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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Verticalization and the Shift from German to English in Texas



Joseph Salmons


How and why do people and communities shift from speaking a minority language to become bilingual in the majority language, and then shift entirely to the majority language? An emerging view connects shift to changes in community structure captured in Warren’s “Great Change” (1978). The heart of this approach attributes shift to a change from local control of tightly interconnected institutions to more external or ‘vertical’ control of those increasingly less-interdependent institutions. This model has been tested using data from Cherokee in North Carolina (Frey 2013), American varieties of German (Lucht 2007, Salmons 2005a, b), Frisian (Bousquette 2016), Norwegian (Natvig 2017), Finnish (Johnson forthcoming), and Somali (Brown & Carpenter forthcoming). While previous approaches to language shift prove unfalsifiable (‘ethnolinguistic vitality’) or invoke community-specific factors that do not correspond to the actual progress of shift (World War I for American German), verticalization provides a general and falsifiable theory.

After introducing evidence on the timeline of shift, I show that verticalization in Texas German communities correlates with shift to English, including:

  • Increasing centralization of school policy with regard to both public and private schools,
  • Economic changes that make German-language publications unviable,
  • Changes in religious institutions that make it difficult and eventually impossible to provide German-speaking clergy to congregations,
  • Technological and related changes that reduce local autonomy and increase interactions across communities,

These and related social-demographic changes reduce local autonomy and disrupt formerly German-speaking social networks.

In short, Texas German provides important evidence for verticalization as the driving force in language shift.

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