Wednesday, July 12, 2006

An Awesome Soccer Side-Effect

[slightly updated/edited]
These two articles, on a side-effect of the World Cup in the homeland I've never seen, heartens me to no end. I remember when the "collective depression" remark was made and was depressed for Germany; now I'm happy for her. Wow, do I wish I could be over there right now!

Feelings of patriotism stifled for decades by the Holocaust came to the fore...

Finally! I've always been patriotic both for the USA and for Germany, but when people around you have knowledge of German history that stops at 1944 ... It's hard to explain to some people how you can be patriotic for what's good about a country that's done something bad, or for what came after the bad. The answer, of course, can be gleaned from statements like this:

Germany was always full of friendly and optimistic people like Klinsmann -- it's just that they were often drowned out by all the complainers and pessimists.

The good was always there. It's just sometimes like trying to explain to a friend why you still love your brother, who hurt your friend deeply long ago, but has since grown better and wiser. Still, I wonder if this German patriotism wasn't still easier here than in Germany sometimes. (How do my German readers feel about this?)

You know something seismic has happened when England fans who came to Germany with inflatable Spitfires singing " 10 German Bombers" suddenly start supporting the German national team.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out this unprecedented phenomenon in an opinion piece for Sunday's Bild am Sonntag newspaper, and declared: "The old clichés have been replaced by a new, positive and more fair image of Germany."

Again, I'm gladdened to no end, both that Germans are/feel different, and that people are starting to feel differently about them. I don't mind all that much that there are stereotypes of countries out there. Positive stereotypes, if rather useless, can be fun. (E.g., I now know to plan transportation for any outing with my friends, even ones I'm not technically organizing, and I'll just tell Mikaela it's b/c I'm half German.) ;-) Negative stereotypes, however, regardless of how often you think you see them coming true, are not only uncharitable, they're rather pointless and only hinder you from actually knowing someone.

Anyway, I'm glad Germany was able to put such a great showing of hospitality, friendliness, and yes, organization. They've done a lot to get past their somewhat recent history; now maybe everyone else can do the same in their preconceived ideas about them.

Said Britain's Times newspaper,

"Never mind the final, Germans are the real World Cup winners."

And this despite the temptations to despair and depression that preceded the Cup. A great line from the article:

It seems the only people who had any concerns ahead of the World Cup were the hosts themselves. In fact, capital-A "Angst" dominated the run-up to the tournament. Not just the normal jitters any organizer would have, but deep, ponderous Angst. The German kind.

Hm. Speaking of stereotypes, I guess I do get that quite a bit... At least I can also be organized when I need to be. And friendly. (When I need to be.)

Herzlichen Glückwünsche, Deutschland!

Update: The International Herald-Tribune has this article, perhaps a better expression of what has happened, and in context of Germany's "psychological journey" since WWII.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Simplified Spelling

From sauvagenoble's post on, I found this story about the ongoing desire to simplify English spelling. Here is an attempt to organize what I think about this.

1. Even if we start spelling English with the International Phonetic Alphabet, we will never be able to represent spoken English with complete accuracy. Every language, even more "phonetic" ones, like German and Spanish according to the article, has discrepancies between spoken and written forms. This comes about both from change over time and change across regions. How will you represent "talk"? With a closed aw-sound, like in England and New York, or with the more open ah-sound of the rest of North America? Will my three separate pronunciations of Mary, marry, and merry be taught as wrong if simplified spelling means there are no longer three different vowels (long a, short a, short e) in these words? Even the transcription on the IPA's own page chooses the r-less pronunciation of international, taking one side of a division that spans the entire Anglophonic world.

Language change over time is also a challenge to simplified spelling. Everytime we look at a word and realize we (or some of us) have changed how we say it, do we change spelling accordingly? It seems like simplified spelling will only reflect the pronunciation of those who enact it, at the time they enact it. And as for change over longer periods, simplifying spelling means Shakespeare--writing in early modern English and thus a challenging version of the same language we speak--will instantly become for students about accessible as Chaucer or even Beowulf.

