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The fairytale Muhlenberg myth-legend-saga

Urban legends – almost everyone knows a few. Most of them are so ridiculous that – provided you are blessed with an IQ higher than 50 – you can dismiss them as mental trash without further investigation of their truth content. The stories range from flesh-dissolving cola to a merely endless number of Eskimo words for “snow” through to the tale that someone in the U.S.A. once tried to dry his pet in the microwave and, after its surprising death, successfully sued the microwave manufacturer, so that since that significant day all microwaves in America must carry the warning: “Not suitable for drying pets”.

Recently I remembered another fairy tale of this type: Word is that, when the United States were in their infancy, a vote was taken on which of the many represented languages should become the official language of the great New World. And you won’t believe it, but German lost to English by only one vote. Of all people, the crucial vote is being attributed to Frederick Muhlenberg, a man who – as his name already reveals – was of German descent himself. How could he? We are very disappointed with you, Frederick. Traitor.

Well, in fact, the fatal vote was only the petition of some German immigrants in which they demanded that laws should be published in German as well for better comprehension. This motion was indeed rejected with 42 to 41 votes. But the best is yet to come: Muhlenberg had not even participated in the vote. (Okay, with his vote, it might have become a draw.)
Oh yes, and at no time did the U.S.A. ever have an official language – from which it can be easily inferred that there can never have been an official vote about it either. (Such a logical conclusion however presupposes the above-mentioned IQ of more than 50 points.)

Whoever is in the mood now for another example of skillful padding out and exploiting of the four-line Wikipedia article about the Muhlenberg legend, be served with this: “German as the official language of the USA?” by the “Onionfish” alias Bastian Sick.

I, however, would rather apply myself to the question whether the term Muhlenberg “legend” is actually apt. To my knowledge, in today’s understanding a legend is the life and suffering history of a saint (although I find it impudent that an actually neutral word may be loaded with connotations so brazenly by a religion!). The word “myth” is often buzzing unexplainedly about the room in this connection, too. And finally, the terms “saga” and “Märchen” (”fairy tale”) come into question in German as well. I found out the following about the four expressions:

origin literality today’s understanding
saga Old High German “saga” “what is said” story with truth claim
Märchen Middle High German “Maere” “lore”, “report”, “message” story without truth claim
myth ancient Greek “μῦθος” “sound”, “word”, “speech”, “narration”, “legendary story”, “Mär” story of Gods and men
legend Latin “legendum” “to be read” story of a saint

If you look only at the literal translations, you could basically use all four expressions equally. The Muhlenberg story could indeed be something that is said and a report, a narration and something readable all at once. Interestingly enough, “legend” and “Mär”, i. e. Märchen, appear again in the meaning explanation of “myth” – are they all the same after all? And anyway: Is not something that is said actually a lore and a report a narration and a message something to be read?

But enough of that. Let us rather stick to today’s general understanding of the expressions. “Myth” and “legend” are immediately out of choice, because after all, such stories are usually not dealing with saints or Gods. The Märchen does by definition not raise a truth claim, i. e. the story is being passed on in the mutual awareness that it is purely fictional. In our case, however, the story is meant to be believed and accepted as factual by the recipient. (Sadly, the person who passes it is most often convinced of its genuineness as well, so you can unfortunately not brand him as a liar and education saboteur.) :(
So our story raises a truth claim, and therefore “saga” is the only appropriate term.

Since the so-called Muhlenberg “legend” does not really deal with Frederick Muhlenberg’s divine miracles and his slow, painful and especially bloody death for the Christian faith either, we should rather speak of the Muhlenberg saga and of modern sagas in general instead of modern legends. That is what the German Wikipedia suggests as well.[1] And finally, the movie “Urban Legends” would have to be renamed “Urban sagas”.

If we wanted to go the extra mile, we would actually have to speak of a “misbelief”. As for sagas, there might be something to them after all. You don’t know whether their truth claim is justified or not. But in the case of the so-called modern legends, the truth claim is unjustified – the stories are simply wrong. If you believe in them anyhow, then it is a misbelief.

Well, that’s it for today – and next time we will speak about the God saga … :P

  1. Moderne Sage  – Wikipedia


  1. 19th March 2009
    10:44 am

    Harry flag

    Den Filmtitel “Düstere Legenden” in “Düstere Sagen” umzubenennen würde ihn ja noch mehr vom Originaltitel (Urban Legends) abbringen. Vermutlich hat man ihn nicht “Urbane Legenden” genannt weil man fürchtete, daß manche das Wort “urbane” nicht verstehen. ;-) (böse, ich weiß…). Aber “düster” – da konnte man sich sicher sein – das kennt jeder…

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