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In the film "The Imitation Game" Alan Turing, while being interviewed at Bletchley Park, confesses that he doesn't speak German, which almost makes him fail the interview. I think I read somewhere else (Simon Singh?) that breaking Enigma was one of the earliest examples when cryptoanalysis required more math than language knowledge, so this scene might emphasize that fact.

However, I find it hard to believe that Turing didn't know German at all. For example, in his earlier work on Entscheidungsproblem, Turing refers to Gödel's papers, which were not translated to English until 1960s (quoting C. Petzold).

So my question: is there any evidence about Turing's knowledge of German?

Update: when I was asking this question, this was the only scene of the film I had seen (in a trailer). Now that I have seen the whole movie, I realize how stupid the question was. I mean, that was likely the least of all the inaccuracies.

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    $\begingroup$ No idea of the answer but there is a difference between being able to read technical German and being able to speak it. $\endgroup$
    – mdewey
    Commented Feb 26 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ I would have to agree, it is very hard to believe that any credible Mathematics department in England in the 1930's was awarding PhDs without requiring them to be able to read German, especially if your field was Mathematical Logic and Set Theory and certainly if your advisor was Alonzo Church. Nearly all of the important work in this field was taking place in two languages: German and English. You couldn't possibly keep up at this time if you couldn't read both. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 27 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ At the time of the film it was much more common to learn German and it was more often used as a lingua fraca. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 27 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ At least 20 years ago or so, the math department at my graduate school still required PhD candidates to show proficiency in either French or German. (AFAIK, "proficiency" just meant being able to piece together the general meaning of a paper written in the language with the aid of a dictionary. I don't know if the same level of proficiency was all that may have been required in Turing's day) $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    Commented Feb 27 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ I know this is a (slightly) different question, but did he have to know German to crack the Enigma? $\endgroup$
    – Raydot
    Commented Feb 28 at 22:26

4 Answers 4

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By the time he was at university, Alan Turing had sufficient facility at reading German (in gothic type no less) that he was reading advanced texts on Quantum Mechanics. In chapter 4 of the biography "Prof: Alan Turing Decoded" in the section The domination of the Germans, Sir Dermot Turing notes

One of the prize books awarded to Alan by Sherborne was Mathematische Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik (Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics) by John von Neumann, whom we will encounter again. [...] Alan reported that von Neumann was 'very interesting reading, although the applied mathematicians seem to find it rather strong meat'.

It was strong meat because it was in German, a language in which Alan had demonstrated his lack of aptitude for languages at Sherborne; but if you were serious about maths in the 1930s, you had to be able to get on with mathematical German.

The book can be seen at the Bletchley Park museum and is clearly well-used, including tea stains next to important results.

Moreover, the cryptanalytic community at Bletchley Park adopted various cod-Germanic words in their jargon. Among these are Turingismus and Banburismus which are attributed to Turing.

I'm also told by classified historians that the tri-partite liaison meetings between the British, French and Polish cryptanalysts on Enigma (at some of which, Turing was present) were conducted in German as it was the common language that all of the cryptanalysts knew. This is confirmed in part by chapter 6 of Herivelismus by John Herivel.

Post-war there is an elusive story that Turing was part of a group that visited Germany to understand Konrad Zuse's progress in developing a computer. Accounts say that the "interrogation" took the form of a colloquium.

It's known that Turing could occasionally stutter, which might have limited his ability to demonstrate fluency in a secondary school classroom, but it is clear that his command of written German was very strong indeed.

There are many things to commend about The Imitation Game, but it is not intended to be a documentary.

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    $\begingroup$ "German...Gothic" As an anecdote, I'd add that a linguist I once knew had been trained as an intelligence officer during the War. They spent at least part of every morning reading captured documents, to make sure that they were practiced in both handwritten German and the inevitable gothic typefaces. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ Amazing … a historical movie that gets the history wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Dale M
    Commented Feb 28 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ Note that reading gothic type is not that difficult. If you know modern fonts you can figure out the differences by just reading a book written in gothic font (provided you know the language). Reading gothing hand writing is very different and needs proper instructions or a translation. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Commented Feb 28 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ Is “cod-Germanic” a typo? I'm not familiar with that prefix. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkDominus Per wiktionary cod Etymology 3, Adjective, Defn 1. Sorry, obscure vocabulary is a bad habit of mine. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel S
    Commented Feb 28 at 14:20
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Alan Turing's report cards from Sherborne School indicate that he studied German in 1930 and 1931, but his teacher Geoffrey John Bromehead Watkins noted in 1931 that

He does not seem to have any aptitude for languages.

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This is not really evidence, but according to https://www.ams.org/notices/200910/rtx091001236p.pdf according to Hodges,

[Andrew] Gleason took Alan [Turing] to a crowded restaurant on 18th Street. They were sitting at a table for two, just a few inches from the next one, and talking of statistical problems, such as that of how to best estimate the total number of taxicabs in a town, having seen a random selection of their license numbers. The man at the next table was very upset by hearing this technical discussion, which he took to be a breach of ‘security’. … Alan said, ‘Shall we continue our conversation in German?'.

Hodges gives this story, on p.246 of the 1983 edition of his book. He does not give a reference. He does not mention Gleason in his list of sources.

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    $\begingroup$ L.V. Anderson, "How Accurate Is The Imitation Game?", Slate, December 4, 2014: "In addition to the more significant creative liberties that the movie takes, there are small fictions surrounding his character in the movie. Although, in the movie, Alan tells Denniston that he doesn’t know German, Turing did in fact study German and travel to Germany before and after the war." $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Feb 26 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ I would interpret Turing's remark in the Hodges story as a joke. Like "if he thinks talking about statistics is a problem, let's really give him something to worry about". And therefore, it's not actually an indication that Turing would have been able to converse in German at all, or that he would have expected Gleason to be able to. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 27 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ @njuffa: You can get around perfectly fine without language. You can buy food, drink and lodgings just by gesturing with your arms and feet. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 27 at 12:01
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I suspect that Alun Turing had to read Published materials during his Academic career and prior to Bletchley by Authors most probably from German descent, some of which may not have been translated? If I had to guess, I would have thought Alun Turning may have been self educated in this regard, due to the nature of the area of Science and Mathematics fields he was learning at the time, this means there were other Mathematicians & scientists who recorded their works in their own languages, prior to those materials leaving academia and translated into English journals, which I guess would safely mean one would need to learn about, even if not in his native Language. This is all just antidotal, yet again another example is probably whilst in his famous role at Bletchley park working on the UTM I suspect due to the sheer amount of Foreign (German) intercepted communications received at the time which required deciphering and of the importance language was to understanding how to break a communication encryption device "Enigma" how could one not help but to pick up bits of the language here and there?, even in an unorthodox fashion, which over time, Alun Turing accumulated into a good understanding of the German Language. If this is not enough reasoning to allow for safe assumptions, outlined above as to the question: "is there any evidence about Turing's knowledge of German?" I would state Yes, almost certainly, Alun Turing learned German during his Efforts, maybe even prior to Bletchley Park. I would also assume Alun Turing would have been asked to take German lessons by his Superiors / Commanding Officer in an Official Capacity and like with all Signal Intelligence you learn from AND about your operating environment. These is all probable events which are safe to assume probably occurred. For a definitive answer I suspect the National Archive may hold the key as to the true answer inside either Alun Turnings War Records or even in Princeton University may hold some works or information about his background incl spoken languages Alun Turning was Fluent in.

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    $\begingroup$ "Alun Turning", really ? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 25 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ "antidotal" ... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ highly probabilistic $\endgroup$
    – Majika
    Commented Mar 27 at 15:26

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