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.
– Mark Twain, “That Awful German Language”
Twain was likely making a joke but, in my experience, he is directionally accurate.
He provides several examples of German that “are not words, they are alphabetical processions”. Twain’s longest is Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen, a 37-letter word which translates to General state council meetings. While long, it pales compared to the 63-letter rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz which means law delegating beef label monitoring. Amusingly, European Union regulations changed in 2013, leading to news reports that Germany “had lost its longest word“.
On my flight back from a week in Germany, I did a little web sleuthing and discovered that Mark Twain spent quite a bit of time in Germany. In fact, chapter two of his book ‘A Tramp Abroad’ is titled Heidelberg, my home away from home in Germany. His descriptions of Heidelberg surprised me by how little seems to have changed since he was there in 1880.
While skimming through the book, I stumbled upon a funny story about the lecture system at Heidelberg, where attendance was not mandatory. Not surprisingly, arcane or difficult courses had very small attendance. Twain writes about a lecturer whose spoke day after day to an audience of only three students – and always the same three students. One day, two of them didn’t show up.
The lecturer began as usual—
“Gentlemen,”—then, without a smile, he corrected himself, saying—
“Sir,”—and went on with his discourse.
There’s a lesson in this for marketers. When targeting consumers, we claim we want to create a segment of one. But when it happens, do we engage the individual audience or do we continue with our normal discourse?