But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed

Up until about a year ago, if you had asked me why I had studied German, I would have said that I started in the ninth grade and just didn’t know when to stop. At BYU, my major in mechanical engineering lasted about 20 minutes into the first orientation meeting, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to study after that, but I didn’t worry too much about finding another major at the time. I thought I would figure out what I wanted to study on my mission. Somewhere during those two years, I would surely discover what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe I really would have found a major during my mission, if I hadn’t done so much reading.

When I had filed my mission papers, my bishop asked me where I wanted to go. I told him I didn’t want to go to Germany, since after three years of high school German I already knew the language. (Hah!) Two months later, I was in Provo, studying German for 12 hours a day. Before I left the MTC, I bought a copy of Hans-Wilhelm Kelling’s Deutsche Kulturgeschichte “for additional language study.” I read through it during my first couple months in Essen, and again when I took Hans-Wilhelm Kelling’s third-year cultural history course after my mission. (Not to mention the lessons in cultural history I got from talking to Germans and wandering around their cities.) A couple I taught in Essen gave me a copy of Hesse’s Siddhartha, which I also thought would be useful for additional language study. (Thanks, Helmut and Silke!) When I went searching for an advanced grammar, a sister missionary recommended Lehr- und Ãœbungsbuch der deutschen Grammatik. (Thanks, Sister Zupan!) I worked through all the exercises while I was in Osnabrück, and again when I took Alan Keele’s third-year advanced grammar course.

After months of daily use of and collisions with the German language, I started wondering about the historical reasons for the odd patterns of phonetic correspondences between English and German–path and Pfad, sorrow and sorgen, things like that. During my second stay in Essen, I borrowed a copy of Stefan Sonderegger’s Grundzüge deutscher Sprachgeschichte from the library and discovered almost everything I had ever wanted to know: Grimm’s Law, Verner’s Law, the High German Sound Shift, Ablaut, Umlaut, n-infixes, and so on. It was excellent preparation for the course on the history of the German language that I took my last year at BYU from Randall Jones.

One great thing about missionary apartments is that they always have copies of the Book of Mormon in various obscure languages. If you know English and German, it’s not too hard to learn to read any Germanic language, except for Icelandic. After experimenting with reading the Book of Mormon in Dutch and Norwegian, I decided to tackle Icelandic in Wuppertal, halfway through my mission. I finished it on the plane home (good preparation for the course in Icelandic I took my last year at BYU with George Tate). Later, in Bonn, I read Einar Haugen’s Die nordischen Sprachen, and towards the end of my mission in Duisburg I read through an Icelandic grammar, along with Thomas Mann’s collected short stories and novellas. For additional language study, you know.

But by the end of my mission, I still had no idea what I wanted to study. The great revelation of what my lifelong career should be never came. I knew that German might be useful in whatever field I ended up studying, for example to satisfy the language requirement for a math major, or something like that, so I signed up for three German courses the first semester after my mission, and three more courses the next semester. If only I had found something I wanted to study during my mission, or received some kind of sign, just a hint, the merest clue, anything…

33 comments for “But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed

  1. August 28, 2006 at 5:35 pm

    If you know English and German, it’s not too hard to learn to read any Germanic language, except for Icelandic.

    If you know English and French, it’s still pretty much impossible to read Japanese.

  2. Kevin Barney
    August 28, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    Ah, Jonathan, I was hoping you might blog on why you decided to study German, and I see my prayer has now been answered. Or not answered, as the case may be. Anyway, I love this sort of guided tour into what put you on the path you are now traversing. As a fellow BYU student who didn’t know what he wanted to study and ended up studying languages, I really enjoyed this.

  3. D. Fletcher
    August 28, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    I still don’t know what I want to study, and I’m 48.

  4. Jonathan Green
    August 28, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    D., I recommend economics.

  5. S. P. Bailey
    August 28, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Not that I would trade my mission in Brazil for any other, but there seems to be a definite advantage to European missions: ample reading time. Sadly, that’s something I’m still searching for 10 years later.

  6. August 28, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    With your study of German and Germanic languages, Old English should be no problem for you.

  7. August 28, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Jonathan, when did you have Keele’s third year advanced grammar course? I had it in my first semester at BYU (pre-mission) so it’s possible we might have been in there together.

  8. Hans Hansen
    August 28, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    Sorry, this is going to be a bit long.

    I had a year of German in elementary school and another year at BYU (with Alan Keele). I studied French in both junior and senior high school. When I filed my mission papers I was worried about being called to a German- or French-speaking mission because even after years of study I was better at reading the languages than conversing in them.

