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Kindergartens, Christmas trees, candy canes and hamburgers. German dialect across the US.

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10SEP2013

With the preservation of local dialects and endangered languages being a hot topic in news and research, we turn our sights to the disappearing German language and dialects of the US.

German Americans (Deutschamerikaner) are citizens of the United States who were either born in Germany or are of German ancestry. Today, they are the largest ancestry group in the USA comprising around 50 million people (ahead of Irish Americans, African Americans and English Americans) and make up 1/3 of the world’s German population outside of Germany.

The first German immigrants arrived in the British colonies of New York and Pennsylvania in the 1670’s. Then in the 1800’s came eight million new arrivals from Germany, attracted by land, religious freedom and opportunity in the New World. From 1840, many flocked to cities, where Germania (German-speaking districts) soon formed.

german food sign usaGerman Americans established the first kindergartens in the United States, introduced the Christmas tree along with candy canes*, and are attributed with the naming of popular American foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs.

In Texas, where the first German settlers arrived over 150 years ago, German became the main language used in schools, churches and businesses around the hill country between Austin and San Antonio.

Many of today’s fifth generation residents of  New Braunfels (a town between San Antonio and Austin founded in 1845 by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, of Germany) grew up speaking German at home and read the local newspaper, the Herald-Zeitung, published entirely in German.

However, with the passage of time, life in the New World brought the influential mix of other immigrant languages and cultures – not to mention two world wars – and has resulted in fifth and sixth generation of immigrants not passing on their dialect to their children.

Texas German Dialect Project: Hans Boas is Professor of Linguistics and Germanic Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. In a mission to preserve the Texas German dialect, Mr. Boas has recorded interviews with over 400 speakers of German dialect in Texas. The dialect is a mix of regional German origins and English loan words (e.g., “jumped” > “gejumped”;  “moved” > “gemoved”).
Similar examples of adopted English vocabulary that appear in Pennsylvania German include: “I bet” > “Ich bet “ and “It depends” > “Es dependt”.

And with no official rules of grammar, no two speakers speak an identical version of German dialect.

* The candy cane dates back to 1670, when the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany bent sugar sticks into canes to represent a shepherd’s staff and gave them to children to keep them quiet during the lengthy Christmas nativity services.

Sources: BBC, CNN

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