Humor of German Like English by Mark Twain

Humor of German Like English by Mark Twain is adapted from his book A Tramp Abroad [1880]:

I was thinking of going by skiff to the next town, Necharsteinach; so I ran to the riverside in advance of the party and asked a man there if he had a boat to hire.

I suppose I must have spoken High German--Court German--I intended it for that, anyway--so he did not understand me.

I turned and twisted my question around and about, trying to strike that man's average, but failed.

He could not make out what I wanted.

Now Mr. X arrived, faced this same man, looked him in the eye, and emptied this sentence on him, in the most glib and confident way:

"Can man boat get here?"

The mariner promptly understood and promptly answered.

I can comprehend why he was able to understand that particular sentence, because by mere accident all the words in it except "get" have the same sound and the same meaning in German that they have in English;

but how he managed to understand Mr. X's next remark puzzled me.

I will insert it, presently.

X turned away a moment,

and I asked the mariner if he could not find a board, and so construct an additional seat.

I spoke in the purest German,

but I might as well have spoken in the purest Choctaw for all the good it did.

The man tried his best to understand me; he tried, and kept on trying, harder and harder,

until I saw it was really of no use, and said:

"There, don't strain yourself--it is of no consequence."

Then X turned to him and crisply said:

"MACHEN SIE a flat board."

I wish my epitaph may tell the truth about me if the man did not answer up at once, and say he would go and borrow a board as soon as he had lit the pipe which he was filling.


I have given Mr. X's two remarks just as he made them.

(1. "Can man boat get here?")

Four of the five words in the first one were English,

and that they were also German was only accidental, not intentional;


(2. "MACHEN SIE a flat board.")

three out of the five words in the second remark were English, and English only,

and the two German ones did not mean anything in particular, in such a connection.


X always spoke English to Germans,

but his plan was to turn the sentence wrong end first and upside down, according to German construction,

and sprinkle in a German word without any essential meaning to it, here and there, by way of flavor.

Yet he always made himself understood.

He could make those dialect-speaking raftsmen understand him, sometimes, when even young Z had failed with them; and young Z was a pretty good German scholar.

For one thing, X always spoke with such confidence--perhaps that helped.

And possibly the raftsmen's dialect was what is called PLATT-DEUTSCH, and so they found his English more familiar to their ears than another man's German.

Quite indifferent students of German can read Fritz Reuter's charming platt-Deutch tales with some little facility because many of the words are English.

I suppose this is the tongue which our Saxon ancestors carried to England with them.


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