Tag Archives: German

2017 will be a big year for Martin Luther, father of the German language

We will be hearing plenty about Martin Luther over the next two years, as Germans gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Luther is best known as the father of the Reformation. But he also wrote anti-Semitic screeds that were extreme—even by the standards of the time. In addition, he revolutionized the German language.

Before Luther, there was no single German language but a series of dialects. Two were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two. His family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)


“He was totally bilingual,” says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. “It’s a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the German language that the key figure [of the Reformation] would actually be able to address an audience in Low German and Upper German.”

Luther’s bilingualism allowed him to create a national language. But his genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text. His translations transformed it into everyday language.

“This language has a new purpose, to speak to everybody,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which recently staged an exhibition of German cultural history. MacGregor wrote and hosted an accompanying podcast for the BBC.

Macgregor says Luther’s translations turned the New Testament’s gospels into “conversations you might overhear: Jesus speaking as a German carpenter to German fishermen.”

“He listened to the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen to the child playing,” says Lutheran theologian Margot Kässmann. “Still today…our language is really Luther’s.”


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How did English become the language of science?

The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, 1927. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. (Photo: iharsten via Flickr)

The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, 1927. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. (Photo: iharsten via Flickr)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Permafrost, oxygen, hydrogen — it all looks like science to me.

But these terms actually have origins in Russian, Greek and French.

Today though, if a scientist is going to coin a new term, it’s most likely in English. And if they are going to publish a new discovery, it is most definitely in English.

Look no further than the Nobel prize awarded for physiology and medicine to Norwegian couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser. Their research was written and published in English. This was not always so.

“If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000?’ You would first of all laugh at them because it was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer,” said Michael Gordin.

Gordin is a professor of the history of science at Princeton and his upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science.

Gordin says that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.

“So the story of the 20th century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” Gordin said.

You may think of Latin as the dominant language of science. And for many, many years it was the universal means of communication in Western Europe — from the late medieval period to the mid-17th century, and then it began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated to Latin so that more scientists might read his work.

Fast forward back to the 20th century, how did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?

“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French, and a third in German — although it fluctuated based on field and Latin still held out in some places — was World War I, which had two major impacts,” Gordin said.

After World War I, Belgian, French and British scientists organized a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren’t able to publish in Western European journals.

“Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated [Central Powers] of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French,” Gordin explained.

It’s that moment in history, he added, when international organizations to govern science, like the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organizations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry was written out.

The second effect of World War I took places across the Atlantic in the United States. Starting in 1917 when the US entered the war, there was a wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country.

“At this moment something that’s often hard to keep in mind is that large portions of the US still speak German,” Gordin said.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War I changed all that.

“German is criminalized in 23 states. You’re not allowed to speak it in public, you’re not allowed to use it in the radio, you’re not allowed to teach it to a child under the age 10,” Gordin explained.

The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years that was the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US.

“In 1915, Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were,” Gordin said. “After these laws go into effect, foreign language education drops massively. Isolationism kicks in in the 1920s, even after the laws are overturned and that means people don’t think they need to pay attention to what happens in French or in German.”

This results in a generation of future scientists who come of age in the 1920s with limited exposure to foreign languages.

That was also the moment, according to Gordin, when the American scientific establishment started to take over dominance in the world.

“And you have a set of people who don’t speak foreign languages,” said Gordin, “They’re comfortable in English, they read English, they can get by in English because the most exciting stuff in their mind is happening in English. So you end up with a very American-centric, and therefore very English-centric community of science after World War II.”

You can see evidence of this world history embedded into scientific terms themselves, Gordin said.

Take for example the word “oxygen.” The term was born in the 1770s as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.

“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin said.

The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn’t, instead they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “sauerstoff” or acid substance.

“So you can see how at a certain moments, certain words get formed and the tendency was for Germans, in particular, to take French and English terms and translate them. Now that’s not true. Now terms like online, transistor, microchip, that stuff is just brought over in English as a whole. So you see different fashions about how people feel about the productive capacity of their own language versus borrowing a term wholesale from another,” Gordin said.


