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Friday, March 20, 2015

Rumpelstiltskin: The Initial Version

Following my post on parallels I saw between Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Rumpelstiltskin, I dug a little deeper into the origins of the Grimm Brothers' tale and discovered that there exists an initial version in manuscript form, which has survived by sheer accident: The Grimms had lent a handwritten collection of tales to their friend Clemens Brentano, who was keenly interested in folk tales, and expected it to be returned. Well, Brentano never did, and the manuscript was found in his bequest—it's known as the Ölenberger Handschrift (Ölenberg Manuscript). This collection contains, among others, the original version of Rumpelstiltskin, who is called Rumpenstünzchen there. The link below will lead you to a translation.
Rumpenstünzchen - My translation
A comparison of this initial version with the published one is truly startling. It shows, first of all, the lengths to which the brothers went in editing the tales they had collected, which went well beyond embellishments and involved, in the present case at least, a substantial reworking of the plot.

It starts with a reversal in the premise under which the heroine is introduced. In the original, she cannot spin flax properly and always produces gold. In the later version, she cannot spin gold from anything. Subsequent modifications of the plot result from this reversal, as summarized in the table below. (Note that because of the terseness of the original version, the reader has to make assumptions about gaps in the plot, especially when it comes to motivation—it may well be that other readers will interpret the text differently from me, but the table shows my currently best guess.)
Original manuscript Published version
The girl always spins gold from flax. The girl cannot spin gold from anything.
Her predicament is, apparently, that this is not considered a useful talent. Her predicament is that the king expects her to spin gold from straw, as promised by her father, and threatens to kill her if she can't deliver.
Rumpenstünzchen helps her by marrying her to a prince. We must assume that this solves her predicament because either the prince does appreciate her talent or does not expect his wife to engage in lowly chores. Rumpelstiltskin helps her by spinning the straw into gold for her.
The king is impressed and marries her, and the two plots proceed more or less in parallel from here, except for the ending.
Rumpenstünzchen's punishment consists of his not getting the child. Other than that, he escapes unharmed. Rumpelstiltzkin not only does not get the child, but also dies a horrible death.
The Grimms not only rewrote the plot, but embellished it with details, and it's these details that suggested to me the parallels I saw between Rumpelstiltskin and Shylock. In the initial version, we have only the actions of the girl and Rumpenstünzchen, with a guest appearance by the maid—there is no societal context. In the published version, we have interactions between the various protagonists from which a context emerges, a hierarchically-structured society in which everybody has a proper role to play and against which Rumpelstiltskin remains the outsider: As is the case with Shylock, his services are sought to get a member of that society out of serious trouble, but he is denied his mutually agreed-upon compensation, essentially by a conspiracy of the insiders against him

It's fascinating to speculate if the Grimms were, at least subconsciously, influenced in their rewriting of the tale by Shakespeare's play—after all, Shakespeare was extremely popular among the German romantics—among them were A. W. Schlegel and L. Tieck, contemporaries of the Grimms, who completed (with other collaborators) the monumental task of translating all of his plays into German, making him a "German playwright."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Wortklauberei

Word of the Month: Index

Wort means "word" and Klauberei is a noun derived form the verb klauben—to carefully pick over or sort out something (not to be confused with glauben—to believe). The verb is neutral in its connotations, but Wortklauberei is decidedly not: It stands for a pedantically narrow interpretation of a word or expression, conceived in the most literal sense. The nouns referring to people perpetrating Wortklauberei are Wortklauber (masc), Wortklauberin (fem) and Wortklauber (plural); wortklauberisch is the adjective.

Here is an example. A recent New York Times crossword puzzle had as its theme "Where's Waldo?", represented by four theme answers containing different anagrams of WALDO. A crossword blogger complained that these answers did not "hide" Waldo because "he's not hiding so much as he is dismembered...If I accept this puzzle's premise, then the word 'hiding' just loses all meaning." I consider this Wortklauberei: If the name "Waldo" would appear unchanged in the answers, it would not be hidden, but visible in plain sight—in the realm of words, where crossword puzzles reside, anagramming a name is an elegant way of hiding it, to me at least.

Here's another, more substantive example: Article 1(1) of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz—Basic Law) declares
Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt. (The dignity of a human being is inviolable [literally, "untouchable"]. To respect and to protect it is the duty of all powers of the state.).
I've heard remarks to the effect that these two sentences contain a contradiction: If human dignity is inviolable, it does not need protection. Really? If an area is off-limits, doesn't it need protection nevertheless, or rather, because of it? The same is true for Article 1(1): Its intent is clear enough, and I find it wortklauberisch, and annoyingly so, to take the authors of the article to task for the language they used.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Mutti

Word of the Month: Index

Mutti Angela Merkel
Mutti is not a compound word, and there are perfectly fine equivalents in English. That is, the WoM for January does not satisfy any of the criteria I usually apply when making a WoM selection. But I decided to make an exception, motivated by a recent, remarkably nuanced portrait of Angela Merkel, the current chancellor of Germany, in the New Yorker (George Packer, "The Quiet German"). Merkel is known by supporters and opponents alike as Mutti, a diminutive of Mutter (mother), which is used in Germany like "mom" or "mummy" is used in English-speaking countries. For my brothers and me, for instance, our mother has always been Mutti.

