Mark Twain Rants About Language Learning

There are some exceedingly useful words in this [German] language. Schlag, for example; and Zug. There are three-quarters of a column of Schlags in the dictionary, and a column and a half of Zugs.

The word Schlag means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting Inclosure, Field, Forest-clearing. This is its simple and exact meaning — that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest. You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to. You can begin with Schlag-ader, which means artery, and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet to Schlag-wasser, which means bilge-water — and including Schlag-mutter, which means mother-in-law.

Just the same with Zug. Strictly speaking, Zug means Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does not mean — when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered yet.

One cannot overestimate the usefulness of Schlag and Zug. Armed just with these two, and the word Also, what cannot the foreigner on German soil accomplish? … Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a Schlag into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits like a plug, but if it doesn’t let him promptly heave a Zug after it; the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle, they should fail, let simply say Also! and this will give him a moment’s chance to think of the needful word.

Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”

7 thoughts on “Mark Twain Rants About Language Learning

    1. Definitely! And I think his point is partly true. But I also think he is exaggerating for effect. For example, most of the meanings of Zug have a semantic core relating to some kind of “pull” or other. And while mentioning Apoplexy is hilarious, we also call it a stroke … which has already been listed. But … “Forest clearing”? You got me!

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      1. ahester1

        That makes a little more sense to me, many things can be pulled; like in a forest clearing the trees were pulled, in a draught the water was “pulled”. But I think another part should have been added to the word to make the “pulling” specific to something and then you know what you’re talking about.

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      2. Yeah, and when you’re memorizing vocab, you don’t necessarily want to have to dig down to the semantic core. Like the idea that “Zug” is a train makes sense, since it’s pulled along the tracks, but when you want to think of the word Train, you want it to be right there, so you would probably just memorize it as a homophone. Unless you are a semantics nerd like me. 🙂 And, in fact, sometimes it’s harder for me to memorize a word when it makes too much sense?

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