For anyone who is interested, here are parts of my lecture notes for a beginners’ course. An intermediary course was taught in a more adhoc manner, so no notes are available.

I soon came to realise that adjectives are truly awful. In most (all?) European languages that decline adjectives, e.g. Russian, French, and Latin, we know how to spell an adjective once we know a) its case, b) whether it is singular or plural, and c) the genus (/gender) of the noun it describes. But not so in German! First case, neuter, singular: “a tall girl” = “ein großes Mädchen”, but “the tall girl” = “das große Mädchen”?! Not only do we have to know whether a definite or an indefinite article is used with the adjective in question, we also have to come to peace with the fact that the genus of the German word for “girl” is not feminine.

In my desperation I stumbled upon several essays by Mark Twain about the German language, including many nuggets of wisdom.

He starts somewhat optimistically…

  • After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask; whereas in our language if a student should inquire of us, “What does B, O, W, spell?” we should be obliged to reply, “Nobody can tell what it spells when you set if off by itself; you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what it signifies – whether it is a thing to shoot arrows with, or a nod of one’s head, or the forward end of a boat.”

  • In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness.

…but quickly loses hope…

  • Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.

  • Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six – and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

…before sinking into absolute despair:

  • I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.

  • My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

  • When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it. It is as bad as Latin. […] I have shown what a bother it is to decline […]; well this is only a third of the work, for there is a variety of new distortions of the adjective to be learned when the object is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter. Now there are more adjectives in this language than there are black cats in Switzerland, and they must all be as elaborately declined as the examples above suggested. Difficult? – troublesome? – these words cannot describe it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.