On the face of it, Merkel is as unlikely a person to be called Mutti as you could find. She has no children. She obtained her PhD the old-fashioned way—she earned it, and in a hard science to boot (as opposed to some other members of her party who had their titles taken away after charges of plagiarism turned out to be true). But she abandoned her academic career when she became interested in politics after the unification of Germany and has pursued her new career with single-minded determination ever since. Her husband is a highly-respected university professor with his own career, and the two are hardly seen together in public. In other words, Merkel is not exactly Mutti material.

But the name has stuck. Merkel won her third election in 2013 (the third chancellor of the Federal Republic to accomplish this feat) with a campaign that was remarkable for its absence of big themes or grandiose visions. Her point was, "Stick with me and you're safe." Clearly, a large number of Germans bought it* and do not hesitate to call her Mutti, in a half-mocking and half-admiring way (that she looks the part, in a particularly dowdy fashion, may also play a role, particularly for those who use the moniker more derisively).

And there are many of those, if the comments I read on political blogs are in any way representative. In fact, there seems to exist an almost visceral hatred of her in parts of the left. Some of it may stem from old-fashioned snobbery—anything that's popular cannot be good by definition. But the hatred seems to sit deeper, and I find a clue why this may be so in a quote by a Social Democrat cited in the New Yorker article, "Merkel took politics out of politics." And that is anathema for those to whom ideology is the only thing that matters in politics; for those who are against a measure when it's ideologically incorrect, even if it works in practice, and conversely, are for a measure when it is ideologically correct, even if it does not work in practice. So, the common complaint against Merkel is that she has no vision and is just "muddling through" (durchwurschteln in German).**

I'm too far away to have a definite opinion on this (and would welcome comments from people closer to the action). But there are two traits of her I admire from my distant perch. It's first of all her ability to remain unaufgeregt ("unperturbed"), even when faced with attacks and insults of the most vile kind, as they happen routinely in countries unhappy with her fiscal policies and having a press that appears to be in a state of permanent hysteria. My favorite cartoon of 2014 (which I cannot show here because of copyright issues) was sent to me by my friend Volker Sayn. It shows a row of spectators looking after a group of politicians that just passed by, with a dowdy-looking woman in a pant suit in the center. Says one spectator to his neighbor, "That was Merkel? I did not recognize her without the Hitler mustache."

And she does not make a mistake twice. In her first election, she had run on a platform calling for continuing the economic reforms initiated by her (social-democratic) predecessor and had made an economics professor a member of her advisory team. He, in turn, used the occasion to introduce one of his pet projects, a flat tax rate, into the debate—and this in a country that firmly believes, across the political spectrum, in progressive taxation and despite the fact that absolutely nobody else regarded this an issue. The electorate was confused, and Merkel almost lost the election. She never again ran on a platform calling for significant reforms in any shape—her supposed lack of vision may be based on this experience.

A second example: When the Euro crisis started for good with Greece going practically bankrupt in 2010, Merkel called for leaders of the Euro Zone to get together and work out a general solution "in solidarity," only to learn that nobody wanted to follow her lead because it would inevitably imply the loss of some sovereignty for the countries involved. Merkel never suggested this again and has been trying to muddle through the crisis ever since. [If there's one principle she keeps in mind, it's not to "throw good money after bad" and to protect the German taxpayer from having to bail out countries that got into the mess they are in through their own fault (and many Germans love her for it).] I think she knows that when other countries call for Germany to assume more of a leadership role, it's a euphemism for asking the Germans to write blank checks for everyone asking for them—when German politicians suggest something else, like the need for some structural reforms, they are invariably chastized for "trying to tell other people what to do." [What's positively infuriating to some Germans is that at the same time, everybody feels perfectly fine lecturing the Germans about what they ought to do.]

If there is one issue where I believe leadership on the European stage is urgently needed (at no immediate cost for anybody), it's to impress upon the generations that have not grown up in the immediate aftermath of WWII that the European Union is an achievement of singular historical significance for a continent that has seen the type of bloodshed Europe has experienced for thousands of years. But alas, Merkel is not suited for this role—as the article mentions, she is an awkward public speaker, which is a polite way of saying charisma is not her forte.
*This astonishing map shows how sweeping her victory was—her party won 86% of the electoral districts (the black areas in the map—click on the "Wahlkreise" tab if the map does not appear immediately). If Germany had a system like the UK, Merkel's party would have controlled 86% of the seats in parliament. But since the final distribution of seats reflects the percentage of votes obtained by each party overall, Merkel had to form a coalition government in order to gain a parliamentary majority.
**Lindblom's The Science Of 'Muddling Through' (1959), a manifest of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, has never made an impression on "principled" Germans.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Geistesblitz

Word of the Month: Index

Geistesblitz Isaac Newton
In the present context, Geist means "mind" or "intellect." A Blitz is a lightning stroke, as it occurs during thunderstorms, or a flash, as used in photography. Taken together, they signify a promising idea that suddenly occurs to a person, illuminating his or her mind like a lightning stroke or flash.

