Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X.: on the german language. - Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 2
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CHAPTER X.: on the german language. - Thomas Hodgskin, Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 2 
Travels in the North of Germany, describing the Present State of the Social and Political Institutions, the Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, Education, Arts and Manners in that Country, particularly in the Kingdom of Hannover (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1820). Vol. 2
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on the german language.
Wrong criterions employed to judge languages by.—German language not unmusical; examples.—German articles redundant.—Declension of substantives redundant.—Adjectives absurdly declined.—Changes in verbs redundant.—German language complicated.—Source of the errors.—Is a rich language.—Kant; his merits and peculiarities.
From the influence which language has on the character and on the literature of nations, every foreign language may, with propriety, be made by every traveller a subject of remark; and, therefore, I shall here make some observations on the German language. Most persons pronounce on the merits of any language either by its affinities to that one which they have spoken all their lives, or by its affinities to some one which has been recommended as a standard of elegance and accuracy. By the learned most of the spoken languages of Europe have been called good or bad as they resembled the Latin or the Greek language; one or other of these having in general been selected by them as the model of a perfect language. By the ignorant other languages are called good or bad as they resemble their own, or as they are supposed to have some musical properties. It is wrong to judge by either of these standards.
It would be extraordinary if language, which is the master-art of life, should have been carried to perfection when all the other arts and sciences were in their infancy. If the languages of antiquity were more perfect than our own, it might then be supposed that they were anomalies in nature, and were a sort of miraculous gifts. Like other arts, however, language had probably a chance beginning, it has been improved by patient research, and refined by every generation correcting the errors of the preceding one.∗ We have not outstripped the ancients in this point so much as in many others, from the same cause why we have not outstripped them in statuary, architecture, &c. namely, that we have in these arts confined our efforts to an imitation of what they had achieved. Our learned people have sought to model the languages, and our artists the buildings and the sculpture of modern times after those of antiquity. If the mechanic arts had been subjected to the same restraints, we should now have wanted, with many other improvements, both the printing-press and the steam-engine.
Thoughts are so intimately connected with words, so few people ever think of separating one from the other, that in general men cannot conceive any other mode of expressing their thoughts than that to which they are accustomed. Use is said to be the tyrant of language. Though it decides whether we shall adopt or reject certain phrases, it can of itself never be of sufficient authority either to justify or condemn them. If usage were to be the only authority for speech, there would probably be no error of language which might not be justified. The German language must not, therefore, be judged of by the analogy of its own modes or usages, nor by its relation to any other language. Neither ought it to be praised or condemned from any vague idea that it possesses musicalness or harshness of sound. Neither of these is an essential property of any spoken language. The poetical, or musical, or sung language, of any people, may, and very often does, differ materially from their spoken language. The Italian language is itself an example. The spoken, or provincial Italian, can nowhere, except in Venice, be described as a musical or harmonious language. The most rugged and guttural spoken language may be musical; and if this were not possible, nobody who knows that it was for the German language many of the compositions of Mozart and Hadyn were made, or who has heard the famous little song written by Goethe, called Mignon, or Schiller’s more common Robber Song, sung by a company of common soldiers, but must be convinced, that the German language can with no justice be described as a harsh or unmusical language.
I should be sorry to make a paradoxical assertion, but to my ear the German language does not sound harshly; and I do not know that there are to be found in any language more musical and well-sounding lines than may be extracted (among many other pieces of poetry) from both the above-mentioned songs. For example, the first verse of Mignon, particularly the second, third, and fourth lines, seem to me sounds as soft and musical as were ever uttered:—
It must be remarked, that the Germans have a softer way of pronouncing the s than we have. The third line is exquisitely soft and musical, and in the whole there are but three words whose sound is in the least harsh—hoch, möcht, and ich, and perhaps ziehn. The two lines in the robber song,
are all vowels or labials. I may add three other lines that I stumble on by chance, from Schiller’s little poem, Würde der Frauen:—
I give these quotations as nothing more than examples of soft and pleasing sound. I do not mean to enter further on the subject, but merely to give some examples as a justification for believing the assertion, “that the German language is harsh and unmusical,” has been probably made by people who have rather judged it from its crooked and strange letters, than from having heard it spoken or sung. I am far from asserting it has no unpleasant sounds, no words that abound in consonants, but with such, it contains as large a portion of musical and pleasant sounds as most of the spoken languages of Europe.
