Has every song been written? “Eenheidsworst” (standardized sausage) in music


Veteran producer Rick Beato and a guest discuss the question, “has every song been written?”, in the video below. Short answer: no, but the harmonic palette, in particular, of popular music has  in recent decades been blanded down to such a degree that it becomes ever harder to do something unique within it.

Economic constraints — particularly the ever-shrinking revenue pool of the music industry — also make A&R people of record companies and songwriters-for-hire ever more risk-averse . The end result is what is known by a priceless Dutch word as “eenheidsworst” — standardized sausage.


Can you legally use a historical classical music recording in a video or book trailer?

I have previously blogged about “fair use”  in copyright law, and mentioned there in passing that both law and jurisprudence are much more permissive about short textual excerpts from long written works than about, especially, audio or images. If you want to use a Beatles song (or a Rush song) for a book trailer, you’d better pay the licensing fee (which can range from reasonable to astronomical) or be prepared to fight a lawsuit. (Noncommercial music theory/appreciation videos, which include an element of scholarship or criticism about the music itself, tick off a couple more boxes and are comparatively safe. Even so, veteran record producer Rick Beato has suffered DMCA takedowns for some of his marvelous “What makes this song great?” episodes on YouTube.)

But what about a classical piece of music — and specifically, a composer who has been dead for over 70 years? The music itself — i.e., “just the notes, ma’am” — is without a doubt in the public domain. But what about a historical performance? Say, you’ve decided a theme from a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony is just what you need for a book trailer.  It is quite easy to find an online source for a performance by, say, the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler from the 1940s — for example, this gem here. Better still: in Europe, recordings that old have passed in the public domain.

Under German law, the copyright term for recordings which were made prior to January 1, 1963 has expired, meaning they have entered the public domain. Recordings taken after that date were given extended protection in 2013 and thus cannot be digitized. Aware of this rule, I only undertook to upload recordings which were taken before the 1963 date in order to fully comply with the law. Despite that precaution, the process that followed presented a number of unexpected challenges[…]

The 1963 cutoff date would imply that, for instance, Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are now in the public domain, at least in Germany (and the rest of the EU, presumably).

However, as discussed here at great length, the situation in the US is rather different. Audio recordings were treated very differently from other media, and public domain for them effectively did not exist in the US (except, of course, if the artists themselves placed the work there and the composition was not otherwise copyrighted). Only very recently was a form of public domain established (following a 3-year transition period to end in 2021) for recordings prior to 1922.

1923-1946 recordings will have an effective copyright term of 100 years (95+5), and 1947-1956 recordings a 110 year term (95+15). Recordings made between 1957-1972 will go into the public domain in 2067, as previously.

For so-called “orphaned works” (i.e, works for which no copyright owner can be located or identified, e.g., the record label is long out of business and nobody else picked up the rights at auction), the new law

Includes provisions to allow non-profit streaming of recordings which are verified to be out-of- print. This is a start …

But we are still out of luck for our hypothetical example. So what are your options?

If you have a specific reason to use that historical recording, you may need to go through the process of buying the license rights.

But if any decent performance of that specific piece of orchestral (or choral) classical music will do, then your options are basically:

(a) Try to locate a modern recording released under a Creative Commons license. (That would usually be an amateur orchestra.)

(b) Try to locate a “library music” recording for purchase from a site like PremiumBeat or Pond5. Such sites work much like stock photo sites: you pay a onetime fee, and the recording is a “work for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you’ve paid the fee, you own the recording and may do with it as you please. (Usually, this is a non-exclusive license: exclusive licenses will set you back more money.)

(c) Produce your own synthesized version using digital music production software. This requires at least some musical skill though, and the result may sound, well, “synthetic”, but this may actually be quite OK for a book trailer.

(d) If you have some experience conducting, assemble a pickup orchestra from a local conservatory and produce your own amateur recording. (This is hard work but not as hard as it sounds, since typically you could limit rehearsals and recordings to a short excerpt of the whole work.)

(e) As a last resort, find and buy a piece of library music that is similar in mood.

Solo instrumental or chamber pieces are much less of a challenge, since you are more likely to find it under (a,b), while option (d) — hiring one or a few students from your local conservatory to play a couple of takes for you to record — is much more practical than for something that requires a whole symphony orchestra. And of course, if it’s a solo piano, violin,… piece and you can passably play the piece yourself, recording yourself and (if need be) cleaning up the recording a bit in GarageBand or Logic Pro may be the simplest and cheapest option of them all.

Black Friday Promotion: Novel “On Different Strings” just $0.99 from Tuesday through Saturday

In honor of Thanksgiving as well as a cover refresh, my first novel, “On Different Strings” will be just $0.99 starting Tuesday 1 AM through the end of Saturday.

Set in a fictional US college town, it is a tale of second chances after broken hearts, of cultural and other differences being bridged by music, of heartbreak, and eventual redemption. Campus insanity and administrative Kafkaism figure along the way.

“A genre-busting love story” (Bookhorde.org)

“A love story, a detective mystery, a musical journey. You need this book!” (Pat Patterson)


Eerily prescient 1907 poem by Stefan George: “Der Widerchrist”

This poem was written in 1907 by the German symbolist and “national renewal” poet Stefan George. It is as if he was prescient about what would happen in his own country in 1933. Or perhaps he simply understood a timeless truth about human nature: the attraction of a charismatic flimflam artist or ideology, and how they can lead a nation astray and asunder.

Those who have read Peter Hoffmann’s priceless biography of the Stauffenberg brothers Berthold and Claus will be aware they were both members of Stefan George’s inner circle. And indeed, Claus would countless times refer to this poem whenever Hitler [y”sh] was being discussed.

Here is Peter Viereck‘s verse translation, and below that follows the German original.

The Anti-Christ
He comes from the mountain, he stands in the grove!
Our own eyes have seen it: the wine that he wove
From water, the corpses he wakens.
O could you but hear it, at midnight my laugh:
My hour is striking; come step in my trap;
Now into my net stream the fishes.
The masses mass madder, both numbskull and sage;
They root up the arbors, they trample the grain;
Make way for the new Resurrected.
I’ll do for you everything heaven can do.
A hair-breadth is lacking – your gape too confused
To sense that your senses are stricken.
I make it all facile, the rare and the earned;
Here’s something like gold (I create it from dirt)
And something like scent, sap, and spices –
And what the great prophet himself never dared:
The art without sowing to reap out of air
The powers still lying fallow.
The Lord of the Flies is expanding his Reich;
All treasures, all blessings are swelling his might . . .
Down, down with the handful who doubt him!
Cheer louder, you dupes of the ambush of hell;
What’s left of life-essence, you squander its spells
And only on doomsday feel paupered.
You’ll hang out your tongues, but the trough has been drained;
You’ll panic like cattle whose farm is ablaze . . .
And dreadful the blast of the trumpet.

