William Hamilton: Economics, what’s in a language?
June 26, 2012
This is not to say today’s Germans are better than today’s Italians, Spanish, French, or Portuguese. But it is a fair question to ask: After disastrously losing two wars in the 20th Century (largely, of their own making) and suffering through the Cold War as a nation split in half, how is it that Germany today is the ruler of Europe’s economy? Why does the entire world hang on almost every word coming from the mouth of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and is largely dismissive of the leaders of France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and even the United States?
Why do many Europeans think they should work only 35 hours-per-week and then retire at age 50 with virtually the entire benefits of full-time employment? Perhaps, “language” can provide part of the answer.
The German noun for work is werk. The German verb for work is wirken. But, most often, the Germans refer to work as Arbeit — pronounced in English as: r-bite.
In German, the Arbeitgeber is one who gives work to another. In Germany, providing someone with Arbeit is highly honorable. Contrast that with the French-English word: employer, which has its roots in: to exploit, to use someone, to rule, to master, and to oversee.
The French noun for work is: le travail. The French verb for work is: travailler. Both noun and verb are rooted in the Latin word: tripaliare, to torture, which is derived from tripalium an ancient torture device composed of three poles. Thus, in French, work and torture are the same. In Italian, work is travagliare; in Spanish, trahahbor; and in Portuguese, trabalhar. All these words plus travail often used in English for toil and trouble, derive from tripalium — the torture device.
So, if your cradle languages are telling you that employers are exploiters of the workers and that work is just another word for torture, you might dread going to work and also want to stop doing work as soon as possible.
As related in a previous column, the renowned German sociologist, Max Weber, (pronounced: machs vay-burr), marveled, in 1904, at the work ethic he observed in America. Back then, many Americans believed working hard would find favor with God and that working hard was something noble to do, a path toward Salvation.
In certain quarters, however, the American work ethic may be dead and buried. An example is Government Motors (GM) where auto workers are paid $56 dollars-per-hour, use up an enormous number of paid sick days, and enjoy long paid vacations. In addition, the Obama bailout pumped $50 billion tax dollars into the United Auto Workers pension fund. Now, some auto industry experts say GM’s wages and benefits are so non-competitive that there is no way that GM will ever again show an actual profit.
Downtown Detroit, which was booming in 1945, looks today more like the bombed out Berlin of 1945. Today’s Berlin looks like Detroit in 1945, only much better.
The famous historian, Victor Davis Hanson, concludes: “If the people of the European Union want to live like the Germans, they must learn to work and save like the Germans.” Germans are fond of boasting: “Immer besser bei uns.” Meaning: Our way is always better. Irritating as that was when this soldier lived with the Germans for almost a decade, today’s Germans are making good on their boast.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
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