    About three weeks after filing the papers it hit me that the GAs would take one look at my name and heritage and send me to Norway. That is exactly what happened. At the time I knew only a few words of Norwegian which I had picked up from my great-aunts and others in my family. I was in one of the last groups sent to Norway (1968) before a Norwegian LTM was setup in Rexburg. When I started to speak Norwegian, it was with a German accent!

    Returning from Norway I took up German again. Only now I spoke German with a Norwegian accent! Oh well. Learning Norwegian helped me to learn Danish and Swedish. Flash forward a number of years: by this time (1970s) I had a Bachelor of Music degree in Music History and Literature, and a Master of Music degree in Musicology, both from the University of Utah. I was at UCLA working on a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology. UCLA at that time required 3 foreign languages for a musicology doctoral degree: I used Norwegian, German, and French.

    For my dissertation, which centered around German composer Richard Wagner and his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” cycle of music dramas, I looked into his sources and found that he had used the Icelandic Eddas and sagas, in German translation. I resolved to learn Old Icelandic so that I could read these sources in the original. My professor at UCLA was Dr. Kenneth G. Chapman, who had worked closely with Einar Haugen, and was the author of many books on Norwegian and Icelandic. Chapman and I really hit it off since he was also a Wagner devotee. I worked as his Bibliographic Research Assistant for two years until he retired and moved to Scandinavia (Finland and Norway). I then worked another year for Dr. Jesse Byock, distinguished professor of Icelandic at UCLA, while he was authoring a new translation of the Volsunga Saga.

    Have you ever considered the field of Historical Linguistics? WIth your knowledge of Germanic languages you sound like a natural.

  9. Kristine Haglund Harris
    August 28, 2006 at 8:53 pm

    I also ended up in German sort of accidentally, so now I’m wondering if anyone actually becomes a Germanist on purpose?!

  10. Renee Jenkins Chambers
    August 28, 2006 at 9:27 pm

    Oh, but do any of you have in your experiences as well the dubious distinction of helping to stage Bertolts Brechts “Dreigroschen Oper” in the Tanner (money, commerce business) building at BYU with Rob McFarland. What tangent to choose? Brecht in the same room as sacrament meetings, marketing classes, etc. If you were there, I was the one who stood on the piano and belted, “Und wenn der Kopf faellt…Oopla!” I believe the climax of the act involved stepping on Todd Vincent’s back to sashay up the aisles. (Oh if my RS mates could have seen me then, it might even surprise a few who think they know me well–conservative exteriors can hide quite the dramatic flair), In the midst of all the “hoopla” in the English department at that time (92-95), I always found the German dept. quite daring, good humored and tolerant. (I was as double major).

    And a homage here to Professor Kelling for his passion of Goethe, Schiller and die Natur which vaguely translated into regular reminders to stay on the sidewalks instead of ruining the grass with shortcuts.

    Jonathan, oddly enough I was in Bonn the year or so after you attending and teaching at Uni Bonn (in time for the student riots) Summer of 97-Winter 99. (Wolfgang Titz und the Dahnkens…etc.)

    I must know you from somewhere in all that or at least know people you know. So Gruesse und viel Glueck!

  11. August 28, 2006 at 10:17 pm

    I recommend economics

    So would I, mixed with behavioralism, such as Jon Elster’s works. Talk about human meaning.

  12. Doc
    August 28, 2006 at 10:58 pm

    Clearly you need to get your MBA, become an anonymous rich guy and give your earnings to the poor.

  13. Mark IV
    August 28, 2006 at 11:08 pm


    For those of us who were valiant in the premortal life and were called to Germany, Deutsche Kulturgeschichte and the cultural history course from Kelling have become a rite of passage, don’t you think? I bought a used copy and was both surprised and pleased to see a former senior companion’s handwriting and notes in the margins. Next to the paragraphs about Schopenhauer he had written “A real Neg!” I could almost hear him saying it. In that class, I made the mistake of saying I thought Schiller was boring. Kelling gave me a quiz consisting of one question: Which arm do you want to have broken? When I was in Bremen, we knocked on the door of a delightful older woman. She very politely told us that if she wanted to learn anything further about our church she would simply ask her son. It turns out she was Br. Kelling’s mom.

  14. D. Fletcher
    August 28, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    “Clearly you need to get your MBA, become an anonymous rich guy and give your earnings to the poor.”

    Exactly the future I would choose for myself, if I could figure out how to do it.