Stefan George’s original:

Dort kommt er vom Berge · dort steht er im Hain!
Wir sahen es selber · er wandelt in Wein
Das Wasser und spricht mit den Toten.‹
O könntet ihr hören mein Lachen bei Nacht:
Nun schlug meine Stunde · nun füllt sich das Garn ·
Nun strömen die Fische zum Hamen.
Die weisen die Toren – toll wälzt sich das Volk ·
Entwurzelt die Bäume · zerklittert das Korn ·
Macht Bahn für den Zug des Erstandnen.
Kein Werk ist des Himmels das ich euch nicht tu.
Ein Haarbreit nur fehlt und ihr merkt nicht den Trug
Mit euren geschlagenen Sinnen.
Ich schaff euch für alles was selten und schwer
Das Leichte · ein Ding das wie Gold ist aus Lehm ·
Wie Duft ist und Saft ist und Würze –
Und was sich der grosse Profet nicht getraut:
Die Kunst ohne roden und säen und baun
Zu saugen gespeicherte Kräfte.
Der Fürst des Geziefers verbreitet sein reich ·
Kein Schatz der ihm mangelt · kein Glück das ihm weicht ..
Zu grund mit dem Rest der Empörer!
Ihr jauchzet · entzückt von dem teuflischen Schein ·
Verprasset was blieb von dem früheren Seim
Und fühlt erst die Not vor dem Ende.
Dann hängt ihr die Zunge am trocknenden Trog ·
Irrt ratlos wie Vieh durch den brennenden Hof ..
Und schrecklich erschallt die Posaune.


100 years ago: Armistice Day, end of WW I


100 years ago to the day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice went into effect that ended The Great War. Its reverberations are many to this day: I will just mention a few below. ( The Rearview Mirror has some further reflections. )

The people of the time did not call it (yet) World War One, as they thought the Great War would be the war to end all other wars. Sadly, its ambiguous ending sewed the seeds of another war, to be more terrible still. The myth spread that the losing side had not really lost on the battlefield, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front (the so-called Dolchstosslegende). The Versailles Treaty, and the crippling and frankly unrealistic reparations payments it imposed, did the rest: in the resulting instability, a demobilized, shiftless lance corporal who’d been sent to eavesdrop on a newly formed “German Workers Party” ended up its leader instead, and his case officer (Capt. Ernst Röhm) the commander of its party militia. The rest is (grisly) history.

In general, out of a quite human, understandable desire to never see such a large-scale conflict again, pacifist and appeasement sentiments ruled that actually emboldened such as had learned a very different lesson from the conflict — said corporal [y”sh] and his future partners in crime.

Not every invention brought to bear on WW I was just meant to kill people and break things. The Bosch-Haber ammonia synthesis, for instance, saved millions from starvation then and has been a life-giver ever since, even as its existence probably extended the war by another two years.

Another legacy of the war has been the attempts to create international organizations which were to prevent war — the League of Nations then, the United Nations after WW II. Lofty as the aims in their creation were, the UN, in particular, would degenerate into a sickening parody of itself, where “human rights commissions” can be chaired by bloody dictatorships, and an organization meant to assist one group of refugees from one conflict ended up perpetuating its own existence through the expedient of extending refugee status to all descendants of the original group in perpetuity — a definition not used for any other group of refugees.

Yet another, very different, legacy was in poetry. Fifteen of the best-known war poems are gathered here: let me quote just three.

In Flanders Fields, by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Perhaps, by Vera Brittain

(Dedicated to her fiance Roland Aubrey Leighton, who was killed at the age of 20 by a sniper in 1915, four months after she had accepted his marriage proposal)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.



Midterm blue ripple, or midterm purple muddle

The 2018 midterm elections are mostly in. As usually happens in midterm elections, there was a loss in the house for the incumbent party.

But a “blue wave”? More like a purple muddle, or a “purple puddle”, as Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds called it in USA Today.

In the house, the D got 220 seats vs. 199, with another 16 races not yet called. One of these leans R, and five more are toss-ups. FiveThirtyEight predicts eventually 34 seats will flip control. (One district, MN-8, bucked the trend by flipping D to R.)

In the Senate, something quite different happened. The GOP actually strengthened its hold there: at present, the balance is 52:45 and three races not yet called. Of those, Mississippi is headed for a runoff election, McSally leads “The Cinema Show” (or the Synema Chow?) by just under a percent with 3/4 of votes called, and Rosendale actually is leading  Jon Tester (with 84% of votes in). Let’s call it 54±1 R, 46±1 D.

A mixed bag also in the gubernatorial races. The saddest defeat, to me, was Scott Walker in WI, tempered by the good news in some other states like GA.


There are two basic ways to spin this cat (ahem), depending on where you come from::

Either that Trump threw himself in front of the “blue wave” and blunted it, if not outright turned it into a purple muddle.

Or that the “blue wave” did emerge and the Dems would have taken the Senate as well — if they hadn’t snatched defeat from the jaws of victory there by going for broke on Kavanaugh.

But there is no way the Democrats can spin this as an undivided victory. Will they be sobered by this and at least pay lip service to “working with the other side”? Sure, and I can get you a yuuuuge deal on some beachfront land in Nebraska.

Finally, while my dog would have made a more coherent representative than Occasional Cortex (or, as Ace calls her, “Loopy Ocasio Fiasco”), the scandalous disenfranchisement of Female Canine Americans continues unabated.

What, exactly, is a “correct” classical performance? And how do music editors correct typos? Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue for organ, BWV 542

No, I won’t go into the manifold questions of interpretation here, and on the whole debate pro/con “historically informed” performance. What do you do when there is even no agreement on what the correct notes are?

The other day I heard somebody play Liszt’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor for organ, BWV 542. The Fantasy happens to be one of my two favorite pieces ever in the entire organ literature (the other being the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582), so I’m very familiar with its twists and turns.

So I was struck by two “mistakes” that stuck out like sore thumbs:

(1) in one of the solo recitativo bits of the Fantasy, the pianist hit a loud F natural where I’d always played a D (and as the last preceding chord was Bm/D, the F made no harmonic sense to me), and

(2) he played the final chord of the fantasy as G major rather than G minor. (Such a “Picardy third” — ending a minor-key piece on a major triad — was still the norm in Bach’s time, as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant. Bach himself, however, would end minor-key preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier on minor triads to indicate the fugue was still to follow.)

