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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Texas German in the 1960s



Glenn Gilbert


Background to my study of Texas German 1961–1970:

LSA Linguistic Institute, Austin, summer 1961

Preparation of my dissertation “The German Dialect Spoken in Kendall and Gillespie Counties, Texas”, Harvard University, 1963

Influences of Schlerath, Lenneberg, Chomsky, Halle, Labov, Seifert, Kurath, Wenker, Gilliéron Questionnaire, tape recordings, graduate-assistant fieldworkers, preparation of the Linguistic Atlas of Texas German at the Deutscher Sprachatlas, Marburg

We were dealing with language attrition and death. Nevertheless, at the time there were an estimated 70,000 fluent speakers in the 30-county area, divided between West (“Hill Country”) and East.

Greatest surprises

In the West we discovered the still lively Alsatian dialect area, descendants of Castro’s Colony, in Medina County, very different from the rest of the “Texas German” koiné. The East had unexpectedly many Slavic speakers – Czech and Polish were widespread, Wendish (Sorbian) had disappeared in the previous generation after a period of multilingualism including SG/TG.

Although outside the 30-county area, almost no German-speaking communities had survived as of the 1960s, as shown by the results of a mail survey we distributed throughout the state in 1966 (now deposited with Boas’ TG project in Austin), a geographical study of German surnames, especially in connection with land ownership (Census and other sources) might well indicate where the German communities were once located and where language shift has been completed.

In the study of TG syntax

We focused on the dative/accusative merger (first described by Eikel), compiling the data on a geographic basis and considered possible explanations for it. “Lieber Gott, ich bidde Dich, mach ein gutes Kind aus mich” (1964, David Frederick Walter, one of my graduate students from Fredericksburg, remembering a childhood prayer). Was this a reflex of the speakers’ original dialects, a general tendency in the West Germanic languages or of languages in general, or the influence of English? Or a combination of two or more of these factors? In any case, TG was reenacting what happened in Old English in the centuries before the Norman conquest.

Within the central 30 counties, the area of Comfort and Boerne merits special attention because of its “Freethinker” (Freidenker) heritage. Standard German held on there longer than most other places. An 80-year old woman told me in 1962 there are two kinds of German, the German in the books and the German we use here. The first says ‘wuerde’ and the second ‘taete’ (e.g., sie sagte, dass sie kommen wuerde vs. sie sagte, dass sie kommen taete), and she gave me many more examples using other alternates. She said these are two ways to say the same thing and that it is the same language. By the way, in no form of TG that we encountered did we observe syntax like, *sie sagte, dass sie wuerde kommen. Why would English have influenced dat/acc but not the German word order in subordinate clauses?

In phonology

We looked especially at the loss of front rounded vowels (also noted by Eikel) and the acquisition of retroflex R, which was unfortunately only mapped in part of the area. The same explanations could be invoked for the unrounding. Retroflex R is almost certainly from English.

Explanations for the historical longevity of bilingualism in Central Texas, up to seven generations: sparse population spread out over long distances; poor schooling, which weakened the use as of education as a tool to enforce monolingualism in English; the presence of sizable numbers of Spanish speakers, a “colonial language” like English (Kloss), which acted to retard the quick abandonment of German; the influence of religion (or no religion – die Freidenker) and politics (“Treue der Union” in Comfort, which by the way is said to be named after Bad Comfort in the Rheinland).

The future

We are fortunate to have an unusually large amount of data on Texas German stretching from Eikel in the 1950s to Boas currently, almost 70 years. After Pennsylvania German, more is known about TG than any other form of immigrant German in the U.S. Almost certainly, the few “Semi-Speakers” who employ TG on occasion will be replaced in the next generation by English-monolingual people who nostalgically look on it as the language of their ancestors. Therefore in the future, and probably in most cases right now, we should study TG via the analytical tools described by the growing literature on language attrition and death. It is not a process to regret but a textbook example of processes we can learn from. This is exactly what Boas proposes to do in adapting Trudgill’s analysis of the development of English in New Zealand to explain the evolution of German in Texas.

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