  15. Rosalynde Welch
    August 28, 2006 at 11:54 pm

    Renee, my husband participated in a sort of Deutsche-revue, including a scene from “Mother Courage,” also held in the Tanner Building the year after the “Opera,” I think. That scene has become something of a touchstone for him in his thinking on a lot of big issues—as the entire play has for me, as well, after having read it with Alan Keele in his legendary History of Civ course.

    Jonathan, I enjoyed these reflections from an accidental Germanist. My own telos was a sort of butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-Hong-Kong kind of thing, too. The RA on my floor in Helaman Halls my freshman year was an English major, and after I exited Chem 105 deeply uninspired by the prospect of many more Chems on the way to medical school (I aced the course, it’s still important for me to stress all these many years later) I thought, well, Jill’s an English major, so maybe I will be, too. So I declared, and it turned out to be a pretty good place for me. I always planned to go to graduate school, and when I got back from my mission in October I had to put together a statement of intent for applications in a hurry, so I slapped together some rubbish about Bakhtin and composition pedagogy (ick! what was I thinking?) and sent it out. It just so happened that Jamie Lyon had recently retired from teaching German at UCSD, where my fiance was in med school, and gave me a letter of introduction to his former colleague still in the Lit department at UCSD, the eminent early modernist Louis Montrose. When my first application was turned down, as it heartily deserved to be, Louis very kindly encouraged me to take courses in the program as a non-degree-seeking student and reapply; when I did, he championed my application and I was admitted. The view to early modern English then was very clear—and in retrosepct, it seems to have followed very naturally from my undergraduate interests and experiences.

    I arrived at my dissertation topic by a similar fumbling unintention, which afterward started to look inevitable.

    This is boring, I know, sorry. It raises questions for me, though, about God’s hand in my life, or its absence. Was there intentional guidance, or just accident? And does knowing the answer to that question really matter?

  16. August 29, 2006 at 12:17 am

    I think I’ve always wanted to be some combination of teacher and scholar, even when I didn’t know exactly what being those things would mean. As for what I felt inspired to specialize in, that evolved. It began with paleontology, but that turned into archaeology, and then moved on to history, followed by politics, and then finally philosophy. But it only ended there–somewhere in the midst of the political science/political theory/philosophy transition–because that’s when my time at school ended. If my schooling had continued, I’m fairly certain I would have moved on into theology, and if events didn’t require me to stop there, I probably would have gone on even further, perhaps to Biblical studies. For me, at least, there has been a definite path to my personal obsessions; the only determining variables have been where I’ve gone to school, where and when I’ve been able to find work, and of course, where I started from. (If I wasn’t raised in a lay church like ours, I might very well have ended up with a divinity degree and been a pastor.)

  17. Jonathan Green
    August 29, 2006 at 4:21 am

    DHofmann, in fact, I took a semester of OE while dissertating. The Germanists in the course had a hugely unfair advantage over the other students, who were mostly first-semester English grad students.

    S. P., I don’t think my reading list represents either the typical or the approved experience for European missionaries.

    John, I took German 320 in fall 1992.

    Hans, historical linguistics has largely ceased to exist as a viable subfield of German studies. To my knowledge, two German historical linguists have been hired in the last 10 years, one at the U of Illinois in ’96, and one at BYU in 2004. (There were two LDS candidates far more qualified than I was for that job at the time, and I’ve since met two more.) Historical linguistics was my first love, and I try to keep it up as a secondary field, but it’s stopped being a viable primary option for Germanists.

    Renee, I’m sure we have to have crossed paths somewhere before. And I love the idea of staging Brecht in the Tanner Building.

    Rosalynde, you’ve identified the important question here. What significance do you think the first and last lines of my post have for this question? Extra credit if you can suggest a plausible explanation for how the title comments on the same question as well.

  18. Frank McIntyre
    August 29, 2006 at 9:06 am


    I quit German halfway through that third year in high school that you finished. Reading your post, I now recognize what a narrow escape I had.

  19. August 29, 2006 at 10:18 am


    I read DragonBall comic books on my mission. It actually taught me a lot about the Japanese language.

    Unfortunately, I also developed a troubling urge to say things like “You #[email protected]%&! Now you will die!”