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Adam Gidwitz puts the grim back into Grimms’ fairy tales…and adds punk

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner, uploaded to Wikimedia Commins by Andreas Praefcke )

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner, uploaded to Wikimedia Commins by Andreas Praefcke )

Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… they are some of the best-known stories of our time. But how well do we really know these and other fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm? Probably not well at all, since we have generally read sanitized translations.

Take Snow White, for instance. Snow White’s stepmother — or mother in some versions — tells the huntsman to take Snow White out into the forest. In the 1823 English edition, the huntsman is directed to “lose her.”

In the original German, things are bit different: “I want you to cut out her lungs and her liver, and bring them back to me so that I might boil them in salt — and eat them,” the stepmother commands.

Disney, not surprisingly, opted to use the Anglicized plot — and the rest is history.

The deliberate mistranslations and omissions have flourished ever since, according to Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grim, In a Glass Grimly and The Grimm Conclusion.

Gidwitz’s versions of these stories, such as Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, draw on the oral origins of the stories, along with Gidwitz’s favorite English translator of the Grimms’ tales: Ralph Mannheim.

“He keeps the lyric quality, as well as all the blood and gore,” says Gidwitz of Mannheim.

Gidwitz tests his versions of stories on kids. “The first time I ever told these stories to children, I was supposed to be a substitute librarian for a day,” he says. He pulled out a copy of the Grimms’ stories and opened it up to one called Faithful Johannes. In it, children get their heads cut off by their parents.

“I thought, ‘Can I read this to second graders?'” Gidwitz remembers. “And I thought, ‘Let’s find out!’”

As he started reading the story aloud, he saw some of the children getting nervous. He started making jokes to calm them down and warning them when a scary moment was coming up. Afterwards, a few kids came up to Gidwitz. He says they were shaking — traumatized. “But one of them pointed her finger in my face and she said, ‘That was good. You should make that into a book,'” he says.

And so he did, using the same formula as his first-ever reading: Adding jokes and preparing the listener for the violent parts — and then including all the gore.

(In the audio of this story, you’ll hear Gidwitz tell his own version of Snow White, complete with references to “punks,” J.C. Penney and Foot Locker)

Gidwitz’s versions of the Brothers Grimm stories have now been translated back to German. “I get a lot of positive feedback from the Germans,” he says. “They like it when Grimms’ tales get recognized.”


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Some people have re-imagined English as Anglish, with no words derived from French or Latin

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet


Here’s a guest post from Tom Rowsell.

It’s common knowledge that languages are fluid things which merge into one another and evolve to become new languages. But the way they change isn’t necessarily natural or arbitrary. The changes that occur to languages are often the result of wars, genocides, mass migrations, political meddling and religious taboos. The point of any language is to make oneself understood and this fact has meant that geography maintains the distinct character of different languages so that they remain intelligible to those inhabiting a certain area.

Linguistic purism is usually about preserving a language and protecting it from being corrupted by the introduction of foreign words. But Anglish is a bit different from other types of linguistic purism because it isn’t intended to preserve the English language as it is spoken now, nor as it has ever been spoken. Instead Anglish is a form of English stripped clean of the last 1000 years of non-Germanic influence, while also being brought up to date in terms of modern syntax, grammar and spelling.

So words like love, which is derived from the Old English word lufian, remain as they are in Anglish, while words like horticulture, the first part of which is derived from the Latin hortus meaning garden, have to be altered. The Anglish translation of horticulture is wortcraft, which is a compound of wort, meaning plant, and craft, meaning work.

Anglish speakers are a fringe movement of linguistic purists who want to streamline the English language and rid it of words of un-Anglo-Saxon origin. They don’t speak Old English as it was, because they keep the modern versions of words derived from Old English ones, but they replace words derived from French or Latin with what they consider to be the most appropriate Germanic English equivalents.

Anglish speakers haven’t had to invent an entire language as such, because most of the normal English words we use in daily conversation are of Old English origin. But although spoken English is primarily Germanic, the vast majority of words in the English language are of non Germanic origin, and this is where Anglish purists have had to be inventive. The words they have created are quite charming but confusing at times. Fortunately the Anglish Moot have provided an online Anglish Wordbook (wordbook is Anglish for dictionary) to help you learn the lingo.