Google Scholar is your friend then, and it turns out not only is there an entire academic journal called Bach, but that a long essay in it had been dedicated to the source provenance and variant readings of exactly this piece.

William H. Bates, “J. S. Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542: A Source Study for Organists”, Bach 39(2), 1-88 (2008).

Turns out that no original manuscript has been preserved, but the piece has been transmitted through multiple first- and second-generation manuscript copies by pupils of Bach, their pupils, and by an anonymous copyist at a royal library. [*] What’s more: for the fugue, they appear to derive from at least three different source versions: an original, Bach’s later emendation, and a version transposed to F minor. Dozens of minor discrepancies exist.

For the fantasy, of which appears to have been substantially only one source version, there are “only” three outright variant readings in the notes. Aside from the final chord noted in (2), they are a comparatively trivial change at bar 42 and the one noted in (1):


Thus the mystery is solved. The score I have, a Dover paperback, is a reprint of the BG (Bachgesellschaftedition, or Bach Society Edition, b. above) — which is followed in many classical organ recordings. The Liszt piano arrangement I heard was based on a different source (a. above) — it seems that the source material (c,d) had a oddball “E” (presumed transcription error) which had been editorially corrected in two different ways:

a. consistent with a later occurrence of the phrase in bar 44 (a fourth higher), which is the choice made by the Bärenreiter and Breitkopf & Härtel editions;

b. consistent with the preceding chord (Bm/D), which is the choice made by the Bach Society Edition after 1900 (originally they printed the E).

Also, I learned from this article that the Fantasy and the Fugue appear to have been entirely separate compositions, which (because of their compatible keys) were paired by custom, sometime after Bach’s death. This offers a clue as to the “Picardy third” mystery: as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant in Bach’s time, final movements of minor-key works still customarily ended on major triads, though Bach would often end a minor-key prelude on a minor third if there was another movement to follow.

“The lonely lives of classical music scholars”, you say? Maybe that too, but also, for this scientist and amateur musician:

(a) a sobering observation on what exactly constitutes “authenticity” in classical music performance;

(b) an interesting parallel with great literary works from the English Canon hat were only printed after the author had passed away.


[*] Unlike for works like Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, there is ample internal and external evidence that J. S. Bach was the author of BWV 542.

Disturbed, “Savior of nothing”

After a three-year hiatus except for a mind-blowing cover of “The Sound of Silence”, the new Disturbed album is out. It’s got the trademark sound: David Draiman’s powerful yet melodic vocals, crunching guitars blended with bits of electronics, … The iron-strong opener “Are you ready” sets the tone.

But lyrically, the message of one track stands out. It hardly needs explaining what this is about.


Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the savior of nothing now

When you were a young one, they tormented you
They could always find a way to make you feel ashamed
Now that you are older, everything they put you through
Left you with an anger that just cannot be contained

So you spend every day of your life
Always searching for something to set you on fire

Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the savior of nothing now

Everywhere around you, you find reasons to
Turn into a warrior to protect what you believe
But you think their beliefs, make them less than you
And that is a delusion that your sickness has conceived

Now you spend every day of your life
Always hoping that something will spark the desire

Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the saviour of nothing now

(Repeat chorus)


Saturday the 13th: Tale of another failed Hitler assassination

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the question: “why didn’t anybody try to kill Hitler” (y”sh), I’d have a tidy sum of money. In truth, depending on how you define an attempt, there have been over forty events that may qualify, over a dozen of which became serious. Four of the latter came within a hairbreadth of succeeding. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • the July 20, 1944 plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie)
  • Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
  • Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943, about which today’s blog post
  • Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which a future blog post

All would-be assassins had to find ways to circumvent elaborate security measures, that only got more stringent with every known attempt. By the time of the war, there were three concentric protection circles — not counting ad hoc deployment of Gestapo, SS, and SD:

  • outer perimeter security of the Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair and other forward headquarters was assured by a battalion from the elite Grossdeutschland motorized infantry division: this Führerbegleitbatallion (Leader escort battalion) grew into a regiment with tanks, armored carriers, and anti-aircraft guns, and eventually (after Hitler holed up for the last time in his Berlin bunker) was sent to the front as a division.
  • inner security was provided the Reichssicherheitsdienst  (RSD) of up to a few hundred trained police and security personnel (not to be confused with the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, which was the SS’s domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus), which protected not just Hitler but other top Nazi functionaries. Its commander  Hans Rattenhuber was also the overall security chief.
  • finally, 8-12 trusted bodyguards recruited from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (the 1st Waffen SS regiment, later a division) provided the closest-in security, and did double duty as valets and messengers. This Führerbegleitkommando answered to the Führer directly, in practice to his chief adjutant Julius Schaub. A number of those stayed with their master in the bunker to the last.

Gersdorff recalls in his memoirs, Soldat im Untergang/Soldier In The Downfall, that, when a senior officer pulled out his handkerchief as he had a cold, an RSD agent grasped his hand while it was in his pocket and brought it up very slowly, then only let go when he was certain it only contained an innocuous object.

Col. (GS) [**] Henning von Tresckow, the Ia Staff Officer (Operations) of Army Group Center, and his adjutant, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who happened to be Tresckow’s cousin), had been convinced since the autumn of 1941 that Hitler had to be removed, if need be by assassination. While they were unabashed German nationalists and outright anticommunists, the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by SS “task forces” (Einsatzkommandos) had been a bridge too far — especially once Tresckow and his aide discovered that these were not isolated war crimes by rogue units, but part and parcel of a systematic policy handed down from the top itself. Gradually and carefully, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff gathered a group of conspirators around them, with the Ic Staff Officer (Intelligence) Col. (GS) von Gersdorff as an early recruit.

When the Führer was to fly to Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) headquarters near Smolensk, a plan formed in the conspirators’ minds. If only they could smuggle a bomb with a time fuse on board of the Führer’s personal FW 200 “Condor” before it flew back, that could circumvent many of the problems with a shooting or grenade attack.

Gersdorff, via his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters (where another group of conspirators went all the way to the top), had managed to get hold of a stock of captured British “Nobel 808” plastic explosives — more powerful and reliable than anything in their own arsenal — and of so-called “time pencil” detonators, which make no sizzling or ticking noise. The available time pencils came in 10 minute, 30 minutes, and 2 hours variants. The image below, from the US National Archives, illustrates their mechanism:


Briefly: on the inside of a soft metal housing was a glass vial with a strong acid. The pencil was primed by bending or applying strong pressure, which crushed the vial. The acid would burn through a thin metal wire that held back a spring, to which a striker pin was attached. The striker pin would hit a detonator cap, which finally would set off the explosive. The duration of the process will be determined by the concentration of the acid and the thickness (and composition) of the wire. In cold weather, of course, the chemical reaction will be slowed down…

Tresckow and Schlabrendorff did do their homework: in between their extensive staff officer duties, they managed to carry out thorough experiments with the explosives and fuses. They discovered that cold weather could extend the stated time of the time pencils by over 100%, but that they were otherwise quite reliable, and that about a kilogram of explosive should be adequate to blow the Condor’s fuselage to bits.

