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The surprising places around the world where German is still spoken

Many people wouldn’t expect to hear German spoken outside of central Europe. Yet today it is preserved, in its own dialect, in communities stretching from Texas to Namibia.

The surprising places around the world where German is still spoken
A Texas Deutsch billboard: DPA

Walking down the street in small town Texas, you wouldn’t expect to hear the locals chattering away in German. But Germany’s complex history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in a global diaspora, and the language is spoken in numerous regions outside of Europe.

Here are some of the most significant and surprising places in which German is still spoken.

Texas

Perhaps one of the most unlikely locations for the presence of a modern-day German dialect is Texas. German was transported to Texas in the mid-19th century, as a part of the wave of immigration to the United States.

READ ALSO: Texas German: How Southerners are keeping a distinct dialect alive

Emigration to the state was boosted in 1842 by the Adelsverein, which sought to establish and support German colonies throughout Texas.

Moreover, in 1847, the Meusbach-Comanche Treaty further helped to settle German colonists on the land; it remains the only unbroken treaty between European-American colonists and Native Americans.

German in Texas was unusual for an immigrant language in the USA: most died out after the third generation, but German continued to be spoken several generations after settlers brought it to the state.

However, the First and Second World Wars lead to a repression of German culture, and residents felt ashamed about speaking the language openly. Consequently, the dialect largely died out and is now spoken mostly by a small number of elderly Texans seeking to preserve their heritage.

The Hutterites

The Hutterites are an ethno-religious Christian group based in North America. There are an estimated 34,000 speakers of the Hutterite dialect of German, of which around 85% live in Canada, and 15% live in the Great Plains of the United States.

Throughout its long history, the Hutterite group emigrated from central and Eastern Europe to Russia, before settling in North America in the mid-19th century.

Hutterites live in colonies in which every member of the colony contributes towards the running and well-being of the community.

Everything, including cooking, meal-times, clothes-washing are communal, while all property is owned by the colony. The children generally learn Hutterisch, before they are taught English at schools within the colonies.

Hutterisch is based on the Tyrolean dialect spoken by the founder of the Hutterites, Jakob Hutter. Hutter, who lived in the first half of the 16th century, was a hat-maker and leading Anabaptist.

Originally from the Puster Valley, in what is now in South Tyrol in Italy, Hutter was burnt at the stake in Innsbruck in 1536 for his beliefs. Hutterite German is influenced by the Carinthian dialect, and has number of loan words from English and Russian. Hutterisch is mostly an unwritten language, although there have been attempts to write it as a dialect, such as the 2006 children’s book Lindas glücklicher Tag by Linda Maendel.

Namibia

Namibia was a German colony from 1884 to 1915; it was known as Deutsch-Südwestafrika and was part of Imperial Germany’s attempt at constructing an overseas empire.

During the First World War, Namibia was taken over by South African and British forces. Following a tense post-war relationship, Namibia gained independence from South Africa in1990.

Although English is Namibia’s only official language, German is still recognized as a national language, and is the mother tongue of roughly 30,000 Namibians. German and Afrikaans had been official languages in Namibia until independence, after which they lost their status.

The German-speaking demographic is mostly caucasian; around one-third of Namibia’s white population speaks German. It is also spoken by a small part of the well-educated black population, who speak it as a second language.

Mexico

Mexico is home to about 95,000 descendants of Mennonite immigrants who have retained their Platdietsch dialect. In the early 20th century, several thousand Russian Mennonites immigrated to Canada; however, conservative Mennonite factions soon moved to Mexico, as post-war anti-German sentiments governed Canadian society. In more conservative Mennonite communities, rules dictate that men can speak Spanish, whereas women are only permitted to speak German.

Another wave of German immigration to Mexico came at the end of the 19th century, as German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Mexican President Porfirio Díaz collaborated to exploit agricultural potential in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Almost 500 German families were sent to Soconusco in Chiapas to establish coffee plantations and food processing facilities. In fact, a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that, in Soconusco, the mestizo population had a higher concentration of German heritage than Spanish.

READ ALSO: 6 things you never knew linked Mexico and Germany

The Colegio Alemán Alexander von Humboldt in Mexico City, which was founded in 1894, is the largest German school outside of Germany. It has three campuses, and most classes are taught in German.

Brazil

There are about three million German speakers in contemporary Brazil, and German is the second most common first language in the lusophone nation. The primary German dialect spoken is Riograndenser Hunsrückisch, which is particularly prevalent in the south of Brazil.

This dialect has, unsurprisingly, been influenced by Portuguese and, to a lesser extent, indigenous languages such as Guarani and Kaingang.

The influence of Portuguese is especially notable concerning terminology for nature, and for modern technological advances: words and notions which would have been unfamiliar to the original German settlers. The word for plane, for instance, is not Flugzeug, but Aviong, which is derived from the Portuguese avião.

READ ALSO: 9 things you didn't know about Germany and Brazil

German is the best-preserved minority immigrant language in Brazil. There are various factors for this. The disparity between German and Portuguese made it harder for German immigrants to learn the dominant language; in comparison, Italian immigrants could learn Portuguese with relative ease.

The preservation of German was also aided by the high birth-rate amongst German immigrants in the 19th century; second generation German immigrant women had an average of 10.4 children, which resulted in a boom amongst the German-speaking population.

