Multilinguish: The Story Of English

How do you tell the whole history of a language? In this episode, we find out.
Multilinguish: The Story Of English

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How do you tell the story of a language? It’s not as easy as it sounds. The history of language intersects with human culture, the evolution of writing, historical linguistics and at times, a little guesswork. But understanding a language’s past can be very helpful when it comes to figuring out its present.

In this episode of Multilinguish, we try to tell the whole story of English from Proto-Indo-European to present… in just under half an hour. We hit on all the biggest moments in the language’s history to explain how it eventually became the most widely spoken language in the world.

Multilinguish: The Story Of English

Telling the full story of English in all its diverse forms would probably take many lifetimes. Rather than look at each and every change to the language, we zoom in on five of the key moments in English language history.

First, Dylan Lyons looks at English before English, and how we even know what language was like before the development of writing. Next, Steph Koyfman discusses Old English and how it evolved from Proto-Germanic, as well as some of the earliest-known English writings. Then, David Doochin covers the Norman Invasion and the various language changes that pushed Old English into Middle English. After that, Jen Jordan explains how English went from being a linguistic underdog to a global lingua franca (hint: colonialism). And finally, Thomas Devlin (me) talks about English today, how it has maintained its dominant role, and how the language’s status in the world is intertwined with its violent history.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by me, Thomas Devlin, and edited by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Dylan Lyons, Steph Koyfman, David Doochin and Jen Jordan for lending their voices to the episode. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.

The Stories of English | David Crystal
This is the Voice | John Colapinto
Human Language May Have Developed to Help Our Ancestors Use Tools | Science
From Grunting To Gabbing: Why Humans Can Talk | NPR
All In The Language Family: The Germanic Languages | Babbel Magazine
Languages Have Families, Too: A Look At The Indo-European Language Family | Babbel Magazine
Proto-Languages And Their Evolution | The Great Courses Daily
Native Tribes Of Britain | BBC
40 Maps That Explain The Roman Empire | Vox
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The Old English Rune Poem | JSTOR
The Story Of English, In Its Own Words | Babbel Magazine
Cædmon’s Hymn | Washington State University
Do English Nouns Have A Gender? |
139 Old Norse Words That Invaded The English Language | Babbel Magazine
31 English Words That Are Actually French | Babbel Magazine
The Great Vowel Shift: How We Know Language Now | The Great Courses Daily
Why Vowel Shifts? | Dialect Blog
William Caxton | The British Library
Earth System Impacts Of The European Arrival And Great Dying In The Americas After 1492 | Quaternary Science Review
The British Empire Through Time | BBC
How To Hide An Empire | Daniel Immerwahr
How American English Grew Its Wings | Babbel Magazine
How English Became The Language Of Physics | Symmetry Magazine
Decolonising The Mind | Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o
Imaginary Homelands | Salman Rushdie
What Are The Most-Used Languages On The Internet? | Babbel Magazine


Thomas Devlin: For the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish, I’m producer Thomas Devlin. Telling the story of a language is not an easy task. People often fall back on analogies to other things. Languages are like trees, growing and branching off from one another. Languages are like people, being born, living and dying. Languages are like organisms, evolving and adapting to the circumstances. But, really, languages are unlike anything else. In this episode of Multilinguish, we try to tell the story of English, from the beginning to the very end. We can’t cover every detail, after all, it’s a millennial long history but we cover the five biggest stages of the English language, from its birth to today. Along the way, we explore how languages grow and change and how English went from near extinction, 1000 years ago, to being the most spoken language in the world. Before we get started, a quick reminder to follow Multilinguish so you never miss an episode.

Dylan Lyons: Part One: Birth.

All right. So, to really start at the beginning, we have to go all the way back to the start of human language itself. But this presents a problem, no one really knows when human language began. That’s because, before written language developed, words didn’t leave a trace. Thousands of years of oral culture are essentially lost to time. Estimates for when language started go from as far back as 2 million years ago, to as recent as 50,000 years ago, that’s a pretty big range. Researchers have hypothesized that the earliest human art or tools could correspond with the earliest human language. The idea behind this is that, language would allow human civilization to progress much faster. So, trying to locate the moment where there was a major fast-forwarding of human society, could be a sign that language appeared around that time. Looking at the evolution of the human body can also be helpful.

