Ursprache is German. And so is Weltschmerz.

Well, gentle readers, here’s your occasional light Saturday post about transatlantic relations.

Should you or your children ever be interested in winning spelling bees, which, according to the Times Online, have enjoyed a recent explosion of popularity in the United States, choose words from obscure European languages, which, for some reason apparently made it into Webster’s dictionary. German, in particular, seems to be a safe bet –

“[Katharine Close, a] 13-year-old girl won America’s 79th national spelling competition last night, trotting out the letters of “ursprache”- a technical term for language [note by the afoe author - it actually means 'the original language' or 'a very old language'] – in front of millions of viewers on primetime television.

The decisive moment … came when [Finola Mei Hwa ] Hackett stumbled over “weltschmerz” (world weariness), erroneously starting with a “v”. “

“Weltschmerz”, of course, is a tough one, certainly for a non-German. Not just as it may well still express the most German of all sentiments, but also because I have a feeling the American pronounciation thereof would have made me wonder about the “vw-question” as well…

Belgium yet again in turmoil over killings

In the night between May 6th and 7th 2006 five skinheads, coming from De Kastelein, a known extreme right café in West Flanders, beat up Raphaël Mensah, a fifty year old Parisian artist of Gabonese descent, and his thirty seven year old Belgian friend Alain Bouillon. Bouillon was heavily wounded and Mensah is now lying in a coma. According to Bouillon “the skinheads weren’t after money, they went after us because my friend has the wrong skin colour”. In fact, according to Belgian French-language La Dernière Heure, Mensah’s wallet was recovered on the crime scene with the 150 euros he carried on him still in it.

On May 11th, in an Antwerp street very close to where I used to live, an 18-year old man, Hans Van Themsche, went on a killing spree. His first victim, 46-year old Sonhul Koç, a Turkish woman who was sitting on a park bench reading a book, was heavily wounded. Van Themsche had shot her in the back from a distance of six meters (6.5 yards).

The second and third victims were both killed. They were a 24-year old Malinese woman called Oulemata Niangadou who worked as an au pair and the little Belgian girl she was looking after, two year old Luna. Van Themsche had spotted Oulemata and Luna walking down the street, he passed them, turned around and fired at them, in theirs backs, from point blank range. When he was later questioned about his motive for killing the little girl, he is reported to have said: “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. In all it took Van Themsche just four minutes to destroy three lives. He was stopped by a policeman who arrived at the scene and shot Van Themsche, apparently a willing target since he shouted “just shoot me”, in the stomach. Van Themsche is now in the hospital, but he will survive.
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Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo…

Just ran across this article at Radio Free Europe. Short version: Russia has decided that independence for Kosovo is probably inevitable, and has decided to milk it for maximum benefit to Russia. Putin’s saying, fine, independence for Kosovo — but then apply “universal principles”, and give independence to the Russian-supported breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and TransDnistria.

Once you get past the initial reaction (“Wow, what a jerk”), this bears a little thinking about.
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A modest proposal for CAP reform

I’ve been in Canada for the last month, getting in my last family visit before settling in to the serious business of either going back to school or collecting unemployment checks. My family is large – Great-Grandpa had 25 children, and Grandpa had 9 – so it takes a while if you go to see my family. Ours is a large, disorganised, occasionally frightening clan who, depending on pure whim, identifies itself as either German-Canadian, Dutch-Canadian, Russian-Canadian or Ukrainian-Canadian. Our tribal language is an obscure dialect of Low Saxon (Platt for the actual Germans out there) spoken primarily in Paraguay, Mexico, Central America and Saskatchewan, and whose most famous speaker is, arguably, Homer Simpson. It’s a long story, don’t ask. It not being much of a literary language, we all just say our ancestors spoke German – the liturgical language of my clan’s particular sect.

In contrast to Europe and the US, Canadians are a lot less disturbed about asking people about their ethnic identities or expressing some loyalty to them. I guess the main reason is that Canada has never really pretended to be a nation built atop an identity, but rather a place where an identity of sorts has slowly built up from the existence of a nation. There is no Canadian myth of the melting pot, and as our soon-to-be new Governor General has demonstrated, no serious demand for nativism in public office. Michaëlle Jean, who is slated to be the powerless and unelected Canadian head-of-state when the Queen is out of the country – e.g., practically always – when she is sworn in on the 27th, is no doubt the most attractive candidate we’ve ever had for the office. And, like her predecessor, she is a former CBC/SRC reporter and talking head.