Language is the sign for what we see, feel, or think; every distinct perception, feeling, or thought, ought to have a distinct sign; and no two of them ought to have the same sign. Against the first of these principles all languages offend. No one of them has a distinct and different sign for every different thought, or there would be no ambiguity, though no language perhaps sins less on this score than the German. Most languages also offend very materially against the second principle, and no one more so than the German.
The definite article the (in German der, die, das) is, in fact, a pronoun relating to some object before designated, or afterwards to be designated. If any three distinct and different objects had the same name, it might be a rational way to distinguish each of them by affixing to it a different article. Thus der Mann might signify the man; die Mann, the woman; and das Mann, the child. All these three beings so nearly resemble one another, and are so perfectly of the same species, that the different genders might as well be marked by those articles which are called the signs of genders as by a change in the name. The Greeks, I believe, had only one term corresponding to our child to signify both boy and girl; and to this word they affixed a masculine or a feminine article to distinguish which of these two were meant: as we say a man or a woman child. From a contrary custom of speech, it would now sound absurd to say a male boy, or a female girl: But changing an article when, at the same time, two distinct names designate the different genders or qualities which are to be designated, is as absurd as saying a male boy or a female girl.
Whenever genders are easily distinguished in nature, most modern languages have a different name for each gender. This is particularly true of the German language, which has a syllable (inn) that, added to words designating males, makes them signify the females of the same species. There can, therefore, be no need of any further sign, or a different article, to designate genders. But German grammarians have established a different rule. They have not only different names for the different genders of most animals,—not only a feminine termination, which they can apply to most nouns,—but they have also three distinct articles. They have given a gender to words, and have called them by the fine deceitful names of masculine, feminine, and neuter. German substantives are divided into three sorts, and with each of these sorts of words a different article is used. And so capricious is this use, that there are many words which designate masculine beings, to which the feminine or the neuter article must be prefixed, and vice versa. Das Weib and das Mädchen, for example, words that signify females, are themselves neuter words; while die Bürgerschaft, the citizens, and die Geistlichkeit, the clergy, both signifying a collection of males, are feminine words.
The principle on which this practice is absurd has been above stated, viz. that it is wrong to employ two signs to designate the same feeling, perception, or thought,—or the different objects here mentioned are already distinguished by different names, and the relation we mean to designate by the article being in all cases precisely the same; it is absurd to use three signs when one is enough to signify this relation. The principle is justified by the use of the English language, which has only one term for this relation. The French language has only two genders of words, and two articles. The German language has, therefore, one sign for the same relation more than the French, and two more than the English. This extends to all substantives. It is therefore a fault, or an absurdity of principle, which goes throughout the German language.
There is reason to believe that the three different articles of the German language were originally nothing more than the different manner in which the different tribes of Germans pronounced the same word;—and that grammarians, finding three such words in promiscuous use among the people, adopted from the Greek language a scientific arrangement of these three manners of pronouncing one word, and called them masculine, feminine and neuter. In many provinces they are yet promiscuously used, and confounded one with another. In the low German, which is an unpolished language, this distinction of words into genders is said to be unknown. And the absurdity seems, therefore, less chargeable on the genius of the language than on the imitation of learned grammarians.
Those relations which, in some languages, are called cases of nouns, and which, in many of the northern languages, are perhaps better expressed by prepositions,∗ may be either signified by prepositions, as in our language,—by changes in the nouns, as in the Latin,—or by an alteration in the article, as is done in the German language; but it is wrong both to change the termination of the noun and to use a preposition,—and it is truly absurd to do both these, and, at the same time, also to alter the article. In the German language all the three changes are sometimes—and the absurdity is clearly shewn by they being only sometimes made. Thus the Germans sometimes make two changes to signify our of, or the genitive case—they say des Mannes, (der Mann is the nominative;) they sometimes make three changes to signify the dative, or our to—they say zu dem Manne; and they generally make three changes from the nominative to signify the ablative case, or our from, of all masculine and neuter nouns—they say von dem Manne. I am far from affirming that our single words to or from do not at times express different relations; but this impropriety is not remedied by the additional changes in the German words. The zu dem and von dem are as indiscriminately applied as our to and from; and the differences which they signify might be signified either by the change of the noun, or of the article, or by the use of a preposition. This unnecessary change and multiplication of signs takes place with each of the articles of the German language in most of their cases, and with many masculine and neuter nouns.
