Thursday, July 5, 2012

How I Learned the English Language

This humorous dialog, intended to be read aloud at Christian social gatherings, is from a book entitled Deutscher Humor I. Poesie und Prosa zum Vorlesen und Vortragen auf geselligen und heiteren Zusammenk├╝nften. The book was compiled by a paster (perhaps Albert Friedrich Grimm) and published by the Antigo (Wisconsin) Publishing Company, probably in the early 1900s. A few of the pieces in the book are in German dialects, but only a few near the end, such as "Wie ich die englische Sprache lernte," have a distinctly German-American flavor.

While it is impossible to determine the authenticity of the story, it is certainly rife with realistic details, as well as a sense of pathos. The speaker claims to have come from Germany as a 15-year-old boy and taken service with a farmer by the name of Chittenden, working for 15 dollars a month. "I'll never understand how he expected to get his money's worth from such a green boy," he exclaims, "though he later told me I gave him an enjoyable summer."

The rest of the piece details several episodes wherein the speaker, who confesses to having been quite vain in his youth, has embarrassing difficulties with the English language; indeed, it is stated that the memories of these injuries to his pride still cause him pain to this day.

Among the incidents: telling others his father was a "begger" as he attempts to pronounce the word "baker"; trying to discern what a "peacock" is and deciding it must be a type of vegetable, like a beet -- which leads to humor at his expense around the dinner table; being told to muck out the stable and, thinking this unfamiliar word sounded much like "table," beginning to set out the cups and plates; and, upon being asked to get a "singletree" (a crossbar to which the traces of a harness are attached), grabbing an ax to cut down the lone shade tree near the house.

Eventually he becomes so fearful of making such humiliating mistakes he doesn't dare to speak a word of English. And, although he insists he can share jokes among other German speakers, he tells us the farmer calls him August -- even though his name is Konrad -- because he reminds the farmer "of the dryest month of the year."

The speaker concludes that these defeats kept him from developing an affinity for the English language; his inability to speak it correctly, however, doesn't bother him, for -- in the Denglish words of his aunt -- "I cannot shpeak der Englisch well / because I picked it up too schnell."

By the way, the 1900 census shows a Bronson Chittenden living in Neva, Langlade Co., WI, 7 miles from Antigo.

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