The Last Gasps of Texas German
Nearly 15 years ago at a diner in Texas, linguistics professor Hans Boas recognized a dialect of German he'd never heard before. It was Texas German. In a few decades, it will be extinct.
Photo via Flickr user Greg Westfall
In 2001, Hans Boas was eating lunch in a diner deep in Central Texas. A couple of tables over, he heard a group of elderly men speaking a very distinct version of German. Boas has a doctorate in linguistics and was working at the University of Texas; he's dedicated his life to the German language and the people who speak it. Naturally, it came as a bit of a shock when he couldn't place this dialect.
"I walked over and asked where they were from, and they said 'What do you mean? We've been here for generations,'" recalls Boas. "They told me about their language and how their ancestors came over long ago, which is something I didn't know about. I was floored by the whole thing. Here I was in the middle of the Texas hill country, learning about a new German dialect."
Boas had stumbled upon Texas German, one of the most incidental developments in American history. In the mid-19th century, thousands of German immigrants settled in the freshly annexed Lone Star State, congregating in small towns like New Braunfels, Boerne, and Fredericksburg. In those days German was Texas's dominant secondary language, with German newspapers, German radio broadcasts, German printing presses, and German church services popping up all over the state. When you separate a language from its source for over a century, it tends to take on a shape of its own. According to Boas, Texas German sounds like a strange combination of 19th century German with a dash of anglicization. For instance, the Texas German settlers of antiquity didn't have a word for the skunks they encountered in the South, so they had to come up with their own: "stinkkatze," literally "stink cat."
But in the beginning of the 20th century, Texas passed national mandates that enforced the teaching of English in public schools. As the world grew more globalized and the national reputation of Germany suffered in the wake of World War II, few parents passed down the traditional dialect to their children. There are no new native Texas German speakers being born, and the few that still exist are all in their 70s and 80s. Within a couple of decades, the dialect will be completely extinct.
There's nothing anyone can do to stop this. You can't keep a language alive if nobody intends to speak it. But Hans Boas and his team at the Texas German Dialect Project are doing the next best thing. For the past 14 years, they've been preserving this odd little corner of Americana as best they can before it disappears forever.
"If we're optimistic we'll get 30 more years," says Boas. "If we're pessimistic, maybe 15 or 20 years."
Boas stumbled upon Texas German, one of the most incidental developments in American history.
Boas's practice is pretty simple. He locates Texas German speakers, who exist all over the state, and together they schedule a meeting. Sometimes this means an hour-long trip to New Braunfels, sometimes it's a much longer multiple-day journey to Corpus Christi or far east Texas. Once he arrives, the speaker fills out a consent form and they do several different interviews. The first one is a questionnaire, which has the speaker doing simple things like translating English sentences and words into their Texas German. This allows Boas's team to compare their answers with the other Texas German speakers they've interviewed, as well as the research on the dialect that was done in the 60s and 70s.
One of the most interesting things Boas noticed was the vast inconsistencies across the dialect. He uses the example of Boston. If someone lives in the north side of Boston and you know their age, their ethnicity, and their gender, you can almost certainly know how they'll say certain things. But in Texas German, that's not possible.
They're talking about what it was like back in school, and they fall into this nostalgia that they can't do in English. We get a unique perspective on the history of the community through the language. —David Huenlich
"We've not been able to find any real regularities in Texas German. We can take 25 speakers who are the same age, the same gender, and from the same place, and they all say things slightly differently," Boas told VICE. "On one hand, it's extremely fascinating because I've never seen or heard of this degree of variation, but on the other hand it's completely frustrating because we can't come up with any models. All we can do is describe the patterns of individual speakers. We've interviewed families of ten kids, they're born over a period of 15 or 20 years, and they all sound almost entirely differently."
From there, Boas is forced to rely on unprovable explanations. Some of them may have never fully acquired the dialect, some of them may have purely forgotten some of their German, in the same way you and I might pause for a few seconds when we try to remember a word. Needless to say, these are difficult things to rely on in academia..
"I guess the key word would be 'highly multisectoral,' if you want to get really geeky," Boas said with a laugh.
However, the art of preserving Texas German extends beyond the mechanical nuts and bolts. Hans and his team's primary goal is to make sure the dialect isn't forgotten, but they're also protecting the culture. Boas says that they've spoken to 500 speakers, with goals of reaching 500 more in the next few years. Eventually there will be a library of over 1000 examples of the dialect, a trove for any linguistics expert, but also a comprehensive document on the humans that spoke it. What their lives were like, who their parents and grandparents were, what it meant to be a Texas German.
