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Lonely Star State: Texan Germans dwindling

The Local · 4 Jul 2011, 16:49

Published: 04 Jul 2011 16:49 GMT+02:00

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Rodney Koenig can look back upon a career as a high-powered attorney in Houston, but he often prefers to think about his childhood in rural Fayette County in southeastern Texas.

Back then, the 70-year-old remembers, everyone spoke German.

“It was our primary language at home,” he recently told The Local from his office where he handles tax and estate planning. “The neighbours all spoke it, the church services were in German.”

Today, like many other former havens for German Texans, his home county is now full of native English speakers.

And Koenig is one of the last-remaining native speakers of the unique German dialect native to Texas.

As the ranks of the roughly 10,000 speakers of the language dwindle, a piece of Texas history, and its rich German heritage, goes with them.

Koenig, who is now one of the dialect’s youngest speakers, knows it.

“There just aren’t that many of us left,” he said. “It’s sad for some people, but it’s reality.”

Searching for something better

Searching for better lives in America, hundreds of thousands of Germans immigrated to Texas in the 1800s.

Many integrated quickly into the dominant Anglo culture, helping to build the state’s big cities like San Antonio and Houston. Others created their own enclaves – with names like New Berlin and Fredericksburg – often modelled on German communities where innovation, hard work and industriousness was valued.

Like many immigrants, German Texans considered themselves to be patriotic, hard-working Americans. But they also clung to their heritage, holding festivals, giving their towns Teutonic names and continuing to speak German.

The peculiar dialect of Texas German thrived and evolved, becoming a language with its own unique features until the World Wars prompted the government to crack down on German Texans – some were sent to internment camps.

Soon, school and church services were only in English.

As English took over, and native Texas German speakers died one by one, so too did the language.

Today remnants of Texas’ German past are still there – New Braunfels still has its annual Wurstfest, the Beethoven Männerchor sings its songs in San Antonio. But like its unique language, the one-of-a-kind Texas German culture is slowly fading away.

Recording but not saving

University of Texas at Austin linguistics professor Hans Boas knows he can’t save Texas German.

So the Texas German Dialect Project he started around 2001 aims to catalogue it for posterity.

Boas – a native German – has criss-crossed the state, interviewing the dialect’s last speakers with a team of students.

His team has discovered Texas German has quirks not found in the standard version of the language.

Among others: The genitive case is rarely used and English words like "blanket" or "six shooter" have been integrated into the language.

He’s also learned that few, if any, German Texans passed the dialect onto their children. The youngest native speaker today is in his 50s, Boas said.

But there are still thousands of speakers to reach out to and time is of the essence.

“As languages die, you lose a window on the world,” Boas said. “That’s what’s happening with Texan German. In the next 20 or 30 years, it will be gone. That’s why we have to do this now.”

The last of their kind

Even today, German Texans are a hardy bunch. They’re proud to be Americans, but equally proud of the contributions their forefathers made to the country. They often look toward the past – and their now-changed culture – with a sense of resignation.

Warren Hahn a 76-year-old rancher from the small community of Doss, tries to get together with friends to speak Texas German whenever he can, but it’s not the same as it was.

“I just accept that’s it’s going away eventually,” he said. “You just have to accept that fact.”

And Diane and Bill Moltz, who live in New Braunfels and are both in their 70s say they’ve tried to maintain their heritage, in part by instilling a sense of German pride in their children and grandchildren.

“They are proud of their background but I don’t know how much they’ll retain,” said Diane Moltz, explaining that none of the kids really speak German.

Sometimes, Diane thinks back to her childhood, singing German songs at Christmastime. She’d like to pass that tradition on to the young people of New Braunfels, but it's not easy.

“Nobody can sing with me,” she said.

Texas German is intelligible to speakers of standard German – but there are some key differences. Among them: Texas German generally doesn’t use the genitive case. It often appropriates English words that sound very different from their standard German cousins.

Examples of English words with Texas German and standard German translations:


Standard German: Der Motor

Texas German: Die Engine

Story continues below…

To arrest someone

Standard German: festnehmen

Texan German: arresten


Standard German: Das Flugzeug

Texan German: Das Luftschiff


Standard German: Das Eichhörnchen

Texas German: Die Eichkatz

Moises Mendoza



The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

17:26 July 4, 2011 by parker7usa
I am 50 years old, and have been living in the US since 1975 (after my parents divorced). I was born and raised in Dinkelsbuehl, W. Germany (Bayern). From 1975 until 1999 I lived in and around the St. Louis, Missouri area. Lots of Germans and Italians there. In 1999, I moved to Houston, Texas (Copperfield). Can't say that I ran into too many Germans, but in 2005 I moved to San Antonio, and then in late 2007, I moved to New Braunfels, Texas. Here, our newspaper is called The Herald Zeitung. We have a Gemischter Choir and a Wurstfest.
17:38 July 4, 2011 by hanskarl
Texas is one of many areas with German populations. There is an area in teh US called The German Triangle and consists of the areas between Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri and Cincinnati, Ohio. This is the area where the majority of Germanic speaking immigrants from Europe settled.

