesellschaft (company)
die Versicherungsgesellschaft (insurance company)
die Autoversicherungsgesellschaft (car insurance company)

And so on it could go....

Well, Dave Morrah wrote some great stuff to poke fun at German long compound words. Here are some of my favorites:







Dogcatcher's truck—Barkenpantensniffersnatcherwagon

Garage for truck—Barkenpantensniffersnatcherwagonhaus

Truck repairman—Barkenpantensniffersnatcherwagonhausmechanikerworker



Piano recital—Plinkenplankenplunkenboxgepounderoffengeshowenspelle

Fathers at the recital—Plinkenplankenplunkenboxgepounderoffengeshowenspellensnoozengruppe

Mothers at the recital—Plinkenplankenplunkenboxgepounderoffengeshowenspellensnoozengruppenuppenwakers


As I mentioned earlier, Mark Twain delighted in poking fun at the German language. Here's his take on long German compound nouns, from his autobiography. (The usage of "stupid and stuttering children"was Twain's, and it really does nothing for the story, other than to show some of the culture at the time he wrote. I'm not going to alter Twain's writings, as others have deemed necessary, to bow to today's political correctness.)

Beauties of the German Language (1898)
(with a few minor adjustments for linguistic accuracy, by yours truly)

A Dresden paper, the Weidmann, which thinks that there are kangaroos (Beutelratte) in South Africa, says the Hottentots (Hottentoten) put them in cages (Kotter) provided with covers (Lattengitter) to protect them from the rain. The cages are therefore called Lattengitterwetterkotter, and the imprisoned kangaroo Lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte.

One day an assassin (Attentäter) was arrested who had killed a Hottentot woman (Hottentotenmutter), the mother of two stupid and stuttering children in Strättertrottel. This woman, in the German language is entitled Hottentotensträttertrottelmutter, and her assassin takes the name Hottentotensträttertrottelmutterattentäter. The murderer was confined in a kangaroo's cage - Beutelrattenlattengitterwetterkotter - whence a few days later he escaped, but fortunately he was recaptured by a Hottentot, who presented himself at the mayor's office with beaming face. "I have captured the Beutelratte," said he.

"Which one?" said the mayor; "we have several."

"The Attentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte."

"Which Attentäter are you talking about?"

"About the Hottentotensträttertrottelmutterattentäter."

"Then why don't you say at once the Hottentotensträttertrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte?"


Have you ever studied German? How was your experience?


"It's not the rules that keep us pure; it's our connection to God." — Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

I suffer from two phobias:
1. Phobiaphobia, the fear that you're unable to get scared, and
2. Xylophataquieopiaphobia, the fear of not pronouncing words correctly.

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10 Comments on “Fun with German”

  1. #1 Carol Ramsey Pantele
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Sadly, I don’t remember much Deutsch from my 2 years of HS classes. I do have fond memories of the class though!

  2. #2 Valerie Coffman
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I have never taken German, but my brother is fluent and lives in Munich (MĂĽnchen) now. I am always amazed, when I hear him speak German, how much I can understand just because many of the sounds are so similar!

  3. #3 Tony
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I sometimes tell people that I learned German out of self-defense, since my grandparents and an aunt often spoke it, especially when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. I had 4 years of German in high school and 2 years in college. I was briefly married to a woman who spoke German as her first language, and we spoke German at home. It was this last experience that really helped me to become more fluent in the language, to the point that I’ve dreamt in German, I occasionally talk to myself in German, and I have accidently spoken German to colleagues after having been listening to it or reading it.

    Now that we have the Internet, there is so much more material that is readily available, especially German television for learners of all ages! I regularly watch children’s TV in German with my own grandchildren (as well as speaking it to them), and they have learned to understand quite a bit!

    I continue to be amazed by the differences between German and US culture. In particular, I’m surprised at the things that Germans DON’T find offensive or inapproriate, even for children.

    I’m also a bit discouraged at times that I don’t have many adults that I can speak it with anymore – I’m keeping it active mainly with reading and TV.

  4. #4 Sara Griggers
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Loved this post, Mr. Loach, especially the Dave Morrah bits. Hilarious! It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 12 years since I lived in Munich. Thanks for the laugh this morning 🙂

  5. #5 Michael
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    This may the best post of yours I’ve read! Highly entertaining and educational at the same time. It’s interesting how a language reflects the culture. German seems so logical especially the way compound words are made. But, then, the length of those words seems so impractical.

    I often make fun of the German language in my teaching just to make it more interesting for the students. Basically I say that to say German words you have sound angry and like your have drainage in your throat. Unkind, I know.

  6. #6 Miriam
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Ha! That was classic.
    I work at the Atlanta Bread company, and I always have to suppress a grin when ESL customers from a language (such as German, Bulgarian, etc.) that tends to substitute a “W” for the English “V” come in and order a veggie sandwich… 🙂

  7. #7 Michael
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I am in Germany as I read this. I shared it with my German friends, and we had a good laugh together. Vielen Dank! 🙂

  8. #8 Carrie
    on May 23rd, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I sat with a big grin in my face while reading, and an occasional burst of laughter. Miriam’s comment is a gem too. Thanks for the laughs. :o)

  9. #9 Joel
    on May 25th, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Here’s the full story (tongue twister)

    Wie ihnen vielleicht bekannt sein dürfte, gibt es im Hottentottenlande das „Känguru“ oder „Beutelratte.“ Besagt Beutelratte pflegt man in Gattern, genannt Kotter, aufzubewahren, welche mit Lattengitter- und Wetter-Schutzvorrichtungen versehen sind. Man nennt sie infolgedessen Lattengitterwetterkotter und die Beutelratten, die man darin aufbewahrt, die Lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratten. Nun lebt im Hottentottenlande eine Hottentottenmutter, welche zwei Kinder hatte, die stotterten und an Trottolosis litten; man nannte sie infolgedessen die Hottentottenstottertrottelmutter. Auf besagt Hottentottenstottertrottelmutter wurde ein Attentat verübt, und man nannte den Attentäter den Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterattentäter. Besagter Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterattentäter wurde jedoch gefangen genommen und in ein Lattengitterwetterkotter gesperrt, in dem sich ein Lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte befand. Nach einiger Zeit kniff diese Lattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte aus, und wiederum nach einiger Zeit meldete sich auf dem Bürgermeisteramte ein Mann und sagte: „Herr Bürgermeister, ich habe die Beutelratte gefangen.“ „Ja, welche Beutelratte haben Sie denn gefangen?“ „Herr Bürgermeister, ich habe die Beutelratte gefangen, die in dem Lattengitterwetterkotter saß, in dem der Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterattentäter gefangen war.“ „Ach so, “ sagte der Bürgermeister, „da haben Sie also die Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelratte gefangen. Nun, dann nehmen Sie hier der Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterattentäterlattengitterwetterkotterbeutelrattenfangprämie in Empfang und gehen Sie beruhigt nach Hause.“

  10. #10 Rob
    on May 26th, 2012 at 7:59 am

    These comments have been fun to read – some from former German students of mine, both from high school and college. Joel, I especially enjoyed the entirely German rendition of the story! Danke schön!