The BBC discovers the Texas Germans — and a dying dialect

My great-grandmother, Hedwig Nietzsche Koerth, never spoke English. My Grandpa Gustav didn't learn the language until he entered first grade. But, by the time I was in grade school — and was going through a brief fling of learning German — Grandpa no longer remembered much of what had once been his first language. Today, nobody in my immediate family speaks any German, much less the dying dialect of Texas German that my great-grandmother spoke. The BBC has an interesting story about the history and linguistics of Texas German, which will probably die out in the next couple generations — largely because the German Germans started a couple world wars in a row and changed the idea of what was and wasn't socially acceptable speech in America.


      1.  And this is the first time you’re mentioning it?  I would start every conversation with that.

        1. If you think that’s great, get this: One of my currently living second cousins is a guy called Junebug Nietzsche. I challenge you to show me a name that is more Texas German than that. 

  1. I’ve seen a what seems like a few documentaries or PBS type shows on the Texas Germans. IIRC, there were a lot of progressives and they engaged in activism (anti-slavery, against secession, got along with Indians) and disobedience and paid for it mightily (imprisonment, death, having to flee to Mexico) at the hands of other conservative Texans. Would like to see these folks get a full on Ken Burns style overview.

    1. Agreed. Those are, in particular, the subset of Texas Germans who came over after the the failed democratic revolutions of the 1840s. They were largely well-off intellectuals and founded towns where people spoke Latin and there were no churches because everyone was atheist. Seriously. 

      My family actually ended up here after the Civil War, when all these great job opportunities opened up on the cotton plantations of Texas. 

      1.  Yeah, pretty amazing, and their peace with The Comanches was impressive too. Makes you wonder how this country could have evolved if things were done a bit differently.

      2.  One does have to wonder whether militarism in Mitteleuropea would have been so strong if the 1848’ers hadn’t fled across the Atlantic.

        1. Well, if nothing else, it drew money and talent away from the Deutschland. Brain drains are a common occurrence before the economic depressions that frequently precede authoritarian regimes.

  2. I spent year riding motorcycles around Fredericksburg and the hill country.   Not to mention the annual pilgrimage to New Braunfels for Wurstfest.         I’d spend time eating and drinking and dancing with the grandmothers, who thought my Deutsch was “schlecht am niedlich”

    Their discussion was always “this is what we grew up with,  our children will not speak it.  The language did not evolve much,  for a modern German, it would be like a modern Englishman hearing Shakespearian English”

    I truly believe cable TV, and mass video media has slowly wiped out the local dialects and accents.      Sad, but progress?  I don’t know.    

    either way?   lit to the gills on pitchers of dark bier, dancing the chicken dance with a bunch of grandmas?    was an AMAZINGLY fun time.    just sayin.

  3. My grandmother didn’t want my Texas-raised father to learn Spanish because she didn’t want him “to have an accent like those other Mexicans.”

      1. To be fair, Catholics spent more than a millennium listening to services in a dead language.

        1. Yes, but Church Latin, having evolved to suit the needs of the Frankish regimes that revived them, is and was a different dialect from any of the Ancient Latin dialects. And it only remained static because it was so deliberately systematized as a technical argot.

  4. A lot of the German Texans are actually from the minority group called Wends (or Sorbians, not be be confused with Serbians). The Wendish/Sorbians are actually Slavic speakers of a language that is kind of halfway between Czech and Polish, and live in the Bautzen/Spreewald area near Berlin. Apparently, as late as the 1950s, there were newspapers published in Texas in Sorbian.

    1.  Yeah, it was the Wendish people who gave us the kolaches and kolbasneks, though we call them all kolaches these days.  I have never seen a kolache outside of Texas anywhere except Chigaco.

      And while most people think of central Texas when they think of German culture, there were plenty of Germans involved in the early days of Harrisburg and Houston.  About half the old roads in the NW suburbs of Houston have German names, and Westheimer is the backbone of the west side of the city.

      1. At least once a week, we pick up kolbasneks and kolaches from our local doughnut shop here in Dallas. How the rest of the world gets along without them is beyond me.
        You can find them easily enough in Czech communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Nebraska – basically any place you find a Czech festival. Texas (I think) still has bragging rights as the spiritual home of the American kolache.

  5. I thought the interspersion of English words into the German was interesting because it mirrors something that’s happing in modern Dutch too, eg. calling someone who has settled down and started a family “gesetteld” or calling one’s children “de kids.” English has become so pervasive in pop culture that you don’t even have to immigrate to the effects in language.

  6. My Grandfather (3rd generation German in Pittsburgh) spoke exclusively German at home.  After pearl harbor their parish priest told everyone in the community to start speaking english at home.

  7. Thanks for posting this.  My mother’s side of the family is all Texas German.  She and her brother grew up in Weimar, Texas. The last family reunion I went to, a presentation of Texas German, along with low and high German was given.  There’s still a few speakers in our extended family!  I’m passing this along to my uncle.