Ms Jean and I share an endemically Canadian charateristic: We both can and do identify ourselves shamelessly as several different kinds of hyphenated Canadians. She is French Canadian, but that’s hardly strange. She is also Franco-Canadian – Ms Jean has dual citizenship with France, making her the first EU citizen to be Governor General of Canada and the first French citizen to be acting head of state of Canada since 1763. But more unprecedentedly, she is Haitian-Canadian and – as logically follows – African-Canadian.

Yes, Ms Jean is black, and furthermore in an interracial marriage. Well, that’s Canada for you. America puts black folk in squalid emergency shelters, we put ours in Rideau Hall.
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Locusts, or Incongruency Revisited.

It seems we’re not the only ones who are beginning to see governance model incongruencies behind some of the German economic ills (see two of my last posts (1, 2), and, especially the comments to the last one).

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell (who knows Germany well, having beeen a research fellow at the The Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods) gets a bit angry at the Economist for their usually biased coverage of Continental European social and economic models, before declaring his support for Franz M?ntefering.
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Latin: A solution to the EU’s language problems?

Speaking of the Classics, I recently discovered to my shock and amazement that in Belgium, students still study Latin in secondary school. My Dutch teacher was talking about the structure of secondary school, and described how there is still a Latin/Classical Greek track, as well as a Latin/Math track that students almost have to take if they plan to go into medicine or any advanced humanities.

Even more shocking, she defended this practice, claiming that it was quite clear based on the kinds of essays and work students do in university which ones had studied Latin. She was troubled when I expressed doubt that there was a causal relationship between the two.

Is this commonplace in Europe? I mean, my high school offered Latin, but only because New Jersey required two years of language and some students had already flunked all three modern languages offered. (And because the Romanian woman who taught French and German figured she could teach Latin too, so they didn’t have to hire anyone.)
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The Value of Learning a Second Language

What is the value of learning a second language aside from the obvious practical benefits : the fact that you can talk to people who don’t speak your first language, can read things which have not been translated, can politely talk to people who don’t find it easy to speak your first language and can read things in the original.

When I was in high school adults tried to convince me to try to learn a second language by claiming that it broadens the mind. They failed. Since then I have, more or less, learned Italian. What have I gained ?

My impression is that my mind reminds just about as narrow as it was before.

I asked Elisabetta Addis (the woman to whom I am married) what she gained from learning English. She said it was very useful, because by learning a second living language she learned that there is more than one way to structure concepts, that is that the structure of Italian is not the structure of truth, but is rather just one of many equally valid structures developed for historical reasons. I confessed that I have had the impression that Aristotle was not always totally clear on the distinction between his immense contributions to understanding Greek and to understanding thought and logic and would have confidently claimed that true though was only possible in Greek. I was as usual speaking from ignorance.

Trying to understand my different impression, she suggested that math is, for this purpose, like a second language (she learned English and math beyond a fairly elementary level simultaneously and imagine how fun that was).

I said that I suspect that part of the reason is that no one could possible mistake the structure of English for the structure of truth. Partly, of course, English spelling is totally arbitrary and makes no sense. Also English is not logical because it is part German and part French. For example to find if a claim is true one verifies it. Or steer meat is beef and sheep meat is mutton. That is, since English is a weird hybrid, English is its own second language.

If so, this is important, since the only people who have a choice about learning a second language or not are native English speakers.

My unassisted thoughts on the topic below the fold.
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Sheffield a la mar

I have to confess to having had a fairly sucky 2004. Most of the causes are personal, and frankly not very interesting. But, as an example, my plan to spend the holiday season in Tunisia was abruptly cancelled because my wife got chicken pox. So, needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to 2005.

The wife got over her pox just a few days before Christmas, leaving us scrambling to find a vacation that both fit our respective work calendars, didn’t cost too much, and wasn’t booked solid. Consequently, I found myself at Zaventem airport at four in the morning on Christmas day fighting a miserable crowd so I could spend a week at Benidorm, Valencia, Spain.

