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Wall of words: the Berlin Wall fifty years on

The Berlin Wall was built fifty years ago on 13 August 1961.

Like the concrete wall, the word wall divides Europe linguistically. Some European languages, like German and French, form their words for wall from the Latin murus. So the German for Berlin Wall is die Berliner Mauer. English, Irish, and other languages use another Latin word, vallum, a more military word which means a rampart. In Irish it became fál, and its possessive form has found its way into the name of the political party, Fianna Fáil.

During the Cold War era language often emphasized our differences. In 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built, Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard flew into space for the first time. They did the same thing, but we found different words to describe them: Gagarin was a cosmonaut and Shepard an astronaut.

But if we look a little more widely we find how much the European languages share. English language newspapers reported that the East Berliners had been immured, and, later, they carried pictures of the murals that spread across the Wall on its western side. Both words, immure and mural, come from the Latin root murus that the Germans use. In the East the Wall was known as the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall—the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart: German has retained its own traces of ‘our’ Latin word for wall.

In 1989 the division between the Berliners became so unabsolute and absurd that the people tore it down and so the Berlin Wall is not here for its fiftieth birthday. What remains are the vestiges of murus and vallum with which we can all trace our common heritage.

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