They prepared an explosive parcel disguised as two bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which contained about 2 kg of Nobel 808.

At any rate—while Hitler (and/or Rattenhuber?) were notorious for changing movement plans at the last minute, two planes carrying Hitler, his entourage, and his close-in protection detail did duly land on Saturday, March 13, 1943. (One was the dictator’s personal Focke-Wulf 200 Condor illustrated below — not the Junkers 52 shown in the opening scenes of the movie “Valkyrie”. [*])

FW 200

Schlabrendorff, in his memoirs Offizieren gegen Hitler (see also here in English), recounts  that during the dinner following the briefing, the dictator would only eat food prepared by his own cook, then taste-tested before his eyes by his personal physician Theodor Morell. “The proceedings reminded one of an oriental despot of bygone ages.” (F. v. S.)

Tresckow approached one of Hitler’s closest aides, Col. Heinz Brandt, if he could do him a favor: he owed his friend Gen. Hellmuth Stieff two bottles of liquor because he had lost a bet with him, and if Col. Brandt would be so kind as to deliver it to him? This being a not uncommon request among staff officers, Brandt agreed. Schlabrendorff, being Tresckow’s aide, was asked to bring the liquor to the plane.

Once Schlabrendorff saw Hitler board the plane, he surreptitiously primed the 30-minute time pencil he had earlier selected, and handed the package over to Brandt — who boarded the same plane as Hitler (otherwise Schlabrendorff would have had to come up with a last-minute excuse that it wasn’t the right parcel, or something).

The plane took off for Rastenburg, East Prussia (presently Ketrzyn, Poland) — the location of the Wolf’s Lair — and the conspirators gave a coded heads-up to their co-conspirators in Berlin. The next code word would follow once a signal had come to the HQ’s communications room that the plane had crashed.

The pair waited anxiously — then a signal came in that the plane had duly arrived at Rastenburg.

Gen. Stieff would later join the conspirators, but was not (yet) in on the plan, so if he started opening the bottles, he would be in for quite a ‘spirited’ surprise. So Schlabrendorff traveled to Rastenburg himself and told Col. Brandt that there had been a mixup: he had been given the wrong bottles (Cointreau), so if he wouldn’t mind giving them back and trading them for the right bottles (Cognac)?

Brandt suspected nothing, and the substitution was made with a smile. Schlabrendorff made his way to the nearby railroad exchange, and there caught a night train to Berlin.

Once in his sleeper compartment, he locked the door and very cautiously, with a razor blade, excised the failed detonator from the explosive charge and started disassembling it.

As it turned out, the glass was broken, the wire had been eaten through despite the cold, and the striker had been released.

Only the percussion cap, for the first time ever in all their experience, had failed to fire.

The English school children’s rhyme of old comes to mind:

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,
and all for want of a nail.

Or “all for the want of a percussion cap”, the war dragged on for two more years and many millions more were slain.

[*] Update: according to “Guarding Hitler” by Mark Felton, the second plane was also a Condor, but without the armored compartment (12mm steel, 50mm bulletproof glass) and parachute seat for the Führer.

Apparently, the first plane was taken up for a 10- or 15-minute test flight before every trip with the Führer. This would also have set off any bomb with a barometric fuse, had one been smuggled aboard.

[**] Note about ranks: Both Tresckow and Gersdorff’s formal ranks were Oberst i. G., in full Oberst im Generalstabsdienst: Colonel in General Staff service. I have rendered this as Col. (GS). Permanent assignment to the general staff was indicated by red vertical trouser stripes (“Lampassen”) in the uniform.

Bavarian Landtag (state parliament) elections 2018: “Wir haben es kaum geschafft” (we barely made it)

Last Sunday, Bavarians went to the polls for their regional/state parliament (the Landtag). These elections were seen by some as a referendum on federal chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy. The CSU (=Christian-social union), the sister party to the national CDU (=Christian-democratic union) felt the stridently anti-immigration AfD breathing down its neck and distanced itself from her. Did this tactic work?

Summarizing reporting at the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Die Welt, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel online, and the national newscast “Tagesschau”, here are the results:

CSU: 37.2% (down 10.5) [christian social democrats]
SPD: 9.7% (down 10.9) [social democrats, center-left]
FDP: 5.1 (up 1.8%) [classical liberals, pro-market & business]
Greens: 17.5% (up 8.9%)
Freie Wähler: 11.6% (up 2.6%) “Free Voters”, centrist, non-aligned
AfD: 10.2% (from nowhere) right-wing, stridently anti-immigration

The “former” communists of Die Linke (3.2%, up 1.1%, hard left), and further small parties totaling 5.4%, did not clear the 5% electoral threshold, unlike the FDP which returns to parliament after falling short of the threshold last time around.

Landtag seats (out of 205, 103 needed for a majority):
CSU 85, Greens 38, Free Voters 27, AfD 22, SPD 22, FDP 11

Coalition negotiations have already started with the Free Voters, which would create a somewhat comfortable majority of 112. The FDP announced it will remain in the opposition: the Greens are in Germany traditionally split between a pragmatic “Realo” and hardcore “Fundi” wing, while the AfD, especially in Bavaria, is split between a national-liberal wing akin to Belgium’s N-VA, and a far-rightist faction with some unsavory elements.

The Biggest Losers

The CSU actually put in its worst performance in 60 years. Some (e.g. veteran psephologist Heinrich Oberreuter, himself a CSU member, quoted here) claim that this means the strategy of trying to position itself as AfD-lite on immigration backfired, while others claim it prevented an even bigger drubbing. The actual numbers (screenshots from the Tagesschau) seem to tell a mixed tale:

CSU voter movement

So the party actually drew 270,000 voters who did not vote in the previous election (voter participation, at 72.5%, was nearly 9% higher than in 2013), plus 100,000 SPD voters, while losing almost half a million voters split roughly equally between Greens, Free Voters, and AfD. One common complaint (70%) of those who changed their vote was that the CSU overstressed immigration to the exclusion of all other subjects.

But if the CSU saw a historical nadir, the SPD — the other major national party besides the CDU, and the country’s largest under Willi Brandt and Gerhard Schröder — is even deeper in the doldrums, having fallen to single digits! Where did they lose votes to?