All areas in the US are struggling keeping their Germanic roots and language alive. The last great influx of Germans to the US came in the early 1960's. Then the US changed the laws and it severely dropped the flow of German immigrants. Over the years other groups have filled the gap with dire consequences.

Now Germany needs technical workers. I wonder how many would be willing to immigrate to Germany or go on a work pass if it were more openly allowed. Cultural differences between the two countries requiring college or technical degrees versus years of experience may constrain this flow.
18:24 July 4, 2011 by Frenemy
Don't forget the Dakotas (pretty massive German population there too).
19:34 July 4, 2011 by texas23
@ Hanskarl

It is funny you ask the question about tech workers going to Germany. I am leaving in December to stay near Koln with some family. ExxonMobil and all the rifinery have been cutting pay and benits for the last 3 years. So now, I am going to try and start a career there.

This will be my first trip there. If all goes well, I plan on moving family there.

Robert Meschede

Crosby, TEXAS
19:53 July 4, 2011 by Christine1
The primary language in Texas is now spanish.
20:07 July 4, 2011 by Celeon
The numbers of Texas-germans surely aren't dwindling, they just dont speak german anymore. ;-) Thats two different things.

Even in Germany a texas-german speaker would struggle to make himself understood as the language is a wild mixture of english and an archaic german dialect only very few still speak here.

The german which the Amish and Gottscheer speak is , although being archaic dialects, easier to understand.

The Gottscheer managed to keep their german through tradition while the Amish kept theirs solely through isolation.

The amish only speak english to "Engländer" which they call everyone non-amish in the USA while they speak , sing and pray in Pennsylvania-German inside their communities.

Some Mennonite communities also still speak archaic dialects which closely resemble low-german like spoken in the most northern parts of Germany.
20:28 July 4, 2011 by Englishted
That explains why there are so many red necks and where the Bush family feel right at home.
21:38 July 4, 2011 by JAMessersmith
My great-grandmother lived in Oklahoma (which borders Texas), and didn't speak a word of English. Her son (my grandfather) could speak German, but learned English as his 1st language, and was eager to shed his German roots at the time, because the World Wars were raging, and anti-German sentiment ran rampant in the States. He even Anglicized our surname from Messerschmidt to Messersmith, to avoid persecution.

On my mother's side, the same thing happened; they changed their name from Wiegand to Wiggins.

I know most of those German newspapers were banned during WWII. I've read that in some places in Texas they even had German book-burnings (not all that unlike Nazi book-burnings).

I was born and raised in Southern California, and there are lots of Germans out here in LA, although hardly any of them actually speak German, myself included. There's even a replica German village in Torrance, called "Alpine Village", where they serve German food, play German music, and hold giant Oktoberfest celebrations every year.
21:58 July 4, 2011 by Lachner
I went to school in San Antonio, TX and I met a lot of people with German last names, but that spoke little or no German. I am especially very fond of the town of Fredricksburg, which is located in the San Antonio Hill Country and is a very beautiful place to visit and to live. I also had a very good friend that lived in Schertz, TX which is located in between San Antonio and Austin. It is a very nice place to live.
22:16 July 4, 2011 by Frenemy
Schertz, TX? That town is a joke!!

(yeah I know, pretty corny) lol
23:46 July 4, 2011 by Larry Thrash
I now live in San Antonio where I enjoy the German festivals in this area. There is a lot of pride in our German heritage. My family (Triesch)came from Germany in 1750, the name changed because they were given a land grant for fighting for the Americans in the Revolutionary war. The English speaker wrote "Thrash" instead of "Triesch" on the land deed. Thank you Germany for helping give another interesting twist to Texas culture.
03:58 July 5, 2011 by wood artist
Sometime in the late 70's I was in Wisconsin and happened across some TV commercials in German. They were from a wurst company. When I asked someone about them, they told me that the people who will buy would understand them. They were most likely right about that.

Somehow I just struggle to visualize (audibalize?) German being spoken with a Texas accent or drawl. That's gotta be tough to understand.

11:17 July 5, 2011 by harcourt
Did you know that nearly 50 million Americans claim that they have German ancestors - thats a lot !!
16:41 July 5, 2011 by Wise Up!
German culture is not only dying in the US, it is dying in Germany too.
18:08 July 5, 2011 by Ronnys
As a native speaker of Texas German, when speaking English, I am often accused of coming from else where (usually a yankee state), because there is no drawl. Speakers of Texas German, who have maintained a good vocabulary, have no problem conversing with native Germans.
18:39 July 5, 2011 by Major B
New Braunfels, Tx, about 30 miles north of San Antonio, also has(had) a rich German heritage
19:26 July 5, 2011 by ibth123
I surely would like to know where that info came from? There are more and more Germans in the state. Just look in FB under Germans in Texas. We are a growing population here. lol
21:33 July 5, 2011 by krieger
I live near Fredericksburg, Texas. The language was not heard much during the 70's - 90's. However, I gives me great joy to hear young people speaking German.