Human language is possible because our anatomy is designed in such a way that we can articulate a wide range of consonants and vowels. As humans and their ape ancestors diverged, human stood more upright and our larynxes dropped in our bodies, creating a complex vocal tract that gives us, humans, our huge range of voice. That’s why we can go up and down, whereas, apes are really only able to scream a single vowel. But our vocal tracts design also has a strange flaw. All the food we eat has to pass the opening to our lungs, which makes humans very susceptible to choking … This flaw is even stranger when you realize that, humans didn’t evolve specifically for language. Really, language is a strange side effect of evolution, which is to say, we really lucked out. So, we’ve talked a bit about ancient language in general but what about English in particular?

Is it possible to trace a specific language back before the written record? The answer is yes. And it’s all thanks to the construction of proto languages. Proto languages are hypothetical languages, that historical linguists try to construct based on what they know about the evolution of language. One common tool in these reconstructions is comparing vocabulary. Take, for example, the word father, if you look across a number of languages, you can see similarities. In German, it’s der Vater. In Spanish, it’s el padre. In French, it’s le pere. In Norwegian, it’s far. Some of these words sound more like father than others but the idea is that, the more similar a word is in different languages, the more closely related those languages are. Historical linguists don’t look at just one word though, they look at a huge array of vocabulary, as well as other factors like, word order, grammatical structures and so on. Using all of this information, historical linguists can say, with some measure of certainty, that English can be traced back to proto-Germanic, which is the ancestor of not just English and German but also Norwegian, Swedish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Icelandic, Yiddish, Afrikaans and more.

And we also can be pretty certain that Proto-Germanic can be traced back even further, to Proto-Indo-European, a proto-language that is the ancestor of hundreds of modern languages, including the Romans, Slavic, Baltic, Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages. Without the written record, everything we know about Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic is based on educated guesses and estimates. We can’t really know what it would have sounded like, which also mentioned there are flaws in the approach to proto-languages. It is impossible to know, with 100% certainty, whether two languages share similar vocabulary and features because they come from the same root or because they existed next to each other for hundreds or thousands of years, trading words back and forth. This isn’t to say that historical linguistics is a waste of time but that, it is a fallible system. One theory is that, all languages in the entire world ascend from a single language, sometimes called Proto-World or Proto-Sapiens.

But when you go back that far in time, linguistic history only gets murkier and murkier. This early English history then, is shrouded in mystery. What we know is that, language on the European continent started, at some point, tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago and this language grew and evolved with the humans speaking it. Eventually, the people who live in the area, that today is Germany and Denmark, formed tribes and spoke a language we broadly call proto-Germanic. But wait, you say, when do we actually get to the point that people are speaking English? Well, to get to that, we have to wait for a few Germanic tribes to make the decision to cross the channel and explore a new land. A new land that was, at the time, being ruled from afar by the Roman empire.

Steph Koyfman: Part Two: Childhood.

I know some of that was a little vague but we’re about to put a definite pinpoint in the timeline of this history. Right now, we’re in the first century CE, a time when the Roman Empire was nearing its peak. At this point, Rome had already expanded its territory across much of Europe and Northern Africa. And it was also in this century, that the Romans sent out an army to conquer and establish a new territory, Britannia. Before the arrival of the Romans in 43 CE, there were a number of indigenous Celtic tribes already in England. Ironically, the only way we know about them is through the writings of Greek and Roman observers, typical colonialism. The name Britannia itself was taken from the Britons, who were a collection of Britannic tribes whose territory may have once extended across the entirety of England. Because you probably already know how this ends, centuries of Roman rule, mostly pushed Celtic cultures out of England, though they did survive in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and a few islands nearby.

