Oh the Weltschmerz of it all

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I've always wanted to know how many German-origin words there are an English, but usually couldn't even come up with more than a handful of well-known examples. So, for my and your records, here is what looks like the ultimate example to me... --Dirk

Wednesday, June 7, 2006 (SF Chronicle)
Oh, the weltschmerz of it all
Dan Hamilton

Want to win at English? Learn German. That's the unexpected message of the 2006 National Spelling Bee finals. America's new national champion, Katharine Close, won by spelling ursprache. The runner-up, Finola Hackett, tripped up on weltschmerz. Another favorite lost on heiligenschein.

Katharine might be excused for a shade of schadenfreude as she watched her friends falter, because behind all the prime-time glitz and angst was a simple lesson. German and English are both Germanic languages. They share many word origins and characteristics. That makes German a good choice for every English-speaking mensch, whether you are a kindergartner, a student, or just one of the familie. It's übercool, mann.

You don't have to be a wunderkind to learn a little German. Even Einstein was no Wunder as a Kind. Once you learn the basics, words that stumped the super-spellers are a piece of Kuchen -- every first-year German student can master their domain.

German is basically a Lego language -- just take word blocks, such as Welt and Schmerz, smash them together, and you've got some real weltschmerz.

It may sound painful, but it can be practical. For starters, you'll finally be able to understand those Volkswagen ads. And for the Doppelbonus, you could actually pronounce Fahrvergnügen.

Here's the leitmotiv: German is very American. It has worked its way into our world. While some worry loudly about too much Spanish, German has become everyday English. We check the weather on the Doppler radar and measure the temperature in Fahrenheit. If your neighbor chokes on his bratwurst, you give him the Heimlich.

German helps us make our way in American pop culture. How can one understand the deeper meaning of "Shrek" without some personal insight into Teutonic fairy tales? If you work really hard, you might actually be able to understand Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Kindergarten Cop" -- although my Austrian friends tell me he still needs to work on his Akzent. Run, Lola, run.

Achtung, though, there are some tricks. Soccer is football and foosball is Kicker. A Billion is a trillion. If you take your Beamer for a spin, you'll be driving an overhead projector. A Gymnasium is a high school. A Reformhaus is not a place for delinquents; it's a health-food store. A Roman is not some Italian guy, it's a novel. The Rathaus is the town hall, not where rats live (some may dispute that). An Evergreen isn't a tree, it's a golden oldie. And if you say "Play Misty for me," you've really stepped in it.

Once, I found myself in a tourist area of rural Pennsylvania, and strolled by das Gifthaus. I kept walking, because in German, Gift is pure poison.

See how handy German can be? In fact, in German, Handy is a mobile phone. I think they've got something there. "Cell phone" sounds like a germ spewer. Let's go with handy.

Sure, English is a must. But German is a plus. So let's take a cue from national spelling champ Close and improve our English by learning a little German this week. After all, on Freitag the biggest sports event on the planet starts in Germany -- the Soccer World Cup. Grab your Bier, settle back and repeat after me: TOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!!! It's wunderbar.

And if you find you have celebrated a bit too much, just take some Aspirin and call me in the Morgen. Gesundheit.

Dan Hamilton, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, is also dean of Waldsee, America's German Language Village, an übercool German immersion adventure program: www.concordialanguagevillages.org

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: http://www.riehle.org