SPD voter migration

Aside from the 100,000 who switched to the CDU, they lost big time to the Greens (200,000) and appreciably to the Free Voters (70,000) — but 30,000 even flipped to AfD!

When defectors were queried about their motives, three answers were gotten most frequently:

• 86%: time to “take the opposition cure”, as the priceless Dutch expression goes

• 85%: party lacks a central theme that can get people fired up

• 67%: nobody knows what the party really stands for

The latter is, of course, the most damning indictment of all.

In two weeks, there is another Landtag election coming up in the state of Hessen (the most important city of which is Frankfurt, though Wiesbaden is the state capital).

Angela Merkel’s words, “Wir schaffen das” (we can do this), have come to haunt her. Here in Bavaria, where the CSU went out of its way to show it wasn’t in Merkel’s pocket, the result was “sie haben es kaum geschafft” (they barely made it).

The von Fritsch Affair: a WW II-era cautionary tale of how character assassination can succeed even despite complete exoneration

The recent spectacle/trainwreck concerning SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh could not help remind the WW II history buff in me of the tragicomic episode known as the Fritsch Affair or Fritsch Scandal. That story bears retelling as a cautionary tale on how a character assassination may be successful even if the accusations are proven false and the accused is exonerated. Below follows my short summary.

Sometime in 1936, Berlin police arrested and interrogated a habitual criminal and extortionist named Otto Schmidt. His particular racket at the time was to spy on men who picked up homosexual prostitutes and to blackmail them.

During interrogation (clearly aimed at arresting the “johns” in question for violating the notorious “Article 175” of the penal code) he named various of his “clients”. Some enjoyed “protection” from above and could not be touched. Then Schmidt dropped the name of one “General von Fritsch”.

“You mean: Generaloberst[*] Freiherr von Fritsch?!”

“Yes! Him! I saw him in the act with Bayern-Seppl!” [Freely: “Bavarian Joe”, street name of a well-known male prostitute.]

Holy shmoly! Colonel-General Baron von Fritsch?! The Commander in Chief of the Army?!? [**]

The report made its way up the chain all the way to Reichsführer-SS Himmler (y”sh), who was also the supreme head of all police forces in the Third Reich. Himmler’s agenda at the time included fostering  his own parallel army (the Waffen-SS) at the expense of the regular army with its officer caste dominated by Prussian nobles — and therefore, pleased as punch, he immediately ran off to his master with the report. To his surprise and disappointment, however,  Hitler (y”sh) immediately told Himmler to “burn this filth”. (Evidently, von Fritsch still could not be spared.)

But instead of destroying the report as ordered, Himmler tucked it away in his safe, figuring it might yet come in handy.

Then the fateful Hossbach conference happened. At this closed gathering of the Führer with then-foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath, Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg, and the heads of the three Wehrmacht branches (army commander von Fritsch, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring) Hitler for the first time unveiled concrete military objectives, specifically Austria and Czechoslovakia. (Minutes of the meeting were taken down by his military adjutant, Col. Hossbach, by whose name the conference is hence known.) To the great surprise and disappointment of the grandiose dictator, Blomberg and especially Fritsch pushed back hard against the invasion plans, while von Neurath was not enthusiastic either.

Blomberg was shortly later forced into retirement when it turned out his much younger second wife had a past as a prostitute and X-rated photo model. The post of Defense Minister was then supplanted by a new Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) with the toadyish Wilhelm Keitel at the helm. Foreign Minister Neurath ended up being replaced in a cabinet reshuffle by the repulsive Joachim von Ribbentrop. But how to get rid of von Fritsch?

Aha! The “burned” report suddenly reappeared. Since Fritsch had never married and had no known girlfriend (he was, basically, married to his job) it all made sense…

When confronted with the accusation, Fritsch at first was stunned. He did not help matters by muttering something about how he had lunched with some Hitler Youth to satisfy his Winter Aid quota, and maybe people got the wrong idea…

An official announcement followed that both Blomberg and Fritsch were retiring “for health reasons”. However, with the help of pressure from senior army officers, Reichskriegsgerichtsrat [roughly: Judge Advocate General] Karl Sack, a secret member of the anti-Nazi underground, won the concession that Fritsch would appear before a court-martial rather than before one of Freisler’s kangaroo courts.

Sack started his own investigation, and quickly discovered that “Bavarian Joe”s actual “client” was a retired Rittmeister [cavalry captain] named Achim von Frisch (without the extra “t”). The Rittmeister had even kept receipts for the hush money he had paid to his blackmailer.

Confronted with the evidence, Otto Schmidt broke down and confessed he had deliberately confounded the identity of his victim in order to make himself more important (and valuable to his jailers).

Schmidt was packed off to a concentration camp (where he was later shot on the direct orders of Himmler) and von Fritsch was “acquitted due to proven innocence” and exonerated.

But… he was not reinstated as Army CinC. Instead, that position fell to the more pliant Werner von Brauchitsch[***].  Von Fritsch was instead appointed Kommandant (honorary commander, ceremonial commander) of the 12th Artillery Regiment (his onetime unit).

On September 22, 1939, after the invasion of Poland, von Fritsch went to the front and deliberately exposed himself to Polish fire, thus seeking and finding a soldier’s death. Call it “suicide by enemy fire” if you wish.

Am I comparing the Deep/Derp State to the Third Reich? Of course not, and I am not suggesting parallels between Kavanaugh and von Fritsch either?

I just can’t help thinking of how a character assassination can be successful even when the accused is fully exonerated.


[*] In the Wehrmacht’s table of ranks, Generaloberst [literally: General-Colonel or Colonel-General] is a rank between General and Field Marshal. Freiherr [literally: free lord] is the equivalent of Baron in the German nobility.

[**] The Heer (army) was only one of three branches of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) — the other two branches being the Kriegsmarine (war navy) and the Luftwaffe (Air Force).

[***] von Brauchitsch would in turn be dismissed in late 1941 as a scapegoat for the first failures of the invasion of Russia, at which point Hitler put himself in direct command of the army.


In honor of Battle of Britain Day

Repost: In honor of Battle of Britain Day

Spin, strangeness, and charm

The above is a montage of aerial combat scenes from the movie “Battle of Britain“, set to the Iron Maiden song “Aces High” (lyrics). Churchill’s immortal words form the intro.

Also in observance of the day, here is an interesting documentary on the Polish RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain.

“The few, the proud…”

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The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

Oldie but goodie


Jack Kelly has a nice piece on media (in)credibility, where he quotes from Michael Crichton’s 2002 “Why Speculate?”:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain”…

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Why English is not a Romance language

A few days ago, a friend of mine (herself ABD in English literature) was told that it’s only natural that she writes English like a native, since her mother tongue is Spanish “and English is a Romance language after all”.


