One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Over at the Washington Post, an American and a Swedish professor team up to write an op-ed entitled "No, Sweden isn't Hiding and Immigrant Crime Problem, This is the Real Story". They run through the litany of excuses and explanations (expanded definition of rape laws, a culture which encourages crime reporting) without providing any relevant citations or links which I can see.

But the most remarkable claim is that Sweden provides its citizens with much more information about crime than American does because of Sweden's ideal open-information laws, which go back to the 18th century. Let me provide a few quotations — not in the original order:

[T]he government of Sweden is a model in making data accessible and actions transparent…

Sweden’s information landscape [is] a model for other countries to emulate…

Citizens in Sweden can use this information to hold their government accountable…

…Swedish police do not collect information on the ethnicity, religion, or race of perpetrators or victims of crime, which means there’s no evidence for claims that Muslim immigrants are committing crimes in record numbers.

Can you tell which of the four statements is not like the others? 

‘Bei’ und ‘Noch’ in Eastern Wisconsin

DeutscheHauser-annot-2

Source: Milwaukee's German Newspapers [http://milwaukeesgermannewspapers.blogspot.de/]

In my free time I've been dipping into the Netflix documentary 'Making a Murderer', which is about the trial of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin junkyard owner, for the murder of a young woman. It's pretty damned interesting, if you have a weakness for American courtroom drama.

One of the things that struck me is how German the American Midwest still is. Americans of German descent, like me, still form the largest ethnic group in America, with some 46 million people. Huge numbers of them settled in the Midwest of the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and in fact German was spoken as a native language by millions of people in places like Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois until well into the 20th century.

These days, German-Americans get no attention. German-Americans integrated completely into American society, keeping only their last names and perhaps a few scattered bits of tradition. And in fact, many changed those names to try to appear more Anglo-Saxon. Not only because some of the names were long and hard to pronounce, but also because fighting Germany in two world wars didn't do much for German ethnic pride. As I was growing up, the fact that my family was of German ancestry played almost no role at all, and the same was true for most everyone of German extraction I knew. After World War II, the notion of expressing much interest in your German heritage was seen as suspect in cosmopolitan circles.

So I was interested to see just how German the state of Wisconsin (largest city: Milwaukee) still remains.

Banner-ArbeiterZeitung(2)

The prosecutors and cops in the Steven Avery documentary have names like Gahn, Kratz, Wiegert and even Fassbender (!). The victim's name was Teresa Halbach. Avery's defense lawyers are named Strang and Buting. But what was even more interesting is the recordings and testimony of various witnesses. These were mostly country folk without much education, using nonstandard grammar: he ain't gonna win, don't none of this matter, etc.

But one thing both the educated and uneducated people had in common was using the English word 'by' just like the German word bei. Bei, in German, is like chez in French: it's an all-purpose proximity adverb meaning at someone's house, next to someone or something, near someone or something, the company you work at (I work bei Siemens), etc. English uses different phrases for all of these things: I'm going to John's house, I'm standing next to John, I work at Exxon.

But the people being interviewed for this documentary — and not just the ones with German names — used by in the German sense! I was by him (meaning at his house) the whole afternoon, I went up and sat on the stairs by (next to) Brendan, etc. They also used 'yet' in the German sense: instead of saying "she was still alive", they'd say "she was alive yet", just the way a German would use the word noch. This has nothing at all to do with accent, all of these people spoke perfectly normal Midwestern, with its slightly nasal vowels.

Scholars are pretty familiar with these aspects of Midwestern dialect, but I wonder how many of the Weicherts in Wisconsin and Monheims in Minnesota realize that their German heritage pops up in the way they speak every day?

-itzes, -ows, -dorfs- and -hausens

Moritz Stefaner, at truth and beauty, put together a list of the geographical frequency of place names in Germany. The whole map can be seen here. A few selections:

Place names Unspecified

I get that -ow and -itz are going to be mostly in the East, since they are usually transliterations of Polish words. But it would be interesting to know why certain other kinds of place names appear in such geographically distinct patterns.

Humorless Queue-Bargers

American writer Rebecca Schuman on her book about Germany, Schadenfreude, A Love Story:

Kafka is the muse of the book. Does his work encapsulate the German character—even though, as you are reminded again and again in the book, he wasn’t German at all? Do Germans find it annoying that the German-language writer who’s most widely read in English wasn’t even German?

They find it SO annoying, and I actually think that particular arc—someone saying, “Oh, you’re German—I love Kafka!” and then the German getting an opportunity to be pedantic (Ektually, zet’s not right is the national phrase of Germany, and I say that with love)—is the single most German thing in the world.

His work, though, definitely encapsulates the Austrian character (Prague, where he lived, was nominally Austrian for a lot of his life) with its endless bureaucratic entanglements. When I lived in Vienna for a year—a chapter, by the way, that got cut from the book—I had such a hard time getting registered for the university. I had to wait in line for 5 hours, and then when I finally got to the front, the worker was just like, Oh, I forgot to move you from one column to the other one, like it was the most normal thing in the world to require someone to come in for five hours to ask for a minor clerical task they didn’t know needed to be done. I got back to my desk at the research institute where I was doing my Fulbright and I said to my Austrian colleague: “I just realized that Kafka wrote nonfiction.”…

Do you have German friends who’ve read the book? What do they think of your portrait of their culture?

Just one so far, and he thinks it’s spot-on—but he’s very Americanized and has a great sense of humor about his mother culture. One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal. However, the second-most-endearing thing about Germans is that a sign of true friendship with a German is that you stay up all night screaming at each other in disagreement but still remain best friends. Germans don’t really believe in small talk and they don’t think that “certain subjects” are to be avoided in polite company, and they are pedantic as hell, but they don’t get offended easily. It’s one of the best things about them.

Is there a humor mechanism that replaces comic exaggeration, for the Germans? Or are they as humorless as some stereotypes suggest? (I grew up in England where the trope about Germans is that they always barge to the front of queues. I think this mostly speaks to the profound respect the English have for the queuing process.)

Oh, the queue thing is true. When I lived in Berlin I went to a Blur show in the dead of winter and had to check my coat. (It was a great show, by the way; Damon Albarn did an A-level in German and addressed the audience in German!) Afterward, I spent no less than 45 minutes in an obscene grinding mosh pit of German bodies, when a proper queue would have taken 5 tops. For a culture that prizes order so much that the idiom for “everything OK?” is Alles in Ordnung? the queuing habits are inexplicable.

As far as the humor thing—well, the stereotypes are true and they aren’t. The two most popular types of humor in German are slapstick and just bone-dry sarcasm. A great German “joke” is to say the meanest and most tragic thing possible and then follow it with a slight grimace. (Somehow it works.) Kafka, for example, was absolutely, rip-roaringly hilarious, obviously in a very dark way. Most people don’t know this about him, and early translations of his work (most of which are canonical) don’t play this up at all.

Might be a fun, light read.