In schools, the German language classes are full. Last weekend, my wife and I were walking down the main street behind 4 young girls, they were speaking very proper German. We bought them each an ice cream. It was 41C that day.
22:08 July 5, 2011 by Deviate
I wish there were a bit more German culture in my neck of the woods. Ft Worth has a couple little German restaurants and a few bakeries, but otherwise it's pretty lacking.

Fortunately there are at least a few little pubs and bars with a good selection of German beers. Better than nothing, I guess.
22:45 July 5, 2011 by bramblebush
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
00:45 July 6, 2011 by willowsdad
@ Englishted: since the English are essentially descendants of migrants from what is today Germany, maybe the same holds true for English racism!
13:12 July 6, 2011 by Englishted

Yep you are probably right there partner.
22:51 July 6, 2011 by rick walker
While visiting Cape Coral, Florida the other week I noticed a large sign at a boating area with instructions to boaters in English AND German. It's rare to see anything other than Spanish as a second language in most of the US. In one of the stores there German was being spoken more than English, and at a restaurant the vocal duo was German. The Cape Coral area either draws a lot of German tourists or has many Germans living there.
09:01 July 7, 2011 by wenddiver
Concordia Lutheran University in Austin, Texas is built around a large bell inscribed in German and brought to America in 1845 from Cottbus, by the Wendish-German immigrants, it translates as "God's Word and Luther's Teaching is all that's necessary". Apparently so as it survived the cholera that killed so many of this immigrant group, the ship wreck, the living in holes dug in the Riverbanks the first winter to live in until housing could be built, the Commanche indians, the Civil War, etc, etc.

Serbin has a fantastic Wendish heritage festival with speakers on everything from Johan Sebastian Bach, to the German Wenish colonies in Australia, to doodlesaks and noodles. The trip to Serbin is worth it to see St. Pauls's Church built by the German pioneers and still decorated with German verse today. All German culture is neatly preserved by the ladies of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society. The museum shop has books that re-print the local German and Wendish language newspapers of the past.
17:09 July 7, 2011 by Redwing
When my aunt, then abt. 44, emigrated to England in 1949, she spoke no English. She then went on to create an English German language all of her own using case and pronoun endings to English words where she thought they ought to be, and all in a Cumberland accent.
17:05 July 8, 2011 by digital47
I wonder how many would go back to Germany if the German would allow dual citizenship for those of us that came in 60's and 70's. I would return to Koeln in a heartbeat. Wh'at's up with this nonsense. Does anyone know???
18:31 July 8, 2011 by Flint
@celeon SW Kansas has a number of small Mennonite communities where German is still the primary language at home.
23:43 July 8, 2011 by Logic Guy
Well, although I was born in America, I do however realize that I was German in the past life. I'm proud to be German. And so I have made to commitment to learn the langauge.

Yes, Germans made some mistakes during the 20th century. However, the past is the past. German people are clearly gifted, in many areas, according to the facts. Be it Classical music, soccer and other sports, art and technical innovation, German people and the nation of German have given humanity some truly extraordinary things. The German people, culture and nation should therefore be preserved. This should actually be seen as an obligation.
21:58 July 9, 2011 by Muv
Delighted at finding this article. I have a distant relative who up until recently lived in Fredericksburg.

A point I think Americans miss is how much American English has been influenced by German. I am English and have lived in England all my life. I listen to American accents and can hear the German influence - the intonation, the speed (ie often a bit slow), the separation of words, lots of words (eg dumb for stupid) and certain constructions: for instance, in England we do not say "if I would have...", we say "if I had" or "had I."

German may not live on for much longer in the States, but it has certainly made its mark on American English
22:50 July 9, 2011 by Dietert
My husband and I both speak Texas German. It was our first language at home in New Braunfels and Geronimo, Tx. Now we host German folks from North Germany and the Austria area in our home during Wurstfest and other German Celebrations. They understand us and we have no problem understanding them. We have visted Germany 3 times and have been told by many that they wish that they could speak English as well as we speak German. We are both in our 70s and as so many of our German speaking friends, we did not teach our children. What a shame. Our hope is that our boys and our grandchildren will be proud of their German Heritage, just as we are.
20:43 July 16, 2011 by farmon
At the time of WW2, America was one third German. A good part of America's military strength. When the Germans immigrated there, they did their own work and excelled, unlike the English, who bought and sold slaves to do the work for them. America owes most of its strength to its German immigrants.
22:18 July 27, 2011 by Scuba Steve
Live in Germany. Speak German. Would really like to hear some "Texas German". Ah, NH Yankee born...
20:25 August 7, 2011 by Dizz

You forgot "Yeah" and "OK" which might come from the short hand for "alles klar". The myth about that one goes that in the White House someone's handwritten lowercase "a.k" at the bottom of a briefing note was misread as "o.k" and gradually spread in use from there!
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