I am a German citizen who cannot speak the German language. This is almost unheard of. Typically to even be able to apply for citizenship an immigrant to Germany must first be able to prove their proficiency in the language. Then in order to receive German citizenship that individual would be required to renounce any other citizenship they may hold, which I was exempt from. Exceptionally German am I: a German who does not speak German who bears dual citizenship. On account of an exceptional law – specifically Article 116 paragraph 2 of the Basic Law which states, “Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored. They shall be deemed never to have been deprived of their citizenship if they have established their domicile in Germany after May 8, 1945 and have not expressed a contrary intention.” – I receive all manner of exceptional benefits.
Though my German skills have a long way to go before I can be considered anywhere close to proficient (or begin to feel even a little bit German) I’ve quickly become aware of how special the German language is. Due in part to the language’s word order there are many difficult-to-grasp rules. Worse than these rules are all of the many exceptions to the rules, which seem for me to be nearly impossible to make sense of or categorize. It has happened more than occasionally that I’ve inquired about a particular word or phrase to my teacher, only to be told that no, this particular example cannot be understood by any rule as it happens to be an exception. Just as I think I’m beginning to catch the hang of this language I am informed that whatever rule I think I’m following does not apply in this or that instance, and each time I feel a little disheartened. Mark Twain wrote of his own struggles studying German: “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, ‘Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.’ He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.”
My teacher recently provided me with a tool to help me learn the gendered article of nouns consisting of a list of common word endings and their associated genders. According to Mark Twain, “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in 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.” Next to each word ending on the list is a percentage representing the frequency that each rule applies. For example, words ending with “er” are masculine about 70% of the time. The other 30% of the time I’m on my own with a 50% chance of guessing the gender correctly. And so I’ve come to the following conclusion of the German language: the only rule for which there is no exception is that every rule has an exception.