The weltschmerz of it all

June 12, 2006|By DAN HAMILTON

Want to win at English? Learn German.

That's the unexpected message of the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee finals. America's new national champion, Katharine Close, won by spelling ursprache. The runner-up, Finola Mei Hwa 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 ubercool, 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 his or her 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.

Here's the leitmotif: 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 and 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? "You're a Harvard historian, for God's sake, not a pop schlockmeister," author Dan Brown exclaims in The Da Vinci Code.

If you work really hard, you might even be able to understand Arnold the Governator in Kindergarten Cop - although my Austrian friends tell me he still needs to work on his akzent.

German can be helpful wherever the zeitgeist may take you. J. K. Rowling took some good old German Sturm und Drang and turned it into Durmstrang for Harry Potter's Tri-Wizard tournament. It sounds a bit creepy, but it's better than Hogwarts. I can only imagine how she came up with that.

A little German can help you meister your business - after all, it's the wirtschaft, dummkopf. Germany is the world's exportmeister. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Bill Gates was when he was dubbed the softmeister. If a salesman seems to be giving you the same old spiel, a bit of German might help you decipher whether he is truly a weltmeister or just another spindoktor.

German can help in diplomacy, even if the inconvenient truths of realpolitik sometimes get in the way of America's idealpolitik. In the early 1980s, our ambassador to Germany, Arthur Burns, was called in by German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to explain the Reagan administration's overarching concept, its Gesamtkonzept, for American foreign policy. Without missing a beat, Mr. Burns replied, "Of course, Mr. Chancellor. Would you like the Gesamtkonzept from this week or from last week?"

Achtung, though, there are some tricks. Soccer is football and football is kicker. A billion is a trillion. If you take your Beamer for a spin, you'll be driving an overhead projector. If you are out smoking, you are in a tuxedo. A gymnasium is a high school. A pickel is a pimple. 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 the rodent community center. An evergreen isn't a tree, it's a golden oldie.

Knowing some German can be practical if your auto is kaputt, you have some wanderlust, or you want to explore the hinterland with your rucksack. One time 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.

Of course, kitsch is kitsch in any language. And I'm not sure anyone can understand Rammstein. There are times when it is best not to know.

See how handy German can be? In fact, in German, handy is a mobile phone. Handy. I think they've got something here. It is handy. "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 Katharine Close and improve our English by learning a little German this week. After all, on Freitag - Friday - the biggest sports event on the planet started in Germany - soccer's World Cup. Grab your bier, settle back and repeat after me: TOOOOOOOOOOR!!! 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 the Johns Hopkins University, is also dean of Waldsee, America's German Language Village, a German immersion adventure program. This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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