  8. Great story. Not of German heritage myself, I grew up near Kroschel, MN (east central Minnesota, near Hinckley) among more Schmidts, Schwankes, Rabes, Kirchemeirs, and Kroschels than you could shake a stick at. The small Lutheran church still had a German language service into the 1950s.
    But as mentioned, German ancestry was disparaged after WW2 and was commonly hidden in “polite company”. This often meant that those with German ancestors described themselves as “Pennsylvania Dutch” — which I only later understood as an euphemism for “Deutch”.

    1. Well, yes and no. Pennsylvania Dutch are and were a real ethnic group, descended German immigrants who were established before the Civil War. For example, my paternal ancestor was a Hessian captain who decided to stay after the Revolutionary War. Although he settled in New York, many German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, particularly the Mennonites.

  9. Read The Hoo Doo Wars of Mason County by Glenn Hadeler  for an interesting account of the early Germans in Texas. My Great grand-uncle was a Texas Ranger stationed at Fort Mason at the time.

  10. I wonder if the Texas Germans could speak with my Pennsyvlania Dutch (Deutch) speaking relatives (if they were still alive…)

  11. This is really cool to see.  My father spoke exclusively German until he went to public school.  I’ve sent the video along to him to see what he thinks.  I can also remember my grandfather always used German for two things: prayer and expletives.

  12. This “de-germanification” happened not only in the US but in Europe too. Just ask those Windsors or Mountbattens.

      1. The Duke of Edinburgh is actually a Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg; Battenberg was his mother’s house.

  13. This is totally amazing. Just when you think the world is a shrivelled up, connected, facebook-ed, instantly archived and searchable, something like this comes up.

    I’ll use this as a flimsy pretext to take another road trip across Texas. 

    (Growing up half-German in Scotland has enough of its issues, that would be pretty great to hear about a bunch of German descendants that made good on the promise of the New World). 

  14. I’ve heard mention of the Texas Germans (Shiner Bock!) but didn’t realize there was a dialect.  My maternal grandfather’s family, whose name I bear, is all German.  We’re from MI, though, and before that PA I think.  He remembers German being spoken at home, his grandfather supposedly never learned English because he was a good enough upholsterer that Ford Motor Co didn’t care about his language skills.  He never mentioned being part of any larger German-speaking community in Detroit, his neighborhood was mostly Polish.  He never mentioned any stigma, but then again everyone knew he and his brother served in WW2.  I didn’t ever give our German-ness any thought until I read Slaughterhouse Five as a teen and Vonnegut’s captors were all mystified as to why he was fighting against the fatherland.

    Oh, and I can never resist my anecdote about a fellow white guy that I did hip hop stuff with whose name was Wiggers.  Many lulz were had.

  15. Larry Buchanan’s (Mars Needs Women, Zontar, Thing From Venus) first movie, The Naked Witch, takes place in a Texas German town. There’s far too much screen time devoted to local German color, and far little time devoted to witch nudity; but it might be worth checking out for the archival footage.

  16. I worked with someone years ago who also spoke German, not English, as a young child. First I had heard of it. But I guess a name like Linda Ronstadt and norteño music had to come from somewhere.

    1. Good on you for picking up on the German polka influence on Mexican music. Sometimes, when people are incredulous about Texas Germans, I mention that and say, “You’re welcome.” 

  17. I think this may also be connected with German immigration to Mexico, which began before Texas was part of the US… (see the link below)  – also they had incredible influence on the music
    Wikipedia article

  18. Actually, Austria-Hungary started the first World War, so as much as we are to blame for atrocities in both wars, for what it’s worth, we only started one of them.

    1. Well, Germany invading Belgium kind of got Britain in the war, which really made WWI the major thing it was. And America (who dealt the final blow) wouldn’t have gotten involved if it weren’t for Britain.

      1. @ citizenkong

        In fairness, Central Europe was a powder keg rigged to blow. All the Austrians did was hold out the fuse for the Hungarians to light. It was a German, Otto von Bismarck, who twice warned the Reichstag and Europe what would come of the jealousies and the convoluted web of mutual-defense treaties in and around the Balkans if they were not careful.

        @ Jonathan Badger

        Perhaps, but it was the uneasy alliance between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany that resulted in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  19. “… largely because the German Germans started a couple world wars in a row and changed the idea of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable speech in America.”
    No.  Largely because the third and fourth generations aren’t interested in speaking anything but English.  How many Polish, Italian, French or Russian families still speak the mother tongue after sixty years in the US?

    1. Texas German wasn’t really a situation where somebody came over and their grandkids stopped speaking the language by default. My grandfather, who was the last generation to speak it, was fourth or fifth gen in his family over here. Other families that spoke nothing but German at the time of World War I had been around even longer. I’m sure there were other cultural influences at work, but the impact of World Wars I and II were a big deal. Much bigger, in that part of the country at that time, than the simple, melting-pot, “We just wanna speak English now” thing. 

Comments are closed.