In many cases you can guess what is meant because Anglish is quite intuitive. “Expand” is replaced by swell while “edit” is replaced by bework. The Anglish movement has roots way back in the late 1800s when Elias Molee advocated an English purged of its Romance components. He made his case in two books; “Pure Saxon English” and “Plea for an American Language, or Germanic-English”. He proposed a language similar to Anglish called Tutonish, which was intended to be a “union tongue” for all the Germanic-language speaking peoples, with a schematised English syntax and a largely German- and Scandinavian-based vocabulary.

In 1989 Poul Anderson wrote a short text about atomic theory in a version of English free from Romance elements. The text entitled “Uncleftish Beholding” is seen as the blueprint for the modern Anglish movement and what it can achieve. These opening paragraphs give you a feel for how Anderson made scientific speech seem more accessible and almost folksy.

    “For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
    of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
    to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
    watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.
    The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
    together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
    knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
    barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
    as aegirstuff and helstuff.”

The compound words like ymirstuff and aegirstuff reference figures from Nordic mythology, like the primordial giant of creation Ymir and the God of the sea Aegir, in order to describe the base elements of the universe in a Germanic context. Anderson also borrowed from German words to create “waterstuff” and “sourstuff”, coming from Wasserstoff (hydrogen) and Sauerstoff (oxygen).

It is unlikely that the Anglish dialect being created by linguistic enthusiasts will ever become widespread, but it is not without value. One thing about Anglish words is that they are more consistent and easier to understand if you have never heard them before. This is a great lesson for journalists, poets and authors struggling with vocabulary. Language is after all, a means of making oneself understood. If we endeavour to express the more complicated concepts of life and science with the most basic Anglo-Saxon language possible, then we may find the language is not only easier to understand but also sounds better.

Tom Rowsell is a professional writer and the director of “From Runes to Ruins”, a documentary film about Anglo-Saxon history. He is currently employed by the translation and interpreting company, EmpowerLingua.


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Germans on Twitter say ‘ja!’ to Nein Quarterly

Eric Jarosinski (Photo: Caitlan Carroll)

Eric Jarosinski (Photo: Caitlan Carroll)

Here’s a guest post from Frankfurt-based reporter Caitlan Carroll

“Nein Quarterly” has attracted more than 40,000 Twitter followers with its wry observations on everything from US politics to the sexiness of the German umlaut.

Here are a few Nein Quarterly quips: “What’s so awesome about nihilism? Nothing.”

“You call it happiness. I call it Acute Despair Deficit syndrome.”

“My Doppelgänger wants to start resembling other people.”

The man behind the Twitter feed is Eric Jarosinski, a German professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Jarosinski grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. His early experience with German culture came in the form of kitschy folk fests and polka nights, but he got to know the real Germany after spending time in the country and mastering the language.

“German for me was a lot like learning math which I was resistant to,” says Jaronsinski. “But I learned that it became something very different after I could make the language my own in some form and in fact, that’s something I encourage my students to do is to make puns in German.”

Puns and word play are trademarks of Nein Quarterly. His jokes jump from Marxism to pumpkin spice lattes—all told from the perspective of a depressed German philosopher pining for another time and place. It’s a persona Jarosinski loosely models on the real German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who died in 1969.

“More than anything I’ve tried to develop the persona of a loveable misanthrope who comments on most anything he encounters and feels like he has something to say about most everything he encounters.”

Jarosinski says he started Nein Quarterly over a year ago as a way to relax while writing a book about the concept of transparency. “Essentially this gave me a voice at a time when I found there was very little I could put on paper but there was a lot that I could type into my iPhone,” he says.

What started as a lark has turned into something more serious. Jarosinski is in Germany to meet with publishers to talk about future writing projects. Interest in Nein Quarterly is running high in Germany at the moment, especially among intellectuals.

