German in the USA

When we were driving up through Wisconsin last year, flicking between local radio channels, we came across what sounded like yodelling and turned out to be a whole channel dedicated to Germanic music. This was amusing for a while, and then a bit confusing. How on earth did a local radio station survive playing what sounded like early-20th century traditional German country music for hours on end?

Well it turns out that there’s a public for it in Wisconsin. I don’t know what the exact figures are, but when millions of German immigrants came over to the USA in the 19th century, a good bunch of them settled in Wisconsin. We even heard rumours of local people (born in the US) speaking English with a German accent, although disappointingly never met any.

Then recently I came across an article on mental floss about a particular Wisconcin town where census data revealed that German was still being widely spoken in the 1910s, half a century and 3 generations after the original settlers arrived. Village life went on as it did everywhere else, but in German. I guess in the pre-mass communication, pre-higher education age you didn’t much need to communicate with anyone else outside of your own community, so if English didn’t come to you, you didn’t go seeking it out either.

This odd situation dissipated with the arrival of WW1 and anti-German sentiment, and presumably also with radio communication which introduced English into homes. This was also when German lost its position as the second most widely spoken language in the United States. Someone though clearly got on that radio bandwagon in Wisconsin and started a German radio station, which was maybe, just maybe, an ancestor of the one that we heard as we drove up to the Land of a Thousand Lakes.

In the same German vain, did you know that Benjamin Franklin published the first German-language newspaper in North America, the Philadelphische Zeitung, in 1732? And that German was still the second most spoken language in North Dakota in 2010? (Check it out through the Language Map Data Center) Or that the first Germans to cross the Atlantic in 1683 established a community called Germantown which is today part of Philadelphia?

In any case, if you’re a lonely German speaker in Wisconsin, I would invite you to check out the German Wisconsin Community Facebook page for Deutsche-themed events.

Linguistic Family Tree

Because I love art as much as I love languages, discovering the work of artists who take language as their subject is almost always a pleasure. This week a beautiful linguistic family tree cought my eye from a graphic artist who has an online comic called Stand Still Stay Silent. It’s a representation of the Indo-European and Uralic family tree. I can’t entirely vouch for the accurancy of the whole thing but the bits I know best look pretty good.

linguistic family tree


The language of dehumanisation

An excellent article in The Guardian this week by George Monbiot brought to the fore once again the beurocratic and politicised language used to dehumanise the objects (i.e. people) under consideration. He talks of the recent alleged use of the word “stock” by the British government to describe disabled people in the context of public work programmes. Other terms like “benefit units” to mean families, or “biomass” to refer to people on a medical waiting list (in Norway this time) are also shown in their true light as dehumanising jargon freeing beurocrats of pestering feelings of guilt or immorality.

By now we’re familiar with the American military terminology used to dehumanise the enemy – “collateral damage” or “enhanced interrogation” – so familiar in fact that these euphemisms, and their general acceptance by the mainstream media, have become somewhat of a joke to certain sectors of the population.  There’s even an NYT torture euphemism generator you can go play around with.

This infographic from highlights the main media culprits in the persistant avoidance of the use of the word “torture”.

torture graphic 1 web

But it’s not only “the other” drowning unseen in this torpid pool of jargon and euphemism. As Monbiot points out in his article, we are all concerned, whether we happen to be “stock”, “biomass”, or part of a “benefit unit”. The terms we use to refer to physical and psychlogical processes endured by individuals strongly dictates how they are perceived in society. Are you just plain crazy or do you have a mental illness?

As George Carlin brilliantly declines in his sketch on euphemisms (check it out to lighten the mood), whether you suffered from shell shock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD depended on which war you faught (the different terms refer to essentially the same condition). The more the century progressed, the more the condition’s traumatic and human nature seemed to evaporate, lost to a babble of syllables and medical terminology.

From the CIA to the HR department, language is used to hide behind, a veil of seeming complexity carefully and thoughtfully applied to confuse and obfuscate reality. Or as George Carlin puts it: “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins.”