I got the idea for the current Word of the Month recently when my friend Thomas Kreifelts sent me an article with the headline Geistesblitz in der Matschnacht—"Geistesblitz in the Mud Night," with intended pun on Matsch ("mud"), which is pronounced (almost) like English "match" so that the headline can also be understood as "Geistesblitz in the Match Night." The article describes a friendly soccer match played on Nov. 18 at night in pouring rain between the Spanish and German national teams. It was an uninspiring affair, not only because of the miserable weather, but also because neither side had been able to field the strongest team owing to injuries to key players. Just when spectators resigned themselves to a scoreless tie (the most boring of soccer results), the German midfielder Toni Kroos saw, in the penultimate minute of regulation time, a sudden opening and hammered the ball towards the Spanish goal from a distance—it slid over the surprised goalie's outstretched hands into the net for a score. It was Kroos's Geistesblitz that illuminated the night like a flash and warmed the hearts of at least the German fans.

Attentive readers will ask why our current word interjects "es" between the two components Geist and Blitz. Well, I guess the time has come to talk about the Fugen-s ("joint s" or "joining s"), which occurs sometimes in German compound words—we encountered it already in such Words of the Month as Armut-s-zeugnis or Glück-s-pilz. Its function is to make the word easier to pronounce. The "s" becomes "es" (turning the first component from a nominative into a genitive) when this further facilitates pronunciation, for example, by breaking up a consonant cluster.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Flemming's First and Second Law of Taking Offense

We live in a culture (and I'm speaking not only about the USA) that puts a high value on feeling offended. It seems that, for some people, finding occasions that allow them to be offended is a central purpose in their lives (if they have a life). I find this annoying most of the times, if not outright exasperating some times. And so, I formulated two laws of taking offense.

1. It is silly to be offended when no offense was intended.
This is so obvious to me that I won't elaborate.

2. It is silly to be offended when an offense was intended because it plays right into the hands of offenders: You react the way they want you to react; i.e., you are doing them a favor.

The rationale behind the second law may be less obvious—so, let me elaborate. I think that if you really want to frustrate would-be offenders, try to beat them at their own game by laughing at them or playing along (did I mention the name of this blog?); i.e., by making it clear that you are not offended. For example, there was a time when I followed live chats accompanying sports events like tennis matches. The level in these chats is so low that one has to participate to actually believe it; for example, a popular retort to someone whose remark a commenter does not like is, "I f***ed your mother last night." My standard response has been in this case, "And she loved it and wants more," which shuts them off immediately. Of course, I now avoid chats like that as a matter of course.

A more serious illustration for my second law at work is provided by groups who adopt a moniker meant to be derogatory and use it themselves—with pride. A recent example from Germany is the adjective schwul, which was, when I grew up, a really negative designation of homosexuals. But gay people adopted it and it's now a completely common designation stripped of its former connotations. Homophobes had to come up with a new derogatory term, which is now, as far as I can see from my remote perch, the noun Schwuchtel. I hope gay people adopt this one, too; i.e., keep the bigots continuously on the run, rather than trying to continuously run away from them.

Here's an example from history: The Dutch who fought for liberation from their Spanish occupiers in the 80-year war (1568-1648) called themselves geuzen, a word derived from the French word for "beggar." It had been used initially by the Spanish as a derogatory moniker for the Dutch who resisted them. By making the word their own, those same Dutch robbed it of its sting. (Source:, visited on Dec. 2, 2014)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Word of the Month: Die Quasselstrippe

Word of the Month: Index

Quasseln is a verb used colloquially in the sense of "yack" or "prattle," and a Strippe, again used colloquially, is a cord, line, or thin cable connecting two things. In the days when all telephones were connected by landlines, Quasselstrippe was used as a somewhat derogatory, if humorous moniker for a telephone: It was the line used by people to yack away. But landlines are a dying breed, whereas Quasselstrippe is still very much in use today—its meaning has shifted from the instrument used to yack to the yacker him- or herself. It now denotes a person who just won't shut up, on the cell phone, as a moderator on TV, or in any other context where this sort of behavior gets on people's nerve.

I love the term because of the way it sounds, but hesitated for a long time to feature it as a Word of the Month because it is a feminine noun—the implication seems to be that women are particularly fond of yacking; i.e., it could be considered sexist. But on closer inspection, that charge falls apart. The gender of a German compound noun is determined by the gender of the dominant compound, Strippe in the present case, and Strippe happens to be feminine. This gender assignment is completely arbitrary in the same way in which it is completely arbitrary that Wurst (sausage) is also feminine, Schirm (umbrella) is masculine, or Telephon (telephone) is neuter. That is to say, the gender of the majority of German nouns has nothing to do with sex or gender in the biological sense. I believe this is also true for Quasselstrippe—when the term was initially applied to a telephone, it was not because Strippe is feminine, but because a Strippe was one of the essential components of a telephone.

The distinction between grammatical gender and biological sex is sometimes hard to grasp for speakers of English, in which this distinction does not exist. Mark Twain, for example, in his famous essay on the awful German language, just could not wrap his head around this idea (but was able to milk it for comic effect).