Elka Sloan, a professional translator in Frankfurt, reads the Twitter feed for the word play. “The plays he does with sort of nihilist statements, the way he twists around famous quotes from philosophy and the way he breaks the German intellectual tradition through this satirical lens is, I think, the hilarity of it,” says Sloan.

It got Helmut Wicht laughing too. He teaches anatomy at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “I think the first tweet which actually made me follow him immediately was the famous one it must have been like a year ago on philosophy,” he says. “Three lines. First line: ‘Ontology – what the f—? Epistemology – Why the f—? Phenomology – The f—.'” (In the original tweet, Jarosinski spelled out the f— word.)

“And in that very moment,” says Wicht, “I hit the follow button.”

Wicht says Jarosinski has found Germany’s enigmatic funny bone. He jokes like an insider. “He is playing with that. He gives us the feeling that ultimately, finally there is someone out there in the Anglo-Saxon world who loves and understands us.”

That view from the outside is something that Germans crave, and Jarosinski knows it. “I have had people tell me that. That that is something that they have liked,” Jarosinski says. “How does an outsider perceive us? And in particular, an outsider who knows us somewhat—I think that has something to do with it as well.”

Jarosinski is raising money to support a Nein Quarterly blog he plans to launch at the end of this year. He’ll feature writing from many different contributors. He describes the blog this way on his website: “Words. Thought. Art. Umlauts. Despair.”


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Cold War Linguists: The NSA’s Spies of Teufelsberg

The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Clark Boyd

Berlin makes for an interesting backdrop for President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss recent revelations about NSA surveillance. It was there, during the Cold War, that the United States and the Soviet Union focused much of their espionage activity.

After World War Berlin lay in ruins, its buildings reduced to rubble. The Russians used tons of that rubble, including parts of Hitler’s chancellery, to build a giant war memorial in what would become Soviet East Berlin.

The Americans created a hill out of their rubble. The artificial hill, built on top of a never-completed Nazi military-technical college, was dubbed Teufelsberg, German for “Devil’s Mountain.” At 260 feet, it was hardly a mountain. But it was tall enough for the NSA to point antennas hundreds of miles into East Germany.

Edward Richardson, now a lawyer, served in the 1960s with the 78th Army Security Agency Special Operations Unit (ASA) at Teufelsberg. Richardson, who was already a member of the National Guard, enlisted in Army and opted for Russian language training.

He was assigned to West Berlin in 1965—to the listening station at Teufelsberg.

There, hidden under giant, slightly menacing-looking domes, the antennas picked up all kinds of radio traffic from the East. And 24/7, the Americans used dozens of vacuum tube radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders to monitor it all.

“This was kind of the Pleistocene Era of communications,” says Richardson. “The operators would sit there all night, and just wait for one of lines on the green screen to squiggle, and they’d start the tape recorder. Then they’d hand the tapes over to a transcriber, and then it went on to NSA or ASA headquarters.”

Richardson was tasked with focusing on Soviet troop movements in East Germany.

“We didn’t care what they were saying,” he says. “What we cared about was who was saying it, and where they were saying it from. Nobody was interested in listening to people’s conversations.”

That sounds like an early version of the “We’re only looking at your meta-data” line of jokes, directed these days at President Obama’s NSA.

Richardson remembers some funny moments, like near daybreak, when weird frequency bounces meant you’d sometimes hear Moscow cabbies chatting. Or when you’d decode a message saying that a Soviet artillery unit was targeting Teufelsberg—only to realize that it was a hoax.

While Richardson worked on the Soviets, Don Cooper listened in on telephone calls between East German government officials.

Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

“Some days it was fun. Other days it was excruciatingly boring,” says Cooper. “They’d be discussing agriculture reports, things like that. They were having a bad crop of potatoes. And if you were on the graveyard shift, or really just after 8 o’clock at night, we just switched over to Radio Luxembourg and listened to rock ‘n’ roll.”

But Cooper says he does remember hearing one interesting conversation. Walter Ulbricht—“Uncle Walter” as he was called—was the East German leader at the time. Cooper once overheard Uncle Walter’s then second-in-command, Erich Honecker, arranging a hunting trip.

