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Is there a better way to express what is meant by “national character” or is there a good term that gets close to the German word “Volkscharakter”? I'm looking for a word that captures “the true identity (whatever that means) and ideosyncracies of a nation” or something like that, and I'm wondering if there actually is one.

If not, might it be that “Volkscharakter” does not need to be translated? Can you use it in English just like “Kindergarten” or “Schadenfreude”?

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    National identity is a person's identity or sense of belonging to one state or to one nation. But all terms in this general area are potentially "loaded" in the context of present-day "identity politics", so it's probably best to steer clear of the whole thing if you're already struggling with expressing yourself in a foreign language anyway. It would certainly be a bit quirky to have to use a German "loan word" to encapsulate "Britishness", for example! :) – FumbleFingers Dec 11 '18 at 15:37
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    National character would translate Volkscharakter reasonably well. Like race, it's a generic judgement of a whole population, and consequently mythological in its nature. Therefore you can make it be or mean anything you want and nobody can say you're wrong. – John Lawler Dec 11 '18 at 17:32
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In the vast majority of cases, the German Volkscharakter can be translated into English as ‘national character,’ defined as:

The term “national character” is used to describe the enduring personality characteristics and unique life styles found among the populations of particular national states. — International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2008.

So, for instance:

Never did the masculine spirit of England display itself with more energy, nor ever did it's [sic] genius soar with a premier pre-eminence over France, than at the time when frivolity and effeminacy had been at least tacitly acknowledged as their national character, by the good people of this kingdom. — Edmund Burke, Two letters addressed to a member of the present Parliament, on the proposals for peace with the regicide Directory of France, 1796.

One needn’t unpack fully this gender-laden polemic to see that the term can easily degenerate into stereotype. It can, of course, be used more benignly:

In no country is the national character more prominent than in the marshes of Holland. In no country, perhaps, is it so easy to assign the natural cause of this predominance of those moral qualities which constitute what is called the national character. It is only by the constant and unyielding labour of her inhabitants that Holland exists as a country : it is only to this patience, to this spirit of industry, persevering through every obstacle, that it was in its origin recovered, and in this present day is still maintained, from the violence of the ocean. — The Monthly Register and Encyclopedian Magazine 3 (1803), 1.

Just as in German, there is a tendency to use the name Holland — actually the name of only two provinces of the Netherlands — as the name of the entire country.

The concept in English, however, is bound to the concept of the nation-state, just as the encyclopedia definition suggests, while the German Volk is not. Thus while a German writer today would have no difficulty discussing the Bavarian Volkscharakter, a writer in English would tend to drop the “national,” because Bavaria has long ceased to be a nation-state:

Herzog declares: “Munich is a chic and empty city. It is empty of meaning.” | He links the city's transformation to a distortion of its original Bavarian character. In conversation with Laurens Straub, Herzog observes: “As you describe [the Bavarian character], it no longer exists. Its traces have been washed away. Munich, for example, the Bavarian capital, is more or less predominantly occupied by Prussians, the enemies, so to speak of Bavarianness.” — Brad Prager, A Companion to Werner Herzog, 2012, 234f.

This means that as long as a German writer is talking about a nation-state like France or the Netherlands, it can be translated as national character. If, say, of the Flemish in Belgium, then the word “national” would likely be dropped in favor of the “Flemish character.”

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    Wasn't there a Beobachter that gave the concept of Volkischness a bad name? – Michael Harvey Dec 11 '18 at 19:54
  • The Nazi vocable that disappeared after the war, along with a host of others, was völkisch. Of course, they had their own understanding of Volk, but that word survived with its traditional meanings intact. – KarlG Dec 11 '18 at 21:27

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