Greencastle’s local brewery is an example of how local forces change language, create new words, and throw grammar books into the wood-chopper.Let’s start with a smidge of my favorite history: that of the English language. While English does owe some of its character to the Celtic and Roman inhabitants who preceded them, the Anglo-Saxon native tongue was actually an offshoot of the Germanic branch of the world language tree. The first wave of people who would become English were from what is now Denmark, landing not long after the Romans put up their “For Rent” signs and went home to watch their Empire fall. The second wave happened four centuries later when the Vikings sailed in from modern Sweden and Finland. Pop onto YouTube and listen to “The Lord’s Prayer in Old English.” What you hear is going to sound more like the Swedish chef from The Muppet Show than it will Hamlet’s soliloquy as he gazes into Yorrick’s skull (Hamlet, by the way, is speaking “Early Modern English” if you’re keeping score).
The reason the English we speak sounds nothing like its sister tongues from northern Europe, of course, is thanks to the French: who invaded in 1066, occupied for the next 300 years, and bastardized the language with their French speaking civil mandates. If you’ve ever wondered why we call dead cows “beef,” dead sheep “mutton,” and dead chicken “poultry,” there’s your answer.
I don’t know how often I think about this when I sit in Greencastle’s local brewery, but every time someone asks me if I’ve been to Wasser Brewing Company lately, the history crosses my mind.
Wasser is a German word. It means “water,” and given that beer is almost 100% water, the name seems apt. Wasser’s owner, Chris Weeks, adopted the name because of both his family ancestry and his affinity for beers which hold to centuries old purity laws. Add the somewhat coincidental fact that Greencastle’s first settlers were German (an inconvenient detail I always throw in the face of some of those New Testament temperance types when they cast their upturned noses at the fresh pint in front of them), and the moniker seems all the more apropos.
If the current German chancellor, Anglea (pronounced “Ahhhnngela” with a hard “g”) Merkel sidled up to the bar next me, she would call the brewery “Vahhssser.” But here in the Midwest, we opt for the Anglican pronunciation of my all-time favorite consonant and go with “Wahhsser.” This is how language works. It’s a safe assumption that French fur traders didn’t call Kentucky’s largest city “Loo-uhh-vull,” nor did they once call Louisiana’s Crescent City “Nawlins.” And how many of us call our second-favorite steak sauce “Wooster-sure”? Don’t you mean “War-chester-shy-yur”? Follow the etymological history of that little college town in Ohio to see how the dots connect.
To what degree Weeks wanted the German pronunciation to stick is a detail lost to the fog of one too many late-night conversations. What I do know is that virtually all of us who tried to go with the “V” route have pretty much given it up, most of us realizing we sounded stupidly pretentious. And once I did that, once I started laying out that thick “W” when I uttered the brewery’s name, the more I started to appreciate the new (and very cool) word swirling throughout Greencastle’s linguistic ether. Like the beer it serves, Wasser’s names reminds us that even in the interconnected world of the 21st century, what matters most is that which is local.