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…

18 thoughts on “Ursprache is German. And so is Weltschmerz.

  1. Yah, I was a little gestört about the selection of purely German and other foreign words in the bee. As you pointed out, such words tend to get anglicized when pronounced by American speakers, and thus confuse the spellers.

  2. The listed pronunciation in either the American (Webster) or English (Oxford) dictionary is Velt-shmerts. How should it be corrected?

  3. That’s a fair enough rendering of it. Mind you, the dictionary ought to have a disclaimer of any responsibility for how the public may use words it contains..

  4. I can’t say I’ve encountered Ursprache or Weltschmerz much in English, but I know enough German that I’d know how to spell them if someone pronounced them properly. But I’ve heard people try to use German words on British TV, such as in a programme about German history, and they can end up so garbled as to be unintelligble.

    What’s really amusing is the way German and Yiddish surnames end up getting pronounced in the UK or America, even by their owners. Even the syllable parsing is unlike the original, eg Rothschild is often pronounced ‘roths-child’ (child pronounced as in the English word!).

    In any case, can someone explain to me the purpose of getting children to learn the spelling of thousands of obscure words they don’t know the meaning of?

  5. The wire service report also said that girl who won was thrilled when she heard this word, because she had learned how to spell it in practice.

    That makes me think these spelling bees have lost their point.

  6. Dictionary worship is at the root of all spelling bees. The idea that if its in the dictionary it must be correct is just lunatic. Spelling bees can only exist because English spellings have no particular systematicity outside of its core vocabulary. The French equivalent – the dictée – is a bit better, since it relies less on irregular spellings than on obscure morphological rules that apply only to written texts. But that’s only a bit more rational.

    I’m not sure why this kind of thing has become popular lately. Making a sport of the mastery of obscure pedantry is a tradition that I thought was losing ground.

  7. What the hell is ‘Ursprache’ supposed to be? Proto-Indoeuropean?

  8. still weird. Sounds a bit neo-nazi and seems to be a kudos to the Creationists. Since languages evolve gradually, like everything else, there cannot be something like an ur-language.

  9. There can be an oldest reconstructible state and for a pair of languages a latest common state.

  10. there is the term proto-language for that. ‘Ursprache’ is not used anywhere.

    And from the balcony, spelling competitions in a super-simplified language like English is a joke. Most native English speakers who make mistakes can’t distinguish ‘their’ and ‘their’. After that step the difficulty curve levels off rapidly.

  11. there is the term proto-language for that. ‘Ursprache’ is not used anywhere.

    And from the balcony, spelling competitions in a super-simplified language like English is a joke. Most native English speakers who make mistakes can’t distinguish ‘their’ and ‘there’. After that step the difficulty curve levels off rapidly.

  12. The children who participate in “spelling bees” are in part motivated by an interest in eytmology and a fascination with language. Can’t really make the connection with “neo-nazi” and creationism.

  13. Err…”ursprache” is used in German! More seriously, I’d point out that the entire notion of an earliest reconstructible ancestor for a language, not to mention essentially the whole of historical and comparative linguistics, was invented in Germany long before Nazis were even thought of.

  14. Of course spelling bees have nothing to do with […]. It’s the choice of words in this one. Ursprache brings up ideas of the Nazis search for the Arian ancestors. Ursprache is, scientifically, a long outdated concept. The fact that linguists can construct these proto-languages does not bring any proof that they ever existed. Indeed the old romantic notion of a common Ursprache can be proven wrong from a very simple evolutionary point, showing that cultures and their languages developed gradually, independently from each other in different parts of the world.

    Before the earliest proofs for what linguists call a language, like proto-germanic inscriptions on north-european stones a few thousand years old, there were for periods of hundreds of thousands of years, other forms of ‘language’ that will never be reconstructed because they were only transmitted orally. At which point in time and where on this planet should we place the one Ur-language then, without betraying the meaning of the ‘Ur’ particle? It’s only possible for the Creationists who dug out this one from the OED so it would get some exposure.

  15. It’s only possible for the Creationists who dug out this one from the OED so it would get some exposure.

    If you take the bible and the story about the Tower of Bable literally, reconstruction can only work back to the point of creation of these languages. Fundamentalistically speaking the idea of mankind’s one ursprache is heretical.

    The fact that linguists can construct these proto-languages does not bring any proof that they ever existed

    What?

    Indeed the old romantic notion of a common Ursprache can be proven wrong from a very simple evolutionary point, showing that cultures and their languages developed gradually, independently from each other in different parts of the world.

    You are making some very strong assumptions about the origin of homo sapiens and language. There’s no certainty that language predates our species, nor that it wasn’t invented comparatively late.
    The idea that language was so late an invention made at a single region and then spread, so that a common protolanguage can be reconstructed, is not unscientific. That these reconstructions fail may either mean that language is too old or that it originated from multiple regions, or that reconstruction techniques are inadequate.

  16. “The listed pronunciation in either the American (Webster) or English (Oxford) dictionary is Velt-shmerts. How should it be corrected?”

    Velt-shmairts would give an English-speaker a much better rendering.

    I don’t know how Americans pronounce “Velt-shmerts”, but if it sounds anything like “Velt-shmurts”, it’s off mark.

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