Notwithstanding this unnecessary multiplication of signs, there are some real differences which are not distinguished. Thus feminine nouns are never changed in any of the cases of the singular number; and the different relations which we mark by to and of are not distinguished when applied to them. The article der for both these relations is the same. I am far from affirming that every instance in which we use one of these two prepositions, the other could not be substituted in its place. In many it could. In many, however, there is such a radical difference in the relations which der signifies, that they ought to have a different sign. Thus, gehören der Frau, is something belonging to, or possessed by, a woman. But “auf dem Meer der Leidenschaft” is literally on the sea of passion. The relations signified to the two feminine nouns Frau and Leidenschaft, by the word der, is different; and this is a case in which, notwithstanding a great number of changes in their words, the Germans have no change to mark an essential difference.
A single object, or more objects than one, (singular and plural,) requires but one sign to mark this difference. The English language, though there are exceptions, marks it by the addition of a single s. I believe the same rule is followed in some of the low German dialects; but the written and polished German language has no simple general rule like this. It not only has several different manners in which the plural is distinguished from the singular, but it uses in many cases several different signs to signify this one and simple difference. The article of all masculine and neuter nouns is changed in the plural, though not of the feminine nouns. Many of them add a syllable or a letter to their nominative, and many change one of their vowels into a diphthong. As an example, der Mann, the man, makes to signify the men, die Männer. Three changes are unnecessary, and two of them are absurd. This is not only proved from principle, from the practice of our own language, but also from those instances in the German language, (all the feminine nouns,) in which one single change in the end of the noun accurately marks the difference between singular and plural, as die Frau and die Frauen.
Adjectives are signs for qualities which are the same in each and every different substantive. Thus the word black signifies the same quality in a man, a woman, or a child. But because the Germans have classed nouns into masculine, feminine, and neuter, and because they have adopted the absurd principle that words ought to accord with words; they change the termination of adjectives;—as they are connected with masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, and as they are preceded by the definite or indefinite article, or not preceded by any article. They say ein schwarzer Mann, eine schwarze Frau, and ein schwarzes Kind. Such unnecessary changes are made in all German adjectives, and in most of the cases of those adjectives. With much more propriety the adjective in the English language always remains unchanged, and in this point it is superior to most of the languages of Europe.
I have somewhere read (I believe in a German grammar written by a Mr Steinheil) that there was a time when the terminations of the German adjectives remained unchanged. In many provinces, and amongst uneducated people, they are still used unchanged, or the changes are at least made as chance may direct. The refined form of the error, therefore, by which the termination of the adjective is made to change, according to rules, must be considered as having been introduced and perpetuated by the writings of grammarians.
Of pronouns nothing will be said, because to elucidate them would require a greater space than I can here allow myself to use. It will be enough to remark, that they are also unnecessarily multiplied and confused from the principle of making words accord with words, being followed in using them.
The different persons designated by speech may be signified by prefixing pronouns to the verbs, or by changing the ending of the verb.∗ To prefix pronouns as we do, and to change the ending of the verb as the Romans did, is one or other of them a redundancy. In some instances we do both, and so do the Germans, which is proved to be wrong by both not being done in many instances, and yet no ambiguity occurs. Thus there is no difference in the verb of the German language for the first and third persons of the plural, and none in the English for either of the three persons of the plural. Either the use of pronouns, or changing the verb, is unnecessary; and both have only been introduced from following the wrong principle of making words accord with words. A great many similar remarks might be made on the modes of verbs; but, on this point, the German language is not worse than many others, and, like the pronouns, they would require too much space.
It would tire the reader to enter further into the minutia of the German language. The faults which have been exposed are faults in principles. They pervade it, they make it complicated and cumbrous, and they vitiate it throughout. Much time and much attention is required to learn all the artificial rules by which some of the words of this language are made to accord with others. These rules are contrary to the axioms of rational grammar, and they make this language one of the most troublesome instruments of thought which are in use amongst the nations of Europe. With all its faults, however, it contains many treasures; and from the progress which the Germans are making in knowledge, it is perhaps as well worth our cultivation and our inquiries as any language of Europe. The terms employed in German grammar, the nature of the errors of the German language, and the fact that many of these were not formerly in use, explicitly prove that most of its complexities and faults have been occasioned by an endeavour to make at least its grammar resemble the grammar of those languages which are called classical. A similar endeavour has materially injured the construction of most of the languages of Europe. Our own and the languages of Scandinavia have had but few of the absurdities of the boasted grammars of antiquity implanted on their own absurdities; and they consequently remain, though very far from perfect, comparatively simple in their construction, and easily used instruments of thought.