A third factor which influenced the preservation of German was the attitude of many German immigrants. In their largely rural colonies, they sought to recreate the society which they had left and believed they would never return to.

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NAMIBIA

How should Germany deal with its colonial legacy?

At time when Black Lives Matter protests have spread around the world, not least to Germany, there is a growing debate about how Germany should deal with its colonial legacy.

How should Germany deal with its colonial legacy?
For years, streets from Berlin's colonial past have been controversial. Photo: DPA

A curious sign greets visitors to the colonial-era exhibits in the German Historical Museum: the collection is outdated and “needs to be thoroughly revised”.

The reason for the rethinking is not explained, and a spokesperson for the museum said plans for the future exhibit are still rudimentary. 

The reassessment started even before the protests. Last year, the museum returned the pillar of Cape Cross, a stone crucifix placed by Portuguese explorers in 1486, taken from Namibia to Germany in 1893 by a German seafarer.

READ ALSO: Germany confronts colonial past through return of ancient cross to Namibia

Several attacks by right-wing extremists against migrants in Germany, such as the shooting that killed nine people in two shisha bars in Hanau in February 2020, were a wake-up call for many Germans about the danger of racism.

Earlier this month the Berlin transport company (BVG) said it would rename the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station because of the name’s racist connotation (Mohren, or Moors, refers to the Black slaves brought to Berlin in the 18th century).

READ ALSO: 'Racist' Berlin underground station to be renamed

A sign for George Floyd replaces the Mohren in 'Mohrenstraße'. Photo: DPA

Germany’s role in European colonialism is often forgotten. But between 1884 and 1914, it was a considerable force in Africa. Its possessions included modern-day Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia.

Like their European rivals, German troops seized land, forced local populations into slave labour, and did not hesitate to crush those who resisted them. 

In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of Namibia rebelled. The German authorities’ response was devastating.

By 1908, they had killed up to 120,000 people—in combat, by poisoning the village wells and by forcing people into the desert where they died of dehydration. If they tried to return, they were usually sent to concentration camps where they died of disease or exhaustion.

READ ALSO: Germany announces apology plans for colonisation in Namibia

This massacre is widely seen as a genocide. Their descendants are still awaiting a formal apology from the German government. But acknowledging responsibility for the crimes comes with the risk of paying reparations.

Namibia has received millions of dollars from Germany, but the money is carefully labelled “development aid”.

'Not meant to be in a museum'

Around 500,000 items taken by German colonisers are held in Berlin’s state museums, including skulls and ritual objects. These are a mix of war booty, “gifts” (often involuntary) or traded goods (often on unfair terms). They were used to convince the German population of the legitimacy of the country’s colonial conquests.

The current Humboldt Forum museum project, which will be built in the reconstructed Prussian-era Berlin Palace in the city centre, plans to exhibit many of these pieces.

In response, ‘’No Humboldt21’’, a pressure group that opposes the project, says the objects must be returned to their country of origin.

“Many of these objects are not meant to be in a museum in the first place. And if they are, then maybe it is time for Germany to help build those museums in African countries – as a thank you, and sorry, for having kept their objects for so long,” says Christian Kopp, the group’s spokesperson.

The Forum administration argues that the museum will raise awareness about colonialism, by bringing the objects into the city centre; it “focuses on intercultural dialogue, and provides a range of perspectives on globally significant issues,” the Forum’s website declares.

READ ALSO: The controversial German street names in need of a new identity

Kopp argues that German society has not merely forgotten its colonial past, but repressed it.

‘’People talk about colonial amnesia. That term is misleading, because it sounds like it is pathological, as if it were an unstoppable sickness. The reality is that there are decision-makers who write the school books, are in charge of education policy, and simply decide that this is not important enough to learn about.’’

As one German student puts it, “we spend a billion hours on the Third Reich and Nazism, and maybe a few on colonialism – and even then it is mainly about how Columbus explored the world.”

To those who have witnessed Germany’s attempt to atone for the Holocaust and the Second World War, the reluctance to come to terms with the colonial past seems out of character.

Coming to terms with the past

German troops in Namibia in 1904. Photo: DPA

Susan Neiman, an American philosopher, believes that the West reduced Nazi ideology to anti-Semitism, forgetting that racial purity laws were also directed against Black people and others.

She claims that post-war German governments put huge effort into combatting hostility towards Jews, but allowed hostility towards other minorities to fester.

Even so, Mrs Neiman believes Germany has one powerful advantage: it knows how to deal with the past. Instead of seeing themselves as victims or heroes of the Second World War, Germans learned to “turn from focusing on their own wounds to focusing on the wounds they’ve caused.”

The German idea of Vergangenheitaufarbeitung (working through the past), she explains, suggests that “if you bury the shameful parts of your past, you will never have a healthy future.” 

READ ALSO: Berlin to change street names which honour brutal colonial past

Amidst the colonial objects in the German Historical Museum, two statues stand out. They are clay and wood figures of colonialists made by local artists. Medals of honour, gun, helmet and neat moustache have been etched with care. Why were they made?

Perhaps as commissions from passing German soldiers, or as rebellious caricatures. For once, though, we see an African perspective of a European man.

The clay statue appears on the museum’s posters around the city. This attempt to see colonialism through the eyes of the victim, rather than the perpetrator, may be a sign that Germany is beginning to look at its colonial past differently.

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