The legacy of Roman rule in Britannia has rippled throughout history. And honestly, there’s a lot you can say about that. There’s entire books you can read on the topic but we’re going to give you the TLDR version, which is that, there’s two things, in particular, that paved the way for the English language as we know it today. The first was the Latin alphabet, which we’ll discuss more a little later on. The second was that, the withdrawal of the Romans, in the fifth century CE, left the Britons, particularly, vulnerable to attack. And as a matter of fact, they were invaded by a number of Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. These tribes eventually replaced the old drags of civilization with Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Old English, which is also sometimes called Anglo-Saxon, was the product of these new kingdoms. What’s important to note here is that, at the very beginning, Old English was actually a minority language in England.

During the time of Roman rule, the majority of people spoke British Celtic and British Latin. However, Latin fell out of use as the Romans left and so, the language of the ruling class became the language of the new conquers, the Anglo-Saxons. There’s some debate as to how exactly Old English came to be the dominant language of Anglo-Saxon Britain. That’s because, a lot of the time, the language of the dominant class is never really adopted by the common people. But, whether by violence or some other process, Old English slowly spread across the Island. Okay, here’s the kicker. One of the most important developments in the language, at this time, is that for the first time, English was being written down. This is what marks the line between proto-Germanic and Old English. Sweet, sweet documentation, baby. The oldest English writings are written using Anglo-Saxon runes, which were from Elder Futhark, which itself may have been adapted from the Greek alphabet.

The earliest writing in Old English, that has been found so far, is an Anglo-Saxon rune inscription on a coin that reads, this she Wolf is a reward to my kinsmen. Look, whatever it takes to keep the homeboys happy. Runes eventually gave way to the Latin alphabet, thanks to Christianity. While the Romans may have left England in the fifth century, the religion they left behind would have a lasting impact. The Anglo-Saxon rulers were converted to Christianity, which used the Latin language and therefore, the Latin alphabet. It should be noted that the Old English alphabet had a few key differences from the modern one that you’re familiar with. First of all, it had only 24 letters instead of the modern 26 and the letters K, Q, W and Z did not exist yet. Instead, they had a thorn, which was a letter that made a th sound, as well as a vowel that combined the A and E into a single letter that looks, well like an A and an E squished together.

But it’s not quite as fancy as it looks, it basically just makes an … sound, like in cat. Aside from those exceptions though, you’d be able to, at least, make some sense of the letters in the Old English alphabet. It’s also worth mentioning that, spelling was not exactly a science at this point. Without any way to mass produce texts, there weren’t any norms or standards. The people who were literate would simply try their best to make the letters of the alphabet matched the way that they pronounce the words. The earliest example of Old English literature is a very Christian text, Caedmon’s Hymn. Caedmon was allegedly an illiterate farmer working at a monastery in the eighth century CE. One day, he was struck by divine inspiration, to a sing a song about the glory of the Christian God and his creations. His song was written down by the Venerable Bede, who was a Benedictine Monk at the monastery.

Not all old English writing is Christian though. Beowulf, probably, the most famous Old English text, is an epic poem that tells the fantastic story of a Germanic hero. One forewarning though, recognizing the letters is not the same as recognizing the words. So, if you do ever try to read Old English on a lark you’ll, probably, have a really hard time. While a lot of the vocabulary we use today can be traced back to Old English, the words themselves are almost unrecognizable, so you’ve been warned. That said, the passage of time alone wasn’t enough to affect these massive changes. The course of Old English would be changed drastically, by yet another invasion.

David Doochin: Part Three: Adolescence.

There are a few years that are indelibly marked in a country’s history. You can say, 1776 to an American and they will immediately know that you’re talking about the American Revolution. In England, 1066 is one of those years, the year of the Norman invasion. And if you’re listening to this and already grew learning British history, you probably didn’t even need this whole explanation. To back up, who were the Normans? Despite being at the center of such a major moment in English history, they’re not discussed very much today. Their most noticeable legacy might be the region of France, where they once reigned and it’s now named after them, Normandy. Normandy had been settled by Norse Viking settlers, who then fraternized with the indigenous Francs, who were a Germanic tribe in the region. They were also majorly influenced by the Gallo-Roman culture, which was a remnant of the Roman presence in Gaul.