There is no want of persons in Germany to write grammars, and to propose amendments and alterations in the German language; but so far as their writings have fallen under my observation, not one of them appears to be aware of the principles which ought to be followed in simplifying their grammar. They are rather botchers than builders, who perpetually make their language worse, from having no accurate conception of what that grammar ought to be which they try to amend. It is an opinion of their own that their language is not yet fully formed, (ausgebildet;) but they unfortunately think that what it needs is a greater complexity of false and unnecessary distinctions. In fact, they in general regard all these conformities of words to words (the absurdity of which I have endeavoured to expose) as the great merit of their language; and they regard the simplicity of our language as its greatest imperfection.∗
The German language has one advantage: this is, that words to signify every idea may be formed out of pre-existing German words. The common signification of the root words being known, the combination is equally well understood. The Germans have introduced a less number of foreign words into their language than has been unwisely introduced by most other Europeans into their languages. Hence they have preserved a greater number of their original words; and out of these they can and do make compound words to signify many of those ideas, to signify which we borrow words from the Latin or the Greek. They have preserved, in consequence of this, much more distinctly than we have done, the proper and figurative meaning which is common to almost all words. Auslegen, properly, to lay out, figuratively, to explain, is an example; and many more might be found. These circumstances have probably also been the cause why the Germans have many words, particularly nouns and verbs, for slight shades of difference, which are not distinguished by other people. So far as they signify a real difference, this is a most praiseworthy quality, and it constitutes what is called the richness and the precision of the German language. It is much easier, however, to multiply words than to discover differences; hence the German language has the bad property, in common with most of the languages of Europe, of possessing many different words to signify precisely the same thing. A multitude of words which mark real differences gives precision. They prevent amongst the Germans those equivoques which distinguish the writings and speech of their word-poorer neighbours the French; but they allow them to speak and to write much nonsense. When words are changed so often that a recurrence of them does not offend the ear, and when they are placed in that customary relation to each other which usage calls grammatical: nonsense is easily imposed on the world as wisdom. A still greater evil results from this unnecessary multiplication of words. The use of them becomes habitual: what they signify is forgotten; but it is always affirmed that they are all necessary, and accuracy of thought is constantly impeded by inaccuracy of language.
A great part of the praise which has been bestowed on Kant was occasioned by the circumstance that he was one of the earliest philosophical writers in the German language; and his style was grammatical and neat. He was enabled to choose, amongst a great mass of common words, many of which he used with uncommon significations. He created a great many more, and, putting all these in grammatical order, he produced a great many volumes, the greater part of which signify and explain very little or nothing. Such sentences as the following are calculated to impose on a great many people who judge by sounds:—“A transcendental principle is that by which general conditions, à priori, are made, under which conditions things that are the objects of our knowledge can alone exist.” Die Anschauung is one of Kant’s fundamental powers; he defines it thus: By whatever art, and by whatever means, any knowledge of any object whatever may exist, that to which it is immediately related, and by which all thoughts as their medium exist, is the Anschauung. If any person is acquainted with any such principle as is here defined, he may be able to tell by what English word Anschauung should be translated. I know of none; neither do I pretend to give the meaning of the first sentence. I merely translate the words. The greater part of the works of Kant are made up of such well-sounding sentences, and they appear to be an admirable illustration of those remarks of Campbell and Hume on the art of talking nonsense undetected. The philosophical writings of many other Germans contain proofs of the same fault, and they are examples of the ease with which nonsense may be written, in what is called a rich language, with a complicated grammatical structure.
The earlier and smaller works of Kant contain much more good sense than his later and larger works. He had the powers of genius within him, but they needed the nourishment of a polished, and well-formed, and sensible society. Königsburgh, where he passed the greater part of his life, did not supply this. He was a king amongst professors and students, and grew inordinately vain of his power of writing. We may smile at his ridiculous peculiarities,—at his holding his mouth shut, and breathing through his nose to cure himself of some asthmatic complaint,—and at his eating great quantities of mustard to strengthen his memory. But we must condemn that vanity which induced him to class himself, as a moral teacher, as inferior only to Christ. His disciples, for he yet has disciples in Germany, though, I believe, they are not numerous, praise his abilities at the expence of his virtue. Rather contrary to the opinion of Mad. de Stael, some of them regard his works as supporting, in the strongest manner, the doctrines of infidelity. And they assert that those parts of them which, in any manner, tend to support religion, were the unwilling offerings of his fears on the altars of authority. He was at one time suspended from his professorship on the score of irreligion; and it was then he professed his belief.∗ His writings contain few facts. They consist of arbitrary definitions of terms arbitrarily assumed, from which any thing and every thing may be proved.
