Darwin struggles with German

I was reading Sir Francis Darwin's reminiscences about his father yesterday, and was amused by the following passage describing Charles Darwin's approach to reading German:

Much of his scientific reading was in German, and this was a serious labour to him; in reading a book after him, I was often struck at seeing, from the pencil-marks made each day where he left off, how little he could read at a time. He used to call German the “Verdammte,” pronounced as if in English. He was especially indignant with Germans, because he was convinced that they could write simply if they chose, and often praised Professor Hildebrand of Freiburg for writing German which was as clear as French. He sometimes gave a German sentence to a friend, a patriotic German lady, and used to laugh at her if she did not translate it fluently. He himself learnt German simply by hammering away with a dictionary; he would say that his only way was to read a sentence a great many times over, and at last the meaning occurred to him. When he began German long ago, he boasted of the fact (as he used to tell) to Sir J. Hooker, who replied, “Ah, my dear fellow, that's nothing; I've begun it many times”.

In spite of his want of grammar, he managed to get on wonderfully with German, and the sentences that he failed to make out were generally difficult ones. He never attempted to speak German correctly, but pronounced the words as though they were English; and this made it not a little difficult to help him, when he read out a German sentence and asked for a translation. He certainly had a bad ear for vocal sounds, so that he found it impossible to perceive small differences in pronunciation.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

One comment

  1. Much leads me to believe that Darwin had read what then was available published by his immediate predecessor, Hegel. It goes too far perhaps to say that he applied Hegel's dialectic, but this is a claim I have just found in a secondary quotation by Merleau-Ponty. However, I do regard them much in agreement concerning the basic individualist foundations of the construction of reality. In this they come to unify, both, the particular and the universal, and also freedom (of agency) and necessity (of context).
    (I published City Intelligible with Brill in 2020 (on production of thought in the subjectivity of mind and its externalisation as practice), but will mention this question in a complementary book The Missing Discipline (words of Husserl) now in preparation (externalisation of the thought through human labour, here as its object)).

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