OK, jokes aside: it is undeniably true that if you go by vocabulary origins, the vocabulary of an educated native speaker, or the 80,000-odd entries in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary will have a plurality or even a majority of words of Romance origin.


But remember: many Latin- (and Greek-)derived words are actually part of the educated speaker vocabulary in most Indo-European languages—particularly scientific, medical, and legal terms. This is not unique to English.


The “operational definition” of a Romance language, according to most mainstream linguists, is a direct descendant of Vulgar Latin — the colloquial counterpart to the classical written language. After the [West-]Roman Empire fell apart, the various dialects spoken in Italia, Gallia, Hispania, Lusitania, Dacia evolved into separate languages that we now call Italian, French, Spanish/Castilian, Portuguese, and Romanian, respectively.

In contrast, Old English developed mostly from Germanic sources — the speech of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, with later the addition of Old Norse from the invading Vikings. If you read Beowulf in the original, you (a) will need a dictionary or a parallel translation; (b) if you’d mistake it for any language other than English, it’d likely be something Scandinavian.

Hence, the oldest and most commonly used words — what in Hebrew we call the Elef Milim [“One Thousand Words” language primer] vocabulary — are about 83% Germanic in origin.

What about the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britains? It used to be received wisdom that the Britons were wiped out by the invaders, but recent genetic studies have shown a surprisingly small percentage of Anglo/Saxon/Jute genetic material. John McWhorter, in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Language, explains that in all probability, the invaders were (nearly) all male, took wives from the Britons, lorded it over them — and the Britons assimilated into the new society. Now as he explains: usually when you learn a new language as an adult (through immersion rather than formal schooling, at that), even if you learn the vocabulary fairly quickly, the grammar and syntax of your native tongue tend to stubbornly persist. As a result, English to this day has some grammatical peculiarities that are unique among the Germanic languages but can be found among the Celtic ones: for example, the interrogative, emphatic, and negational uses of  “do” (“Do you like chocolate?”, “I did do my homework”, “I don’t like mondays”.)

The transition from Old English to Middle English — from the English of Beowulf to that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, if you like — is conventionally marked at 1066, the Norman Invasion. And yes, as you can see from the pie chart above, William the Conqueror/Guillaume le Conquérant and his nobles did leave their linguistic imprint on English with a vengeance. It took until Henry V for England to have a monarch who was more comfortable speaking and writing (Middle) English than French!

But, crucially, the core of English remained—both in vocabulary and in grammar. For instance, English proudly sports three grammatical genders — male, female, and neuter — unlike all Romance languages (except Romanian, sort-of) who appear to have inherited their dual gender from Vulgar Latin. (Classical Latin of course did have a neuter gender.) And what typically happened when the Old English word met its Norman French counterparts, is that the language has preserved both — sometimes as synonyms, sometimes as different nuances or usages (e.g., sheep/cow/pig for the animal, mutton/beef/pork for the meat).

Early Modern English — the idiom Shakespeare wrote in — was ushered in by two phenomena.

First there was the introduction of the printing press to the British Isles by William Caxton: after the Reformation, this enabled the first widely spread printed books, namely the Book of Common Prayer and later the King James Bible. This greatly accelerated the process of standardizing the written language, like it did in other European countries (cf. Statenbijbel for Dutch, Lutherbibel  in the Protestant parts of Germany,…).

Second, during the English Renaissance, authors seeking to show off how well-read they were imported Latin and Greek words by the galleon load. (This happened to other languages as well, but perhaps less egregiously so.) Oftentimes, the “learned” synonyms coexist to this day with plainer English words—in some cases making the latter ones “quaint” and “archaic”.

Of course, words were absorbed later from English colonies (veranda, pajama,…) and from foreign professionals (e.g., many nautical terms in English are Dutch imports, like schooner, lee, starboard, keel,…) But in the larger scheme of things, these have affected only English vocabulary, and only at the sub-percent level each.

Structurally and in core vocabulary, English is and remains a Germanic language that just happens to merrily assimilate extended vocabulary from any and all sources — the two main ones undeniably Romance. I really like McWhorter’s term “Magnificent Bastard Tongue”.

Finally, there are researchers who have sought to quantify the degree of kinship between languages — see, e.g., this non-paywall overview paper by Maurizio Serva. The metric used is typically the Levenshtein Distance between lists of the most frequently and universally used words  — these 100-word or so “I have a little list”s are still an order of magnitude smaller than the 1,000-word corpus mentioned above. A “family tree” of Indo-European languages constructed in this matter firmly places English in the Germanic group—nearest to the Scandinavian languages, in fact. This is Fig. 1 from Serva’s paper:




Embedding Spotify playlists on WordPress

Hmm, thanks to this article (via Instapundit), I went digging in the wordpress.com support database and found this helpful explanation. Basically, you just need to enclose the link to the track or playlist in HTML view with leftsquarebracketspotify yourlinkrightsquarebracket. Examples below, taken from the WP support article:

UPDATE: and here is one of my own:

“Competitors, not opposites”: what Apple iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy can teach us about politics

A friend got into an argument with somebody who claimed only the “far-right” could be fascist, and that, of course, the “far-left” is the opposite of the far right.

This is indeed the version that was successfully peddled when I was growing up in Europe. After all, communists were internationalist, fascists and Nazis were nationalist, the far-left was anticlerical or outright anti-religious while right-authoritarian regimes typically paid lip service to the church when not outright in bed with it, and… “far-left” and “far-right” were on opposite sides in WW II.

Except… when they were not. The inconvenient fact of the Non-Aggression Pact (and Molotow and ‘von’ Ribbentrop merrily dividing up Poland between their empires) is either forgotten or glossed over, as “a maneuver to gain time” (after Stalin butchered 90% of his generals and 50% of his colonels during the Great Purges). And there is the inconvenient fact that the full name of the Nazi party is “National Socialist German Workers Party” (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, for which “Nazi” is a typical German-style nickname). Also, let me quote some program points of self-styled US socialist Bernie Sanders:

we demand:
* Abolition of unearned (work and labour) incomes. Breaking of debt (interest)-slavery.
* […] personal enrichment through a war must be designated as a crime against the people. Therefore, we demand the total confiscation of all war profits.
* We demand the nationalisation of all (previous) associated industries (trusts).
* We demand a division of profits of all heavy industries.
* We demand an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare.
* […] immediate communalization of the great warehouses and their being leased at low cost to small firms, the utmost consideration of all small firms in contracts with the State, county or municipality.
* […] Benefit for the community goes before benefit for the individual [*]

Oops, my bad, these are actually from the “immutable” 25-Point Program of the NSDAP. There was even a hardcore economic-left faction inside the NSDAP, led by the party’s #2 man, Gregor Strasser, and his brother Otto Strasser. Otto fled abroad in 1930: Gregor was among those liquidated in the 1934 Night Of The Long Knives, in which potential and imaginary contenders for Hitler’s [y”sh] throne were liquidated and old scores settled, and which cemented the primacy of the SS over the SA (the “Brownshirts”). Strasserism was later to be influential in postwar European far-“right” circles, and gave rise to a spinoff movement that called itself “National Bolshevism” [sic].