It’s because of this culture that the Normans didn’t speak a Norse language or a Germanic language but instead, adopted to speaking Norman French. Norman French is, depending on which definition you’re using, either a dialect of French or a Romans language, all on its own. It was similar enough to French however, but the two were mutually intelligible. So, to set the scene of the Norman invasion, Old English was flourishing across, what is today, England. Enough time had passed that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had developed their own dialects of English. The four largest were West Saxon, Umbrian, Kentish and Mercian. This last one, spoken throughout the kingdom of Mercia, would be the one in which future Englishes would be based. Even before the Normans, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were being regularly invaded. Vikings from Scandinavia had started attacking England, starting in the eighth century CE and they brought the language of Old Norse with them.

Old Norse, on its own, had a pretty significant impact on English, though the language itself never became widely spoken in England. What it did do though, was introduced a bunch of new vocabulary. Words like skill, ransack and even the pronoun they, those can all be traced back to Old Norse. Despite how significant these changes were, the Scandinavian invaders never got the same foothold as the Normans. In 1066, the Normans came to England and ended the reign of the Anglo-Saxons. The Normans also pushed Old English into a new age, Middle English. Before Middle English began to flourish, however, it was almost entirely killed. Like the English before them, the Normans took over and instituted their own language, French, as the language of the elite class. And the language of the written word, especially in matters of religion, was Latin. In some ways, England was, essentially, trilingual. In order of prestige, Latin was on the top, French just below it and way down at the bottom, were the many dialects of English.

It wouldn’t be until 1399 that a King, Henry IV, would once again, claim English as their new language. And yet, English survived. Despite that the dramas of the monarchy and whatever else over the next few centuries, the common people of England never abandoned their language, nor were they forcibly induced to stop using it. But during the period of Norman England, English changed quite a bit. Because it was now being used by people who are not being formally taught, a number of grammatical structures were simplified. Gender nouns were gone by the 14th century because of an intermixing of Old English and old Norse in certain parts of England. So, whenever you’re thankful you don’t have to know the gender of an inanimate object, thank the Scandinavians. Other grammatical endings were also disposed of. At one point, English had 14 different types of adjective ending, which was eventually whittled down to one. Up to 10,000 Norman French words were added to the language, including some very simple terms like duke, parliament, mirror, money and art. It’s possible that up to a third of modern English vocabulary is derived from French.

The reign of the Normans would come to an end in the 13th century, when Normandy itself was taken over by France. This was the beginning of the end for the Norman identity. And within the next two centuries, anyone who was considered Anglo-Norman, slowly assimilated into just being English. This period, perhaps more than any other, shows how hard it is to track the story of a language. When people talk about language families as a tree, you imagine a language, pretty much, in isolation. You start with a massive Proto-Indo-European trunk, then you branch off to Proto-Germanic and then eventually get down to English. But that doesn’t tell you about how much languages influence each other. English wouldn’t look like it does today without its intersections with old Norse and French. Here, we end the story of English as an underdog, just scraping by as England is invaded by various other groups. After the break, we move into the middle of the second millennium, where we zoom out and English goes from being a language spoken on a single Island to one spoken on every continent in the world.

Thomas Devlin: Hey, it’s Thomas, Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Our marketing team wants you to know that we offer an app that teaches you 14 languages, from Spanish, French and Italian to Portuguese, Russian and more, Babbel’s app is created by real language teachers and experts. You’ll learn how to have conversations in real life situations, whether you need to greet your neighbors in Turkey or play chess against the embodiment of death in Sweden. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 15% off a three-month subscription, new customers can get this offer by visiting That’s Now, back to the show.

Jen Jordan: Part Four: Adulthood.