Boas says the most important part of his process is the "oral history," where subjects are encouraged to speak about their personal past in their native tongue.
"We ask about their families, about their town, their job, recipes, prayers, anything they want to talk about. We pose questions that we hope will get them going," Boas explained. "It's challenging but it works out very well."
"Sometimes you have to be careful not to overwhelm certain speakers. This is a chapter of their life that's almost closed. The majority of speakers rarely have an opportunity to speak German, and suddenly we come in and they're speaking German for one and a half hours or even longer," David Huenlich, one of the people working with Boas on the Texas German Dialect Project, told VICE. "Sometimes I think it's easier for them to talk about their childhood in the dialect than it is in English. It's more authentic in a way. They're talking about what it was like back in school, and they fall into this nostalgia that they can't do in English. We get a unique perspective on the history of the community through the language."
You'd never guess Rodney Koenig spoke fluent German. The 75-year old has a dry Texan rasp, the same voice you hear in the barbeques and general stores that rest on the outskirts of Austin and San Antonio. He told me that this was by design.
"My little one-room country schoolhouse shut down in the 3rd grade, and after that they sent out busses to pick us up and take us to the 'town school,'" Koenig said in an interview with VICE. "Our teacher would always have us stand up in front of the class and talk about what we did over the weekend. I grew up on a farm, so the first couple times, I said 'I vent to shurch, I ved the shickens.' I couldn't differentiate the ch from the s sound. People would chuckle about my German pronunciation, so I quickly changed to 'I went to sunday school, and I fed the poultry.' I realized there was something a little different about my accent and I was determined to get rid of it."
Years later, Koenig would come to rediscover and cherish his German heritage. He goes to Germany about once a year and is involved in many things surrounding his tribe. These memories are important to him, and you can feel his sadness that this community's days are numbered.
We are in the unique position as a researcher to be able to do this work. To meet these people, to hear their stories. Other Americans around here can't understand what they're saying. —David Huenlich
"I'm on the tail end of this. My parents spoke German primarily, and my grandparents spoke it exclusively," said Koenig. "I've been involved with many ethnic groups, I've been president of the German Texan Heritage Society, I just finished being president of the Houston Saengerbund, and I've talked my aunts and many of my neighbors into being interviewed by Hans [Boas]."
A tone of melancholy pervades Boas's project. Hans Boas has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to Texas German, and over the last 14 years, he's grown close to a number of the speakers. He calls them two or three times a year, maybe he sends a Christmas card, but he knows that someday he won't be able to do this anymore. Eventually there will be no more interviews to give, no more stories to hear. He'll have to move on and find something else.
"It's a strange thing because on the one hand it's a natural process, it's the way the universe works. It's something you have to live with, otherwise you go crazy," says Boas. "But on the other hand, it's the realization that things always change. Culture changes, language changes, German used to be the dominant second language in Texas and now it's Spanish. Who knows what will happen in 100 years? Maybe there will be five million Syrian refugees at Texas borders and Arabic will the dominant language. It is kind of disappointing to see this go because it's been around for so long."
Huenlich grew up in bi-dialectical. His family is from Bavaria, and his family background is from East Germany. The East German dialect that he grew up hearing is very similar to what he heard in Giddings, Texas, a microscopic town just east of Austin.
"Here I am thousands of miles away from home and I'm hearing a dialect I grew up with, I'm hearing things I grew up with, stuff you couldn't even hear in certain parts of Germany," he told VICE.
"You could get depressed if you think about it as part of a timeline, but this whole project is an exercise in living in the moment," Huenlich continued. "You don't want to look at the dark side too often, because you want to enjoy the time you have with these people now. You enjoy every moment of it. We are in the unique position as a researcher to be able to do this work. To meet these people, to hear their stories. Other Americans around here can't understand what they're saying."
There is no money in Texas German. There is no fame and prestige. It is an accident of linguistics, a moment of geographic curiosity. There are a few thousand speakers left, and when they move on, the world will hardly notice.
Rodney Koenig told me a story about an old card game he used to play with his parents and family, how every suit had its own dialectical spin them. "We have eckstein in Texas for diamonds, and in Germany that'd be pik. I think herz is the same for both, but we use schippen for spades, while they use karo in Germany." He knows that the language won't last, and that those old words will be lost someday in the not-too-distant future.
Texas German is just a blip in the grand scheme of things. But for now, it's still here, and Hans Boas and the Texas German Dialect Project are working hard to ensure that this language receives the preservation it deserves.