Thursday, March 10, 2016
Certain Qualities of the German Tongue
On the other hand, I believe — though it may be prejudice — that among the causes and effects of the sometimes unhappy history of the German mind are certain qualities of the German tongue; a language that can lend itself splendidly to poetry, but in prose (with great exceptions like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche) seems prone at times to lose itself in a kind of ponderous Götterdämmerung of drifting obscurities and cloudy abstractions. Take an example from Hitler himself (on Judaism): 'Eine von infernalischer Unduldsamkeit erfüllte Weltanschauung wird nur zerbrochen werden durch eine vom gleichen Geist vorwärtsgetriebene, vom gleichen stärksten Willen verfochtene, dabei aber in sich reine und durchaus wahrhaftige neue Idee.' To the ordinary English mind the idea of reading an eight-hundred-page book composed in such sentences is a nightmare; that it should be read with enthusiasm remains flatly incomprehensible. There was current in my War Department a jesting quotation, perhaps apocryphal, to express this side of the German mind: 'Warum denn so einfach? Können Sie es nicht komplizierter machen?' We did not underestimate the formidable efficiency, pertinacity, and courage of our opponents. None the less, if you wish to talk imposing twaddle of an abstruse and abstract kind, though wonders can be done even in English, you will find it hard to equal German.Update: Thanks to Ian Jackson for checking the quotation above against the 1955 Cassell edition of Lucas' Style, pp. 39-40.
Or consider a more particular point. One of the most important things, to my mind, in English style is word-order. For us, the most emphatic place in clause or sentence is the end. This is the climax; and, during the momentary pause that follows, that last word continues, as it were, to reverberate in the reader's mind. It has, in fact, the last word. One should therefore think twice about what one puts at a sentence-end. But in a German sentence this final position may be reserved, by a most curious grammatical convention, for an infinitive or past participle; or, in a subordinate clause, for the main verb. Thus logical emphasis, unless particularly strong, tends to be sacrificed to mere grammar. One can see this happening even in the eloquence of Nietzsche: 'Ich lehre Euch den Übermenschen. Der Mensch ist Etwas, das überwunden werden soll.' The essential words are Übermenschen and überwunden; but, though Übermenschen gets its rightful pride of place, überwunden does not. Here it may not much matter. But in longer sentences or clauses, German has a tendency to lose clarity and point. Hence the pleasant story of the man who, entering a foreign café where there sat groups of English, French, and Germans, noted that the English were of course entrenched round their table in solid silence; the French all gabbling at once; but the Germans listening to each other in turn with a tense concentration that for a moment astonished him. Then he realized — they were waiting for the verb!