Our story picks up in the 15th century, which is when Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press and changes language forever. For the first time, writing could be easily and quickly distributed and the earliest form of mass media was born. This was most important for language because it meant that, at long last, language could be standardized. English dialects and the period of Middle English diverged extraordinarily. Which means, someone’s speaking one dialect of English wouldn’t be able to understand someone who lived in another part of England. Of course, this didn’t matter that much because most people didn’t really need to travel or have means to travel to other parts of the country. But now, with the printing press, people from afar needed to have some level of understanding between each other. It would take quite a while for spelling to become as standardized as it is today, though.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century, that English Renaissance man, Samuel Johnson, published his dictionary of the English language, which was the first widely used standards guide to the English language. While spoken dialects never entirely disappeared, many written ones did. The printing press was introduced to England by William Caxton in 1476 and it marked a new period of the English language, Early Modern English. This is a language used by all of the writers of the English Renaissance. But let’s be honest, there’s only one man you’re, probably, picturing here and that’s William Shakespeare. The works of Shakespeare not only are the one of the best examples of Early Modern English but they’ve also contributed to the identity of English itself. Another important change in English, at this time, is the great vowel shift. If you were to hop back in a time machine to the 13th century, one of the most noticeable differences in the English language will be the vowels.

I mean, you’ll notice a lot of differences but the vowels are important. From 1400s to the 1700s, the ways vowels were pronounced slowly changed. For example, the word bite used to be pronounced more like beet and the word meat used to be pronounced more like mate. No one knows exactly why vowel shifts occur, though part of the reason is simply that English has a lot of vowel sounds compared to other languages. English has 14, while Korean has 10 and Spanish has only five. Yet, while we’ve only been looking at England itself, the Early Modern English era also marked the start of a process that would take English all over the world, the period of the British Empire. England started its worldwide expansion in the 16th century with a series of trading posts that set up trade across Europe and Asia. But soon, they had their sights on being a major world power. They started to colonize the Americas in the early 17th century, one of it already being divvied up by France, Portugal and Spain.

This land grab led to a genocide of indigenous people, with violence and disease killing over 90 percent of the native populations. And what is now the United States, Canada and many islands in the Caribbean, the English language was forced on the native people. As English set up colonies in North America, they were also setting up the infrastructure of the slave trade, which meant setting up forts in Africa and violently displacing Africans. And the Americas weren’t the only place where this was happening. By the end of the 18th century, after England lost control over their colonies, they shifted their attention to other parts of the world. In 1783, they started using Australia as a penal colony to send convicted criminals. In the 19th century, the UK’s East India Company was pushing into Asia and implementing the British Raj, where England ruled India for a century. And they continued their push into Africa, forcefully taking control of huge swaths of land. And all of this, really, is a part of the story of English.

Because, while the British empire expanded, the English language was weaponized as a way to get people to conform. Even England’s next door neighbor, Ireland, became subject to Anglicization, where the English forced the language on the people and attempted to drive the Irish language to extinction, though they were never successful. Even more important is the fact that, while the English language’s use rose with the expansion of the British Empire, it didn’t retract in the same way. The British empire peaked in the early 20th century but after World War II, it quickly shrunk, as countries gained independence. But the English language remained because once a language is forced on a people, it’s not so easy to return to how things were before. Languages that were lost, remain lost and even if other languages are still around, it’s very hard to reeducated an entire population. And so, by the time we reached the 20th century, not only has English gone into the period of Late Middle English, it has also permeated global culture in a way that no other language ever has. But what does that mean for English today?

Thomas Devlin: Part Five: Today.

The British empire goes a long way in explaining the use of English today. But to really understand how it became a global lingua franca, there’s another important piece of the English puzzle, the American Empire. So let’s, for a moment, go back to the end of the Revolutionary War. The Americans have cast off the King and are forging an identity of their own. The only problem, the language is the same. They may have gotten rid of the English but they haven’t gotten rid of English. In 1828, a man named Noah Webster released a dictionary to tweak English just enough to give English their own sense of language. He changed the spelling of center so that I and E-R instead of R-E, he got rid of the U in words like color and armor. He also had some ideas that weren’t as readily accepted like spelling woman, W-I-M-M-I-N. Then a few decades passed, England and the United States were separated by a massive ocean, so it was only a matter of time for American English to naturally establish itself. And at the same time, the United States became an empire, all of its own.