Of course, those of us who have read Isaac Asimov’s “Second Foundation” remember that a circle has no beginning and no end. “Les extrèmes se touchent” (the extremes touch each other), as the French expression goes. And indeed, especially among the older generation of Europeans, there is a sense that the political left-right division isn’t so much on a linear scale as on a circle, and that far-“left” and far-“right” have much more in common with each other than with the temperate zone of politics. This notion gained currency during the 1950s, at the height of the cold war, and is perhaps most eloquently expressed in Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism“.

What is totalitarianism, indeed? Unlike ‘merely’ authoritarian regimes (like the Tsars of old), totalitarian ones are not content to control the actions of their subject — they want the whole person, control their thoughts as well as their actions.

In contemporary American political discourse, the “left” (both moderate and radical) stresses the state and the collective, while the “right” emphasizes private or local initiative and the individual. In other words, the left-right axis is not internationalist vs. nationalist like in Europe, but collectivist vs. individualist. It corresponds (with the arrows reversed) to the horizontal axis on the Pournelle Chart. On this spectrum, both Communism and National Socialism are firmly on the same side, as are Socialism and classical Fascism. [**]

For the above, I submit that “Socialism and Fascism”, or indeed communists and Nazis, are opposites only in the same sense that an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy are opposites, or that macOS and Windows are opposites. They are merely two competing brands of the same basic product.

The product, in this case, is totalitarian collectivism.

For all the heated (and at times hysterical) rhetoric of their partisans, one would think that macOS and Windows are polar opposites. The same is true of iPhones and their Android competitors. Instead, what we have is the same basic product (a smartphone, a computer operating system) with different implementation philosophies. As they compete with each other (in largely the same market space) and copy or otherwise absorb each other’s most popular features, their interfaces even start to resemble each other.

Likewise with the classical “opposites”. They carefully studied each other’s propaganda, going back to even Hitler [y”sh] himself. They even recruited among the same ‘customer base’: entire Sturmbannen (battalions) of the SA (the “brownshirt” militia [**]) in urban areas with a large working class were known among the Nazi top as “beefsteak battalions” — brown on the outside, red on the inside. Furthermore: the degree to which the NSDAP regime availed itself in its propaganda of what we now call ‘social justice’ rhetoric (‘social justice’ for Aryans only, naturally), and the extent to which the construction of a fairly elaborate welfare state was bankrolled by the expropriation of Jewish capital, has been documented at book length by the German journalist and Holocaust historian Götz Aly (himself a former far-left activist).

The main “difference” between mass murderers like Hitler on one hand, and Stalin or Mao on the other hand, is not so much the degree to which they demanded submission of the individual to the state (where they were in broad agreement), but the specific distinctions which they leveraged for power: ethnic origins vs. class. And this has persisted to this day: increasingly, one reads and hears shrill rhetoric on the post-Marxist, multiculti, intersectional left where one only needs to change the labels to get something indistinguishable from a totalitarian collectivist screed from the nominally “opposite” side.

Too many people on the left think that, while electrocution is bad, it can be solved by reversing the polarity of the current. This makes them competitors of what they claim to oppose, not opponents. Opponents are the ones who want to cut the power (such as small-government conservatives) — and of course get called names for doing so, as they are a threat to the political and cultural hegemony of the “left”.


UPDATE: welcome Instapundit readers!


[*] Sounds better in the original German: Gemeinnütz vor Eigennütz.

[**] Of course, in most political discourse, “fascist” no longer seems to have another stable meaning than as a generic insult, like “poopyhead”. Already in 1992, Robert Hughes was decrying this in “The Culture of Complaint“.

[***] The Brownshirts were a key factor in Hitler’s rise to power, but were emasculated during the 1934 Night of the Long Knives. They continued to exist but had become a shadow of themselves. Henceforth, the SS — originally a mere protection squad for the leader (hence the name, Schutzstaffeln) — was the real power behind the throne.

Hiroshima Day post: Rush, “Manhattan Project” and Iron Maiden, “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns”

This powerful Rush song about the Manhattan Project begs to be shared on this day.

Imagine a time
when it all began
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
would be sure to do their worst
They always had before…

Imagine a man
where it all began
A scientist pacing the floor
In each nation
always eager to explore
To build the best big stick
To turn the winning trick
But this was something more…


Imagine a man when it all began
The pilot of “Enola Gay”
Flying out of the shockwave
on that August day
All the powers that be, and the course of history
Would be changed forevermore​…

As a bonus, here is a video of another, heavier song about the same subject, named after the first published account of the project: Robert Jungk’s “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (original German title: Heller als tausend Sonnen)

Language registers, diglossia, and the Greek language struggle

Many languages are spoken in different registers for different levels of formality. For instance, Martin Joos recognizes the following five “registers” in English:

  • Static: the most formal register reserved for laws, contracts and other legal documents, religious ceremonies. Highly reliant on fixed (static) phrases, which may be archaic in their wording;
  • Formal: one-way participation (nonfiction book, academic article, lecture). Most extensive vocabulary, precise/pedantic use of technical vocabulary, precise definitions;
  • Consultative: two-way professional communication, e.g., teacher/student, senior/junior researcher, doctor/patient,…;
  • Casual: ordinary informal speech;
  • Intimate: between close family and friends. Nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression), intonation, and private/insider vocabulary and references may make speech hard to understand to an outsider.

English may have an enormous vocabulary, but it is a “weak-grammar” language. In languages with more complex grammars, the same five basic settings of course exist, but the distance between the registers becomes a matter of more than just vocabulary and the (dis)use of some formal expressions. For instance, in German, there is a noticeable difference — even in “High German” regions — between the standard literary language and the Mundart (spoken vernacular). In Flanders, older people still speak West-Flemish, Limburgish,… dialects to each other, while in formal settings even they will revert to standard Dutch (which used to be known by the rather politically incorrect name of ABN or Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands/Common Civilized [!] Dutch).

