On German-speaking Billy Wilder Learning English

“For the refugees, a harsh accent was the least of their troubles. The precise cases, endless portmanteaus, and complex syntactical structure of the German language made their transition to English a strain. It required a thorough rearrangement of thought. In German, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence; in English, it appears everywhere but. In German, conversation as well as written discourse, like a well-ordered stream through a series of civilized farms, flows. In English, such constructions are stilted. We like to get to the point and get there fast. For a displaced screenwriter – an adaptable one, anyway – American English lend itself to the kind of direct, immediate, constantly unfolding expressivity that German tended to thwart. Linguistically at least, American emotions are more straightforward. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin puts it this way: ‘When you start a sentence in German, you have to know at the beginning what the end will be. In English, you live the sentence through to the end. Emotion and thought go together. In German, they’re divorced. Everything is abstract.’

For a flexible storyteller like Billie Wilder – or Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter – the new mix of languages was wondrous, pregnant with sounds and bursting with meaning. Wilder’s ear picked up our slang as well as our pragmatic syntax, and his inventive, hard-edged mind found twentieth-century poetry in them. Puns, jokes, verbal color, even the modern-sounding American tones and resonances one could make in the mouth – all were deeply engaging to the young writer-ranconteur. It was exciting for him to get laughs in a new language.”

– Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

  • Ed Sikov

    Thanks for posting this!

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      Wow, you’re welcome! I’ve actually got another quote scheduled to post today. :) I’m enjoying the book a lot. Sound like Wilder was quite a storyteller when it comes to his own life as well as in his films.