  20. Mike W.
    August 29, 2006 at 10:48 am

    I feel like I have felt the guiding hand of the Lord leading me to where I currently am (which still seems like a stepping stone along a more lengthy journey). I also felt the desire to teach, but biology was my love. I took courses and did research at BYU that would help me along that route, having great mentors in Dr. William Bradshaw and Dr. Dan Simmons. However, after starting graduate school at UCSD (I had wanted to live in San Diego for years, and Hi, Rosalynde) I realized I didn’t have the patience or the willingness to fail 90% of the time, and that truly I was a people person. My wife was so excited when I announce that I was going to apply to medical school and we stayed in San Diego for that adventure. However, my trip to San Diego was not only not a wasted effort, it put me in the situation where I was able to interact with some great and well-respected academicians in emergency medicine who were able to help me get the residency of my choice.

    The trips between southern California and northern Utah gave me ample opportunity to drive through Cedar City multiple times and I regularly thought “now that would be a great place to live.” During residency, I met a guy who’s grandparents lived next door to “the guy who runs the ER in Cedar City. Do you want his phone number?” So now we are in Cedar City. And I in addition to work, I am studying at a small liberal arts school (www.gwc.edu) to teach (coming full circle). I have not only seen the Lord’s hand in the path, but I have also wondered whether the desires I had to live in San Diego and to live in Cedar City were things given to me by the God to put me in the place where He wants me. I still don’t know exactly what I will be when I grow up, but it has been great fun getting to this point.

  21. Last Lemming
    August 29, 2006 at 11:36 am

    Back in my day, The “Standard Works” of the Duesseldorf Mission were:

    1. the Book of Mormon
    2. the white handbook
    3. the discussions, and
    4. the “McConkie notes” (from a talk he gave at a mission conference before I arrived)

    After you had been out one year, you could read the New Testament. All other reading was restricted to p-day, and then only church-published material. (I’m not making this up)

    You could get sent home for visiting a library (OK, I made that one up, but seriously, the idea never crossed my mind).

    So my outside reading on my mission consisted of Spiritual Roots, a few bootleg copies of Sunstone, and a few chapters of the Book of Mormon in Dutch.

    I am now an economist. D. Fletcher take note and beware.

  22. August 29, 2006 at 11:57 am

    Jonathan, it looks like we missed each other then — I had Keele’s 320 in Fall ’94. While in that class I learned about the German House at BYU’s Foreign Language Student Residence, and naturally applied the same day.

    Renee, I don’t think I caught the Dreigroschen Oper (The Three Penny Opera) the time you were in it in the Tanner Building, but, of course, Professor Lyon has everyone who takes his Brecht seminary read and discuss it. In April I was able to catch the Dreigroschen Oper on Broadway (with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper as Mac and Jenny). I really am not surprised that BYU put it on the revue. I saw an excellent performance of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle at BYU in around 1998. I’d be interested, Rosalynde, to hear what scene exactly from Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder has been a touchstone of sorts for John?

    I played in Wolfgang Borchert’s Draußen vor der Tur there in the Tanner Building revue soon after returning from my mission. I don’t think Rob McFarland was involved in putting that one on, though. BYU’s German department really does provide a lot of great exposure to German language, heritage, and culture for its students. I was glad to have experienced the German major there (but it didn’t hurt to double major, which I did).

    Kristine, it’s funny you should mention Germanists just falling into that field. I get that impression too, although I had a long-standing interest in German before going to BYU. Still, I started out wanting to be a Political Science major, then considered Anthropology and History, and then, once I returned from my mission to Berlin, decided I just had to do a double major because German would have to be in there.

  23. August 29, 2006 at 11:59 am

    (that should be Lyon’s “Brecht seminar” — although I am not surprised that BYU teaches and puts on Brecht’s The Penny Opera, teaching it in seminary might be a stretch)

  24. Jonathan Green
    August 29, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    Mike W. gets it. My post wasn’t just about how I got into my field, but also about how I spent years looking for answers that were right in front of my face the whole time. Up until a year ago, I really did believe that I had just wandered into German by accident. Then one day I realized that I was a total nitwit. I am living proof that it’s possible to spend three years in college, seven years of grad school, and the first two years of a teaching career thinking that I had just stumbled into everything, when in fact my mission showed me exactly where to find a happy meeting of my talents, interests, and experience. Getting engaged to my wife was something of a surprise for me, too, even though she had figured everything out about 10 months before I did.

  25. August 29, 2006 at 11:08 pm

    Having parents who both served missions in Germany, I was deadset from an early age not to learn German.

    My loss.

  26. Rosalynde Welch
    August 29, 2006 at 11:19 pm

    John, it’s the scene where Mother Courage’s deaf daughter bangs the drum to warn the villagers of the army’s approach, and is finally killed and then discovered by her mother. Pretty brutal.