I was recently trying to explain to the ever-present Frenchman in my life why writing “a whole nother story” was not a mistake on my part. No, I had not made a typing error, and no, ‘nother’ should not be written with an apostrophe before it as the ‘a’ had not disappeared, it had merely reappeared in front of the ‘whole’, and no, “another whole story” just wouldn’t mean the same thing.

I couldn’t think of the linguistic term for this phenomenon (‘an other’ >> ‘another’ >> ‘a nother’) so I searched around and disocvered the wonders of ‘rebracketing’ (or metanalysis or misdivision). Essentially rebracketing appears when pronunciation leads people to misunderstand where the parting between words occurs, and so the orange fruit which came from the Arab ‘narandj’ (still ‘naranja’ in Spanish) became ‘an orange’ when it firmly settle into the English language in the 14th century after transforming from ‘une norenge’ to ‘une orenge’ across the channel.

Other such examples are the transformations of Medieval words like ‘a napperon’, ‘a nuncle’, and ‘a nadder’, but rebracketing can go the other way too, with the best known examples being ‘a nickname’, ‘a notch’ and ‘a newt’, which were originally ‘an eke-name’, ‘an otch’ and ‘an ewt’. This, of course, can all happen far more frequently when a good part of the population is illiterate and the writing system is barely codified. Although that’s not to say that someday ‘nother’ might not enter the dictionary as an entirely seperate term.

Rebracketing can also happen in more complex cases, like when you misunderstand a whole phrase and interpret it differently as often happens when listening to songs. In ‘The Power of Babel’, John McWorther recalls how his mother always misheard a Church hymn as a girl, singing “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”, all the while imagining a visually impaired children’s book character. And I’m sure we can all sympathise having at some point mis-sung our favourite band’s lyrics at the top of our lungs, blind to the nonsensical nature of what we were saying.

There are multiple other examples: Stark-raving > Star-craving, Let alone > Little lone, Prima donna > Pre-madonna. And if you tell someone to “Polish it behind the door”, be careful that they don’t think you’re saying that Polly….

The racist literacy test

At the end of civil war in America a number of tests appeared which the poor and little educated had to pass in order to be able to vote. Although supposedly for all those who could not prove their level of education, these were overwhelmingly administered to the coloured population. Most were some form of ‘citizenship’ test composed of US trivia, but this one from Louisiana in 1963-4 is a literacy test, designed to do, well, we’re not really sure; probably designed to get as many people to fail as possible (one mistake and you’re out – no right to vote). It was supposed to be administered to anyone who couldn’t prove a 5th-grade level of education, but in practice almost all blacks were forced to take it even if they had a college degree while whites were often excused from taking it regardless of education level.

So here’s an example of how seemingly simple words can be put together to jargogle your brain. The following questions are taken straight out of the ‘literacy’ test:

Q1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.
Q5. Circle the first, first letter of the alphabet in this line.
Q15. In the space below, write the word “noise” backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward.
Q20. Spell backwards, forwards.
Q21. Print the word vote upside down, but in the correct order.
Q27. Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.
Q29. Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line, (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.

Are you confused? I sure am.

Determination of who “passed” and who “failed” was entirely up to the whim of the Registrar of Voters — all of whom were white. Strangely enough, whites almost always “passed” no matter how many questions they missed, and Blacks almost always “failed” by getting a question wrong.

Here’s an example of how the questions could be judged:

E.g. Q27 “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.” If a Black person were to print the answer, he/she would be failed because it says “write” so cursive writing was required. Not so for white people. If a Black person were to write “right” he/she would be failed. Why? Because, the registrar would say, you’re supposed to write “right from the left to the right”. If a Black person were to write “right from the left to the right”, he/she would be failed. Why? Because, the registrar would say, you’re supposed to write “right from the left to the right as you see it here.” But not for white applicants; for them, any answer would be accepted.

So in the summer of 1964, a bunch of students at Ohio State University decided to administer this ‘literacy’ test to fellow students, but this time “failing” all the white students and giving them a complementary ‘I’m illiterate‘ badge to wear as a sign of demonstration against this overt racism.  This led to a voting rights march on campus to urge our U.S. senators to vote for the Voting Rights bill which became law in 1965 and outlawed discriminatory voting practices.

I’d love to find one of these badges somewhere, what a great little piece of history to have on your lapel.