The fact that dialects of German are spoken across the United States may seem random, but it’s actually evidence of a massive German emigration movement between 1850 and 1860. Many Germans in fact fought with the Confederates for an independent Texas, and the southern state is still home to a lot of German communities. The presence of various German dialects led to the development of a linguistic enclave in the city of Fredericksburg, and to a unique language variant known as Texas German.
Speaking German with English grammar
In its heyday around 1880, Texas German had roughly 100,000 speakers. Today, it’s still spoken by around 10,000 of their descendants – although most of them belong to the older generation. Shops, bars and even some villages still bear German names. The main problem is the dialect’s vocabulary, which is stuck in the 1840s. This means that, for every new phenomenon, a new word has to be invented to match – a circumstance that has linguists salivating.
So instead of the Standard German Flugzeug (airplane), Texas German speakers say Luftschiff, or airship. For lawnmower, they simply borrowed the English word. These borrowings are very common: for example, Wir meeten uns heute in town (We’re meeting in town today) rather than the more standard Wir treffen uns heute in der Stadt. Some words are also Germanized, as in the title of this post, where a German Kuh (cow) jumps over an English fence – but the jump is forced into a standard German past tense construction as gejumpt. The result is a unique English-German hybrid language. The grammar has moved closer to English due to its social context, but Texas German can still be easily understood by all speakers of Standard German.
Here’s how it sounds:
“Ich duh Kieh melke”
Texas German’s northern counterpart is Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s a bit of a misleading name – this dialect isn’t just spoken in Pennsylvania, but also in Ohio and Indiana. And it’s not related to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands, either: Dutch used to be a collective term for the Germanic languages. Pennsylvania Dutch originated in the 17th century, when German-speaking emigrants settled in the US and began combining English loanwords with German terms from the Palatine dialect. These English words were often Germanized, turning “farmed” into gefarmt. Pennsylvania Dutch also features grammatical peculiarities seen in Alsatian and Swabian German, such as “I do cows milk” (Ich duh Kieh melke) rather than “I milk the cows”.
Around 80% of today’s estimated 400,000 speakers belong to the conservative Amish and Mennonite groups. Written documents, mostly of a religious nature, have allowed linguists to thoroughly analyze the language, revealing plenty of exciting phonetic phenomena.
Want to hear for yourself?
Speaker spread vs dialect death
Pennsylvania Dutch has gained a significant number of speakers in recent years. According to linguistic and religious researchers, it’s the fastest-growing minority language in the US – which is mostly down to a high birth rate and low turnover within the speech community. There are now Pennsylvania Dutch dictionaries and the language is even taught at university level. By contrast, Texas German is predicted to die out within the next few decades. Children no longer grow up speaking the language and its active speakers are now all aged between 70 and 90. In the meantime, the Texan linguist Hans Boas and his team from the Texas German Dialect Project are striving to preserve the dialect for posterity in the form of recordings.
Cover image via Pexels (CC0)