    Ooh, Jonathan, an essay question! (re: #17) I love essay questions. Okay, so “Prufrock” in the title. (I had to google it, sad to say.) I confess that, although your upbeat gloss in #24 suggests a confident, comedic ending, I read a sort of wry self-mockery into the original post, as if you were resignedly, affectionately upbraiding yourself for never quite getting your stuff together. Prufrock, with his hundred indecisions, his doubtings and revisions, ever losing his nerve and measuring by coffeespoons, failing to ask his overwhelming question, would seem to suggest the same sort of quietly regretful self-awareness of one’s own flickering and fading hopes for greatness. But by the end of the post you’re claiming, perhaps, that the coffeespoons were, in fact, measuring out prophecy, and that tea and cakes and ices—or German grammars, as it happened—themselves squeezed the universe into a ball. So the allusion in the title is optimistically ironic, not amusedly jaded: God really is in the details, you’re saying. An Elder Bednar-style take on the tender mercies of the Lord revealed in small coincidences and vistas?

  27. Tyler Johnson
    August 29, 2006 at 11:22 pm


    I give you and “A.”

  28. Jonathan Green
    August 30, 2006 at 4:20 am


    I capitulate!

  29. Joe Done
    August 30, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    What is it about the Dusseldorf Mission? I was there in the early 60s and read a number of books in German. I read mainly literature and philosophy: books like Poetry and Truth and part I of Faust by Goethe; several fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, “Cinderella� was gruesome; Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann; several short stories by Kafka; Decline of the West by Spengler; Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche; and a German history. I also tried to read an essay by Kant, “On Eternal Peace�, way too difficult. I also had a library card which was not forbidden at that time. Few tourists ever go to that part of Germany; perhaps that had something to do with it. Also there was no LTM then, and I wanted to really learn the language.

  30. Jonathan Green
    August 30, 2006 at 1:50 pm

    See, Joe, in other German missions you can see castles by looking out your window. In the Ruhrgebiet, you can see steel mills by looking out your window. You can find castles, but first you have to know where they are, which means doing some research. The best place for research is the library. Geography is destiny.

    Of course, I didn’t list every book I read as a missionary. I strategically omitted “A New Dawn” by Jack Weyland, for example. (Although I did once answer a College Bowl question about tensor notation in mathematics solely on the basis of what I had read in that book.)

  31. August 30, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    I read everything that Jack Weyland wrote up through about 1990 or so, which was quite a lot. It was easy; he’s yet, so far as I know, to write a book that couldn’t be read in 45 minutes while standing in an aisle at an LDS bookstore. Anyway, I remember “A New Dawn”; I think it is one of perhaps only two books of his that I’ve read which had some genuine bite to it. (For some reaon the other day, I actually was thinking about the scene from the book when the lead character has her mathematic epiphany in the laundromat and has to scribble it down before she forgets it all over her wet clothing, and then spends two days wearing nothing but bedsheets while she feverishly types it all up. Funny stuff.) I think the other one I’m remembering as fairly decent is the one about the bishop who goes to his high school reuinion, meets his old girlfriend, and then learns her husband is having an affair. I can’t remember the title. Anyway, the point being Jonathan, I don’t think you needed to have “strategically omitted” that particular book to make your case. On the other hand, if you spent part of your mission reading the collected works of Shirley Sealy and the Yorgason brothers, feel free to keep that information to yourself.

  32. Joe Done
    August 30, 2006 at 3:38 pm


    In the Ruhrgebiet there are steel mills and coal mines, but if I remember correctly, there is in Essen a city forest [Wald] that is beautiful. I found that I was in a beautiful part of Germany even though the tourists generally don’t go there.

    When I was in the 4th grade and first studied geography, I learned about Cologne. I decided I wanted to see the cathedral there. When I was transferred to Cologne, I told my new companion when he met me at the train station, that I wanted to see the cathedral before I left Cologne. As you know it’s right next to the station. I saw many churches and a few castles.

    I’ve never read anything by Jack Weyland, or Shirley Sealy and the Yorgason brothers for that matter. My knowledge of Mormon fiction is severely limited. I must read “A New Dawn� however; especially if the characters are having math epiphanies.

    I didn’t provide an exhaustive list of my reading either.

  33. Bill
    August 30, 2006 at 4:27 pm

    I managed to read through almost all the Tintin comic books during language study. I even went to the library to find the out of print Tintin au pays des Soviets, the first Tintin, from 1929. I also enjoyed surprising and scandalizing some French elders by reciting many of the Baudelaire poems I had memorized before my mission or in the MTC.

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