We slept that night at Barr, a pleasant little town on the way to St. Ottilienberg, an interesting old convent among the mountains, where you are waited upon by real nuns, and your bill made out by a priest. At Barr, just before supper a tourist entered. He looked English, but spoke a language the like of which I have never heard before. Yet it was an elegant and fine-sounding language. The landlord stared at him blankly; the landlady shook her head. He sighed, and tried another, which somehow recalled to me forgotten memories, though, at the time, I could not fix it. But again nobody understood him.
“This is damnable,” he said aloud to himself.
“Ah, you are English!” exclaimed the landlord, brightening up.
“And Monsieur looks tired,” added the bright little landlady. “Monsieur will have supper.”
They both spoke English excellently, nearly as well as they spoke French and German; and they bustled about and made him comfortable. At supper he sat next to me, and I talked to him.
“Tell me,” I said — I was curious on the subject — “what language was it you spoke when you first came in?”
“German,” he explained.
“Oh,” I replied, “I beg your pardon.”
“You did not understand it?” he continued.
“It must have been my fault,” I answered; “my knowledge is extremely limited. One picks up a little here and there as one goes about, but of course that is a different thing.”
“But they did not understand it,” he replied, “the landlord and his wife; and it is their own language.”
“I do not think so,” I said. “The children hereabout speak German, it is true, and our landlord and landlady know German to a certain point. But throughout Alsace and Lorraine the old people still talk French.”
“And I spoke to them in French also,” he added, “and they understood that no better.”
“It is certainly very curious,” I agreed.
“It is more than curious,” he replied; “in my case it is incomprehensible. I possess a diploma for modern languages. I won my scholarship purely on the strength of my French and German. The correctness of my construction, the purity of my pronunciation, was considered at my college to be quite remarkable. Yet, when I come abroad hardly anybody understands a word I say. Can you explain it?”
“I think I can,” I replied. “Your pronunciation is too faultless. You remember what the Scotsman said when for the first time in his life he tasted real whisky: ‘It may be puir, but I canna drink it’; so it is with your German. It strikes one less as a language than as an exhibition. If I might offer advice, I should say: Mispronounce as much as possible, and throw in as many mistakes as you can think of.”
It is the same everywhere. Each country keeps a special pronunciation exclusively for the use of foreigners — a pronunciation they never dream of using themselves, that they cannot understand when it is used. I once heard an English lady explaining to a Frenchman how to pronounce the word Have.
“You will pronounce it,” said the lady reproachfully, “as if it were spelt H-a-v. It isn’t. There is an ‘e’ at the end.”
“But I thought,” said the pupil, “that you did not sound the ‘e’ at the end of h-a-v-e.”
“No more you do,” explained his teacher. “It is what we call a mute ‘e’; but it exercises a modifying influence on the preceding vowel.”
Before that, he used to say “have” quite intelligently. Afterwards, when he came to the word he would stop dead, collect his thoughts, and give expression to a sound that only the context could explain.
Putting aside the sufferings of the early martyrs, few men, I suppose, have gone through more than I myself went through in trying to I attain the correct pronunciation of the German word for church — “Kirche”. Long before I had done with it I had determined never to go to church in Germany, rather than be bothered with it.
“No, no,” my teacher would explain — he was a painstaking gentleman; “you say it as if it were spelt K-i-r-c-h-k-e. There is no k. It is—.” And he would illustrate to me again, for the twentieth time that morning, how it should be pronounced; the sad thing being that I could never for the life of me detect any difference between the way he said it and the way I said it. So he would try a new method.
“You say it from your throat,” he would explain. He was quite right; I did. “I want you to say it from down here,” and with a fat forefinger he would indicate the region from where I was to start. After painful efforts, resulting in sounds suggestive of anything rather than a place of worship, I would excuse myself.
“I really fear it is impossible,” I would say. “You see, for years I have always talked with my mouth, as it were; I never knew a man could talk with his stomach. I doubt if it is not too late now for me to learn.”
By spending hours in dark corners, and practising in silent streets, to the terror of chance passers-by, I came at last to pronounce this word correctly. My teacher was delighted with me, and until I came to Germany I was pleased with myself. In Germany I found that nobody understood what I meant by it. I never got near a church with it. I had to drop the correct pronunciation, and painstakingly go back to my first wrong pronunciation. Then they would brighten up, and tell me it was round the corner, or down the next street, as the case might be.
I also think pronunciation of a foreign tongue could be better taught than by demanding from the pupil those internal acrobatic feats that are generally impossible and always useless. This is the sort of instruction one receives:
“Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved upwards so as almost—but not quite — to touch the uvula, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say ‘Garoo.’”
And when you have done it they are not satisfied.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.