I can’t claim I wasn’t warned. I did know that Benidorm – and the rest of the Costa Blanca – is something of a joke in the Dutch speaking part of Europe. After a week there, I still haven’t been in Spain. As far as I can tell, thanks to daily discount charter service between Sheffield and Alicante, the Costa Blanca is simply a warm, low-tax part of Yorkshire.
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Halfway There

This spring, the German newspaper whose web site isn?t quite as bad as another?s began publishing a series of 50 Great Novels from the Twentieth Century. It?s an admirable project in many ways — not least a cover price of EUR 4.90 per hardback. Thirty-seven books have been published so far, and I?ve now read about half of the whole list. Which is as good a point as any for taking stock.

I haven?t quite read 25 of the 50, but let?s face it, with Deutschstunde (German Hour, Siegfried Lenz, no. 28) clocking in at nearly 800 pages, and hefty volumes such as Jorge Semprun?s What a Beautiful Sunday! (Was f?r einen sch?nen Sonntag, no. 17) and Juan C. Onetti?s The Short Life (Das kurze Leben, no. 11), it?s going to be quite a while before I manage all of them.
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The Genie Outside The Bottle.

While we are waiting, Veronica Khokhlova offers her impressions from inside the Ukrainian Supreme Court hearing and finds the proceedings almost surreal given the atmosphere on the independence sqare – much better tv, for sure -

The judges look tired, interrupt every once in while, but let the Yushchenko’s team guy finish. Channel 5 interrupts the broadcast from the Supreme Court midway through the questions from Yanukovych’s team guy, switching live to Yushchenko’s address at Independence Square.

Yet there are equally important events going on in the Eastern provinces. With rising concern about a possible irredentist wave growing even within the Yanukovich camp – as indicated by President Kuchma’s statements today as well as by
the resignation of Yanukovich’s campaign manager Serhiy Tihipko
The Kyiv post notes that some oligarchs – notably Kuchma?s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk, valued at $3bn, may be ready to switch sides, while others, notably Rinat Akhmetov, reportedly Ukraine’s richest man and in “complete control of the Donetsk oblast”, do not yet appear to be ready to deal.

Although his relation to Mr Yanukovich has not been friction-free, Mr Akhmetov has significantly supported Mr Yanukovich’s presidential campaign. Allegedly, he met him on a Kyiv airfield last Wednesday, complaining about his lost “venture capital”, and punching Mr Yanukovich in the face before leaving.

Such episodes may not help Mr Akhmetov “to present a civilized face by patronizing the arts, learning to play the piano and being keen on football.” Yet the politically far more relevant question right now is – as noted by Yulia Mostovaya in her detailed analysis of the “Yanukovich nebula” – “has Akhmetov legalized his business enough so as to pursue an independent course or is he still vulnerable to state power, whatever name this power will have?”

It is still unclear (certainly to me) to which extent the “secessionist movement” is based on true popular support in the East, and to which extent it is (merely) an element of a game plan by oligarchs who may or may not be able to correctly judge their ability to put the genie back into the bottle after the the power struggle is over.

At the very least, it seems to me, the centuries-old ethnic/religious and linguistic cleavage will become an even more pressing problem in the future. Below, I have superimposed a couple of maps relating to the question.

The base map is from Wikipedia and reports the regional results of the Presidential elections. The violet area on top of the blue, Eastern, districts denotes some sort of “Russian-Ukrainian ethno-linguistic zone”, according to a map from ethnologue.com referred to by Mark Liberman on the language log, while the red ares indicate settlements by ethnic Russians according to a CIA map from 1994 (which, as well as many other maps of the area, you can find here, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin)

The difference of the two areas may explain why the CIA map refers only to 22% of Ukrainians as ethnic Russians, while “opinion polls conducted in 1994-1998 by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences in Kyiv show that the proportion of respondents who said that Russian was their native language ranged from 34.7 percent to 36.5 percent,” according a report by “The Ukrainian Weekly”, published in 2000.

While Russian seems to have lost some ground – particularly in the educational system – since Ukrainian independence, once again referring to the article quoted above, “between 1994 and 1999 the proportion of Ukrainians who chose Russian as their language of “convenience” increased from 43.5 percent to 50.9 percent.” It seems to me that the most pressing linguistic problem may be a status issue: the recognition of Russian as an official language.

So there may be a chance to put the genie back into the bottle.