In extreme forms, the distance between Dachsprache (lit. “roof language”, umbrella language) and spoken vernacular may reach the point of diglossia — the coexistence of two distinct languages. In the parts of Germany closest to Holland, Plattdeutsch (Low German, or Plattdüütsch, if you like) coexists with standard [High] German (Hochdeutsch). In fact, the Plattdeutsch and Dutch dialects across the border are a classic example of a dialect continuum. In the Arabic-speaking world, different local vernaculars (e.g., Moroccan and Syrian Arabic) are sometimes not even mutually intelligible: hence, a permanent state of diglossia exists between the local vernaculars and their common Dachsprache, Modern Standard Arabic (based on the classical literary language).

Ancient Rome knew a similar state of diglossia, between the literary Latin that we learned in school and so-called Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, i.e., common speech).[*] After the fall of the West-Roman Empire, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin diverged into the separate languages we now call French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian,… (In fact, the very definition of a Romance language is its descent from Vulgar Latin.)

Without going down the rabbit hole of the evolution of ancient Greek, suffice to say that the classical (Attic) Greek some of us still learned in school existed in diglossia with Koine Greek (common/vernacular Greek). Unlike for Vulgar Latin, there is a substantial written corpus of written Koine Greek, above all the Christian New Testament and the Septuagint (the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Tana”kh/Christian Old Testament).

Over time, with the rise and fall of the Byzantine/East-Roman empire followed by Ottoman and other foreign rules, Koine Greek evolved into the vernaculars of different parts of the Hellenosphere.

The emergence of Greek nationalism in the late 18th-early 19th Century culminated in  Ioannes Kapodistrias becoming the first Prime Minister (1827-1831) of a newly independent Greece. Obviously, the Greek nationalist intelligentsia was keen on establishing a standard Greek language — but which Greek language?

One school of thought, led by Greco-French linguist Ioannis Psycharis, argued in favor of refining and unifying the cluster of vernacular Greek dialects into one standard Demotiki Glossa (“people’s language”, i.e., Demotic Greek). Another school, led by Prof. Georgios Hatzidakis, considered Demotic to be little more than an argot and instead strove to create/reconstruct  an archaic, neo-Classical Greek which they called Katharevousa (“purifying” [form], originally conceived by Greek Enlightenment figure Adamantios Korais). Thus, they hoped to recapture the splendor of the ancient literary language in a modern idiom.

Tempers grew hot between the groups, occasionally reaching the level of literal fistfights rather than mere literary “battle” between Demotic and Katharevousa poets, authors, and playwrights. After the 1912-3 liberation of Macedonia and later the establishment of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, the latter would become a stronghold of the Demotic faction, as against the Katharevousa faction at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

One might naively expect the most conservative and nationalistic element of society to have embraced Katharevousa. In fact, things were not so simple: Psycharis himself was an early proponent of the Megali (Greater [Greece]) idea, and the at least somewhat anticlerical Korais associated both Demotic Greek and its direct ancestor Koine with the “corrupt” Byzantine church establishment. The pre-WW II dictator Metaxas appears to have favored Demotic, as he considered the complexity of Katharevousa to be an obstacle to his goal of cultural Hellenization of all minorities.

A third, pragmatic (ahem) middle view took hold in parts of the political establishment (most notably with the great Liberal politician Venizelos): namely, a form of institutionalized diglossia. As per Venizelos’s 1917 school reforms, early schooling of children would be in the much easier Demotic form, while once they advanced beyond the first few grades of primary school, the instruction would switch to the more demanding Katharevousa.

What tipped the scales permanently in favor of Demotic appears to have been the great influx of Greek refugees following the Greek-Turkish War and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which both set the borders and mandated a forced population exchange.  Many of those refugees had spoken Turkish all their lives and needed to be taught Greek nearly or completely from scratch. The obvious approach, if they were to be acculturated quickly, was to teach them “easy Greek” first and “high Greek” later. “Later,” in most cases, never came.

One last push for Katharevousa was made during the Colonels’ Regime (1967-74): a 1972 official pamphlet dismissed Demotiki as a mere “jargon” that “doesn’t even have a grammar” but appears to have had limited appeal at best.

Upon the restoration of democracy, one final language reform took place. On 30 April 1976, Article 2 of Law 309  defined Modern Greek as:

.. the Demotic that has been developed into a Panhellenic instrument of expression by the Greek People and the acknowledged writers of the Nation, properly constructed, without regional and extreme forms.

and stipulated that it be the language of instruction in schools starting with the 1977-8 school year. Finally, the polytonic accent/diacriticals system was abolished in 1982.

This “Standard Modern Greek” (as linguists call it) is recognizably different from the classical language taught in European secondary schools. You immediately notice the “h” being dropped, the “eta” being pronounced as “i”/”ee” rather than nasal é, the “beta” almost invariably being pronounced as “v”, and in general a disregard of much of the declensions, cases,… and other grammatical intricacies that those of us who went to a continental European Atheneum or Gymnasium, or a British “public school”, wracked our brains learning.

All the same, proponents of Katharevousa won the argument in one major area: the replacement of foreign loan words in Demotic by “native” Greek neologisms (ahem). A computer, for instance, became ypologistí in Standard Modern Greek, a router dromologití, and a printer an ektypotís  (unless you mean the profession, which is a typographos).

This latter phenomenon has a parallel in modern Hebrew. Going back to the first modern Hebrew lexicographer, the intrepid Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, linguists tried to coin Hebrew neologisms for modern concepts and artifacts that Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew had no words for, rather than import foreign loan words. This process (to which I will dedicate a separate blog post) continues to this day at the hands of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Some of these coinages are universally accepted (machshev/thinking machine for computer, tzag or masach for display or screen, monit for taxi, kinor for violin, …), others never caught on (sach-rachok, itself a calque of the German Fernsprecher, never displaced telefon), yet others coexist as formal terms with informal vernacular (meteg with the English “switch” [in IT contexts] or the German Schalter [for a light or power switch], teka with the German Stecker [plug], natav with “router”,…)  [**]

And of course, the French Language Academy succeeded in displacing (at least outside slang) “franglais” terms like “le computer” with “l’ordinateur”, “le printer” with “l’imprimante”, “un file” (the English word, not the French for a traffic jam) with “un logiciel”, etc. and even “Email” by “courriel” (a portmanteau of “courrier électronique”) …


[*] Vulgus=the common people, hence the derogatory meaning of “vulgar” (EN) or “vulgair” (NL, DE, FR,…) in other languages.

[**] Amusingly, native Israelis often stare at me when an immigrant like myself refers to “do’al” (short for doar elektroni, the proper word for Email) instead of “mail”…