The goal of matching spoken with written English will never be met because they serve two different purposes: Spoken language matches the varying situations of life, while written language holds them all together just close enough to preserve a fragile unity. We all have multiple versions of spoken language: public-speaking, job-interview, talking to grandparents, chatting with friends, talking to pets, cursing wayward computers, etc. And this doesn't just entail variance in vocabulary ("stupid" vs "ill-advised"; "not my F-ing problem" vs. "perhaps you should check with..."), but pronunciation as well ("gonna" vs. "going to", "nah" vs. "no", "yeah" vs. "yes"). And of course the fine line between what constitutes a different pronunciation vs. a different word (Southern "cuss" vs. standard "curse") itself only highlights the difficulty of trying to nail down standard English pronunciation into a simplified spelling.

2. Moreover, simplified spelling rests upon the idea of representing spoken speech in written. Certainly this has been the goal of writing throughout history, but in this age of literacy and electronic access to written data, the relationship between a word's spoken and written versions is more complex, with each affecting the other. E.g., when I see the word pin, my mind thinks of the word as it sounds when I say it. Yet when I hear a word spoken, my mind really does three things: 1) it registers the sounds it heard and classifies them based on the categories I've already formed (learning more languages here definitely broadens the mind), 2) it recalls the spelling of that word, and 3) it recalls how I pronounce it (the 'right' pronunciation, in a purely referential sense). So when I hear my New York friend M say pin, I hear the sounds in my head, imagine the word 'pin', and automatically compare what I heard with how I say it myself. Ah, but when most of gaetanus' family says pin, I know that's how they say the word 'pen'. It's the written form that helps us both know what we're saying, as is obvious from the very simple act of saying "How do you spell that?" when you don't understand a word spoken by someone with a different dialect from you. This easy solution, referring to the unifying written form of a word, would be lost with simplified spelling; and when we have to ask someone to describe what they mean, rather than simply spelling it, we are talking about a completely different word from ours, which can mean the difference between two dialects and two languages.

3. The article says of simplified spelling proponents:

They even picket the national spelling bee finals, held every year in Washington, costumed as bumble bees and hoisting signs that say "Enuf is enuf but enough is too much" or "I'm thru with through."

Thae sae th bee selebraets th ability of a fue stoodents to master a dificult sistem that stumps meny utherz hoo cuud do just as wel if speling were simpler.

[To transliterate the last sentence, "They say the bee celebrates the ability of a few students to master a difficult system that stumps many others who could do just as well if spelling were simpler."]

First off: "th ability" ? Why not "the", or even "thee" in this case? And "fue"? Why not "fyu"? Granted, these were written by the reporter, not the proponents of simplified spelling, but I'd love to know what their system will be, because it's bound to have inconsistencies of its own.

Seriously though, the spelling bee isn't just a matter of fabricating a system for a few people to be good at, and then congratulating those few that they're good at it. The reason those talented young spellers are encouraged to be good spellers--and rewarded when they are--is because to be a good speller of English you must study a lot of worthwhile stuff from other languages. In learning the why behind the spellings of many even basic words, those bright young boys and girls learn a lot about Latin, Greek, Old English, German, Hebrew, French, Anglo-Norman, and myriad other languages that have contributed to the language we have today. They also learn rules for how English typically assimilates words from each language. One of the reasons English always seems like it has more exceptions to spelling and pronunciation rules than other languages is because we have multiple sets of rules we're drawing from.

(Note that I'm not talking about syntax, which in English has always been predominantly Germanic, even with non-Germanic vocabulary: Hence "attorneys general" is a construction that English speakers are generally aware of, but that always feels a bit foreign and awkward, hence the tendency to turn it from noun-adjective to compound noun and pluralize it as "attorney generals" (which is still currently grammatically incorrect). Anyway, the native Germanic syntax of English highlights again the absurdity of saying that we shouldn't split infinitives because they weren't split in Latin or some such. If we're going to not split infinitives, it should be for a reason internal to English, and be natural to native speakers, and serve some purpose related to communication: clarity, expressiveness, etc.)

Anyway, the rules of English are definitely complex, especially in America where foreign language are usually taught waaaay too late in school, and English is only taught as having a basic set of rules with a million exceptions, instead of several interacting sets of rules with a more typical amount of exceptions. As a learning tool, though, English can't be beat for what our own native words teach you along the way, and you might try teaching it better before you ditch its historical and international richness.