“Walter wanted to go deer hunting up in the northern part of the country,” says Cooper. “They were making sure he’d get a deer. They drugged the poor thing, and when it staggered out, Walter would take a shot at the thing, and they had a sharpshooter with a silencer on his rifle to make sure the deer went down. So, Walter got his deer.”

And the Americans got a bit of insight into how East Germany worked at the time.

Cooper details this in his book “C-Trick“—named after the shift he worked. He says that officially, the Army Security Agency was never in Berlin. The guys in the outfit couldn’t even wear their unit patch on their uniforms. If a German asked, Cooper says you had to tell them: “I’m a clerk in the Berlin brigade.”

He remembers trying that out one night at a place called The White House Whitehorse Bar.

“I was sitting in there enjoying myself, and a couple of Germans, sitting with a couple of Berliners, and they asked: ‘Are you American?’ With the military haircut I had at the time, I said: ‘Yeah, I’m a clerk with the Berlin brigade.’ They laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re ASA.’”

So much for top secret.

There was, of course, plenty of spy-versus-spy goings on in those post-war decades.

The Soviets had built their own listening station on a hill in East Berlin. Christopher McLarren served with the ASA at Teufelsberg in the 1970s.

“As long as they listened to the West, and we listened to the East, things went fine. Because after 1980, the real big danger was surprise, panic and military over-reaction,” says McLarren. “Since we were all listening, [there was ] no surprise, no panic, no over-reaction. So it worked very well.”

McLarren ended up marrying a Berliner, and staying on in the city after he left the Army. He watched as the fall of the wall and reunification brought an end to the NSA’s listening station on Teufelsberg.

“Reunification was 1990. From what I understand, the Americans listened in—just to make sure, for another year, just to make sure everything was straight. And then they dismantled the place, so I think operations finished in 1991 or 1992.”

And Teufelsberg itself—the buildings with the strangely shaped domes? It’s fallen into almost complete disrepair.

Artists and musicians love to visit the eery place for inspiration.

Many development ideas have been floated for the site—a hotel, luxury apartments, a spa—but none of them has worked out. The locals aren’t too keen on any of these plans.

Christopher McLarren is part of a group called BerlinSightOut that gives organized tours of the now derelict and dangerous buildings. At a minimum, he says, he’d like to see a small museum built to highlight the history of the place. He says that while Berliners are typically keen to forget the past and move on, they do pause to consider Teufelsberg’s history. Eighty percent of his tour-goers are Berliners.

“It’s very much ‘in’ at this point,” he says. “I always think, when you go through the place—since I knew what it was like before—is in terrible condition, an absolute ruin. But for the people who were never there before, this is all fascinating stuff.”

And no, McLarren says, there hasn’t been an uptick in tour requests since the recent revelations about the N-S-A’s massive data snooping program.

Instead, he says, it’s just a steady stream of people, coming every weekend despite the notoriously bad Berlin weather, to look out over a now-unified city, and country.



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The Compounding Magic of German

Sign in Germany: "Wastewater treatment plant" (Wikimedia Commons)

Sign in Germany: “Wastewater treatment plant” (Wikimedia Commons)

Germany has done away with what is arguably the longest word in the German language, a barely pronounceable word relating to a former law on the origin of beef: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

But it isn’t much of a loss. Aside from being exceedingly ugly, this 63-letter word has company (even if its buddies don’t trouble the inkwell quite so much). German, like Turkish and Finnish, is all too amenable to the construction of insanely long compound words. Many are ridiculously clunky and obscure: famously, there was Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, meaning “Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services”. But a few of these compound terms convey singular emotions or ideas, like Götterdämmerung, usually translated as “Twilight of the Gods”.

Listen above to hear German journalist Sebastian Borger discussing German compound words, and why they keep multiplying.

Railway station sign, with a pronunciation guide for English speakers, in North Wales. (Wikimedia Commons)


Podcast bonus: hear how to pronounce the name of the village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (“St Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave”). This village name is a Victorian era construction, intended to attract tourists. Locals sensibly refer to this place as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair.



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