Some of the tactics of American Empire were the same as that of British Empire. The United States continued the displacement of native peoples across the North American continent, to expand their land holdings and the United States slowly took control of nearby islands, including Puerto Rico and American Samoa. But also, the American Empire was different. The American military didn’t always go in and claim ownership over a country but instead, got into complex military interventions all around central and South America, as well as Vietnam and the Koreans, for a few examples. While the exact of these interventions was different, they still completed the goal of spreading American ideas and the English language further. Yet, English still, probably, wouldn’t have gotten to the status of today without its complete domination of the various new technologies that were arising. American English was spread using the Hollywood movies and American sitcoms. The United States positioned itself as the center of the world and so, English became the most prestigious language to use.

There also might’ve been an element of luck to the timing of the spread of English. During the 20th century, information was moving faster and faster. Planes shrunk the world down to a much more travelable place. And much later, the internet made it possible to send information anywhere in the world at the click of a button. Like never before, a lingua franca was necessary or, at least, useful to speed information even further. Fields like science and business, which had historically been done in several different languages, converged to English because it was the one language that was spoken in the most places. It might sound a little ridiculous to say that, English was spoken by the most people because the most people spoke English but in a way, it’s true. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy of a language, the more people who learned it, the more people who needed to learn it and so on and so on. Today, the English language is spoken by roughly 1.3 billion people but if you only look at that number, you’re missing a lot of this story.

First, the majority of English speakers don’t use it as a first language, it’s a useful tool for many people to speak across cultural lines. If a group of three people joined together, each from a different country, especially in Europe, English will statistically be the most likely language that all three people have in common. And also, English has a huge variety of dialects. Telling the story of English today, is incredibly difficult because the language has branched off in so many different directions. In many countries that were previously ruled by the United Kingdom, English has been creolized, that means it may have some English words and grammars but it’s combined with the indigenous languages that are spoken there.

The standard Englishes of the United States and United Kingdom might still set the norm for the world but these dialects that are growing all over the place might be the real future of the English language. They might even become, given enough time, their own languages. English today is bound up inextricably with its history. For many people in formerly or currently colonized countries, using the language can be a painful choice. The Kenyan writer in the academic, Ngugo wa Thiong’o, for example, decided to swear off English because of its colonial connections. Writing, we African writers are bound by our calling to do for our linkages what Spencer, Milton and Shakespeare did for English. He argued, it was impossible for him to use English to reach his own goals in his writing.

On the other hand, the British Indian novelists, Salman Rushdie, has written that, though English earned its status from its violent history, “English literature has its Indian branch. By this I mean, the literature of the English language, this literature is also Indian literature. There is no incompatibility here.” He also points out that, because English is a global language, writing in it will give you a better chance of being read than not. Whether or not English is an entirely neutral tool with which to write, it’s certainly a way to get published more easily in big countries because it’s a majority language. And there are no right answers here, of course. Many have used English to achieve their ends, while many have chosen specifically to avoid it. The presence of English is just impossible to ignore, no matter what you do though. History is always complex and language history, all the more so. Here, we merely skimmed the surface of English.

But if there’s one thing this history reveals it’s that, you shouldn’t think of English as a finished story. Within a lifetime, standard English might seem unchangeable but it’s constantly shifting and adapting. New slang comes and goes, new dialects arise, new loan words are adopted. English might be on top of a socially constructed hierarchy today but it wasn’t that long ago that it was at the bottom.

Multilinguish is a production of the language app Babbel. This episode was produced by me, Thomas Devlin, with help from Jennifer Jordan, David Doochin, Stephanie Koyfman and Dylan Lyons. Editing and sound design by Brian Risotto. You can read about today’s episode more on Babbel Magazine, just visit Say hi on social media, by finding us at babbelUSA. Finally, please rate and review this podcast, we really appreciate it.

And that does it for season three of Multilinguish, thanks for listening.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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