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Lonely Star State: Texan Germans dwindling

Countless German immigrants moved to Texas in the 1800s, forming their own unique culture. With their language now near extinction, Moises Mendoza spoke to some of the last speakers and a professor trying to preserve it.

Lonely Star State: Texan Germans dwindling
Photo: DPA

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:

Engine

Standard German: Der Motor

Texas German: Die Engine

To arrest someone

Standard German: festnehmen

Texan German: arresten

Airplane

Standard German: Das Flugzeug

Texan German: Das Luftschiff

Squirrel

Standard German: Das Eichhörnchen

Texas German: Die Eichkatz

Moises Mendoza

[email protected]

twitter.com/moisesdmendoza

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Travel: Germany downgrades Covid-19 risk status of USA

The United States is no longer classed as a "high incidence area" by Germany - it has returned to being a "risk area".

Travel: Germany downgrades Covid-19 risk status of USA
People walking in New York in May 2020. Photo: DPA

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) changed the risk classification of the United States on March 7th.

The US was previously classed as a “high incidence area” by the RKI. These are regions where the incidence is over 200 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents with a period of seven days.

However, now it’s a “risk area” – which is used by German authorities to describe a region with an increased risk of infection, usually above 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in seven days.

Other factors are also taken into account, such as measures in place.

It means the travel requirements for people coming from the US to Germany have changed.

However, entry from the US is only permitted in a few narrow exceptions. Proof of urgent need to travel is required, German authorities say. You can find more information in the story below.

READ MORE: When are Americans allowed to travel to Germany?

What happens if I need to travel from the US to Germany?

If you are a German resident from the US, or fall into one of the exception categories, you still face strict testing and quarantine measures.

All travellers must have a negative Covid-19 test result at the latest 48 hours after they enter Germany. It must be presented to authorities if they request it.

Some individual airlines may however still say that travellers have to present a coronavirus negative test result before boarding is allowed. You should contact your airline before travel to check.

Both PCR tests as well as rapid anitgen tests are accepted if they meet the quality standards. Testing is still mandatory even if travellers are vaccinated or have recovered from a coronavirus infection. 

People returning from “risk zones” are required to self-isolate for 10 days after they arrive.

The quarantine can usually be ended with a negative coronavirus test result taken at the earliest five days after arriving in Germany.

However, states can differ on their travel regulations so check with your local authority before travelling.

Everyone entering Germany is also required to register online.

New “high incidence areas”

In the RKI’s latest travel classification list, Sweden, Hungary and Jordan are now classed as “high incidence areas” which means stricter testing and quarantine rules apply.

Areas of “variant concern” include Austria’s Tyrol region, the UK, Brazil, Portugal and Ireland. Even stricter rules apply for these regions.

You can find out more information about travel rules in our story below.

READ MORE: What you need to know about Germany’s latest rules on foreign travel

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