There can be little doubt that the complex structure of the German language; by demanding from writers and readers a constant attention to the accordance of words; and its richness, by allowing a constant change of words, have done much towards vitiating the philosophical reasoning of the Germans. Many instances more than the above two might be given, not only from the writings of Kant, but also from those of Fichte and Schelling. The instances given, however, may suffice, particularly as metaphysics in Germany are giving place to more important political studies. The structure of the language seems to have had a great influence on German literature; and perhaps the fault of being in general prolix and wordy, is entirely owing to the cheat which is put on the understanding by giving words the properties of things. Men believe, from this delusion, that they have new ideas, when, in truth, they only change their words. And in proportion as these possible changes are numerous, so is the understanding more easily deluded.
The inhabitants of the town of Hannover have the reputation of speaking the German language better than the generality of the Germans. Like the inhabitants of Inverness, who are said to speak good English, the language which they speak is not their native language, but the language of southern Germany, or rather of books. Low German is the language of the north, and it is still spoken by the common people in various places. Not many years ago it was the language in common and general use. Those persons who are acquainted with the Low German affirm that it is more expressive and equally harmonious with the High German. Its construction is more simple; it knows nothing of the absurd distinction of words into genders; and, as it was the language of all the little republics which have been mentioned,∗ of a people who were more free than the inhabitants of southern Germany, it may be regretted that it is fast falling into disuse, and that its place should be supplied by the more complex language of a longer enslaved country. The translation of the Bible, by Luther, into the dialect of Saxony, was undoubtedly one cause of making that dialect the written language of the Germans. It is perhaps worthy of remark, that, in the German, as in the English language, the Bible, as it was translated by Luther, is still relied on as good grammatical authority. It may also be worthy of remark, that the written German resembles the Italian language in being nowhere spoken with purity by the mass of the people; though it differs from it in this, that all well-educated people speak it, and, from the rapid extension of book-learning in Germany, it is becoming the spoken language of the whole population. It may be doubted if the written Italian may not be regarded, in some measure, as a dead language, whose treasures we may possess, but which, till that unhappy country shall be rescued from its political and religious degradation, will never be a generally spoken language.
[∗]In a German grammar recently published at Göttingen, by Mr Grimm, librarian at Hesse Cassel, it is asserted, that the German language had more noble forms in the thirteenth century than it has at present, and that it was still better in the fifth than in the thirteenth century. I am disposed, however, to believe, that what the learned librarian calls nobler forms, was a greater complexity than even at present exists, which is in all languages a bad, not a good quality.
[∗]The question has, I believe, been often discussed, Whether changes in the terminations of words, or the use of little words like our prepositions, are best? And generally, I believe, it has been decided against the prepositions. There is, however, one strong argument in favour of the prepositions; and this is, that they serve to signify the same relations throughout the language, and always keep the ideas more distinct and better known than the method of changing the termination of the nouns. And when it is remembered that, in the inflexions of the human voice, these small words are only distinguished by a practised ear,—that to an unpractised one they seem united to the words they accompany,—and that, consequently, they can have no unpleasant influence on the harmony of a language,—it may appear that the use of prepositions is better than changing the termination of the nouns.
[∗]For the reason relative to prepositions, mentioned in the note to p. 332, the use of pronouns, keeping the verbs unchanged, ought to be preferred to changing the verbs.
[∗]Much has been written on the subject of a universal language, and many wishes have been formed by learned and clever men, that one could be adopted. The different nations of Europe would form but one great nation had they only one language. This is a point, however, to which only many ages of constant progression can bring them. They have improved so much, that it is possible they will one day reach this point. They would arrive at it sooner if they were all and each to begin by modelling the grammars of their respective languages according to principles of reason. Usage in language should conform to right—not prescribe it. The laws of rational grammar are very nearly the same for all languages; and the grammars of all the languages of Europe ought to be constructed after the same principles.
[∗]I have forgotten to note from which of the two biographies of Kant, which I have read, I have extracted these little notices.
[∗]See Vol. I. Chap. vii.