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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Heinrich Heine (1797–1856)

Linguistic Education

From “The Book le Grand”

NEXT day the world was going on as usual, and, as usual, we had to repair to school and learn things by heart—the kings of Rome, dates, then Latin nouns and verbs, Greek, Hebrew, geography, German, arithmetic—I grow dizzy when I think of it; all had to be learned by heart. Serious consequences arose from this fact; for had I not known by heart the names of the kings of Rome, I would have cared little whether Niebuhr had disproved their existence or not; and had I not known those dates, how could I later on have found my way about in the great city of Berlin, where one house is as much like the next as a drop of water or a grenadier is like another? And so I tried to connect every acquaintance of mine with some historical event the date of which was identical with the number of his house. Thus, whenever I saw my friends, the great epochs of history came to my mind. For instance, when I saw my tailor, I always thought of the battle of Marathon; the sight of the sleek banker, Christian Gumpel, reminded me of the destruction of Jerusalem; and the judge of the academic court called up the death of Haman….

As far as Latin is concerned, you have no idea how complicated it is. If the Romans had been obliged to learn it, they would never have had time left to conquer the world. Those happy people knew from their very cradles which nouns take im for their accusative. But I had to learn the list in the sweat of my brow. Still, it is well that I knew them; for when, in 1825, at Göttingen, I delivered a public disputation in Latin—it was well worth hearing—had I then said sinapem instead of sinapim, the freshmen might have noticed it, and I would have been disgraced forever. Vis, buris, sitis, tussis, cucumis, amussis, cannabis, sinapis—these words have created so much stir in the world because they formed a class by themselves, and yet remained exceptions; for that reason I respect them, and in many dreary hours of life it has been a profound consolation to me that I know them in case of emergency. The irregular verbs are distinguished from the regular verbs by the number of floggings which accompany them. They are terribly hard….

I do not care to say anything about Greek; I should lose my temper if I did. The monks of the Middle Ages were not altogether wrong in asserting Greek to be an invention of the devil. I had better luck with Hebrew. Indeed, I have always been fond of the Jews, though they crucify my fair fame to this very day. Yet I could never make such progress in Hebrew as my watch did, which, being personally acquainted with many pawnbrokers, ended by adopting a number of Jewish customs, and would never run on Saturday. It also learned the sacred language even to the precise conjugation of verbs, and often, of a sleepless night, I would hear it tick thus, to my profound astonishment: katal, katalta, katalti—kittel, kittalta, kittalti—pokat, pokadeti—pikat—pik—pik——

The German language, which is not as easy as it looks, I understood far better….

But most proficient I was in the French classes of the Abbé d’Aulnoi. Still, even French had its difficulties. I remember very distinctly how I made the acquaintance of la religion in a very unpleasant manner. Six times the teacher said, “Henri, what is the French word for faith?” And six times, and even more, tearfully I answered le crédit. The seventh time, the master, red in the face, cried, “It is la religion!” and blows showered down upon me, while my comrades laughed. From that day to this I cannot hear the word la religion but my back grows pale with fright and my cheeks red with shame. I must acknowledge, to be frank, that all through my life le crédit has been of more use to me than la religion.