UT professor works to save Texas German dialect


FREDERICKSBURG - In a tidy wooden kitchen that smells of bread, Elizabeth Behrend slices a hard sausage she's just cut down from the smokehouse and tells about the time she and her husband, August, visited Germany to trace their roots.

She remembers standing on the soil where her husband's grandfather had lived. "I even sneaked a little. I have it somewhere, just a little bit of soil from that place," she said proudly.

And she remembers the reaction of the Germans they met, when they heard the American couple from Texas speaking a language they should have long since forgotten.

"People could not believe that we could still speak German," said Behrend, a 78-year-old fourth-generation Texan. "They invited their neighbors to hear us speak because they were so amazed by it, and so were their neighbors. They thought we spoke like their grandparents."

The couple, married 60 years in June, still speak the language of their parents and grandparents when they're alone, away from "the Americans," as they still sometimes call non-German speakers. They speak German with friends at card games or social events.

But their children never learned to speak fluently. The Behrends know that when they go, the language will likely die with them.

It's the same scenario with German families across the state, where only as many as 10,000 speakers of the Texas dialect survive in a state that boasted about 159,000 speakers in the 1940s. At this rate, the German dialect is expected to vanish from the Texas landscape within 30 years.

Before that happens, Hans Boas, a Germanic linguistics professor at the University of Texas, is working to record and preserve the dialect. In the past five years, Boas and his team have interviewed 199 Texas German speakers. He's trying to raise $500,000 for an endowment that would fund interviews with as many as 2,000 speakers in the coming decades.

Boas' goal is to leave a record of not just the unique vocabulary, peculiar sentence structure and popular idioms, but the history and culture that developed alongside the dialect since Germans began arriving in Texas 150 years ago.

"They'll be able to listen to stories, they'll be able to figure out what it was like in the 1920s, growing up on a farm without electricity," Boas said.

The loss of the dialect can have a profound effect on German culture in Texas, Boas said. Language, he said, often serves as a dam, keeping mainstream culture at bay. When the dam breaks, unique cultural differences can be washed away.

"If you lose your language, you lose a big chunk of your identity," Boas said.

Clinging to the language

Texas German has already survived longer than most dialects of U.S. immigrants. While others typically die out after two generations, some Texas German families have spoken the mother tongue into the fourth or even fifth generation.

Boas attributes that mainly to German settlement patterns in Texas. Unlike other German immigrant destinations, such as Pennsylvania and the Midwest, many Texas-bound Germans settled in rural, isolated communities, particularly in the Hill Country, where German was a dominant language.

Still the German spoken by immigrants across Central Texas differed widely from town to town, even family to family, because the immigrants came from different German regions and spoke a variety of dialects. Many had limited knowledge of standard German, either spoken or written.

Over time, immigrants adapted their language, their children studied standard German in school, and they traded vocabulary with other dialects.

Texas Germans also borrowed from English, coming up with phrases such as der cowboy, or der fenzposten, "the fencepost."

For generations, German communities held tight to their language, even in the face of prejudice and stigmatism during both world wars. But gradually, those pressures, along with English-only laws prohibiting German instruction in school, hastened the shift toward English. During World War I, a wave of xenophobia led many newsstands to refuse to sell German papers while local governments banned speaking German in schools, churches and other public places, Boas writes in his upcoming book The Life and Death of Texas German.

Travis County made speaking German a misdemeanor. In Corpus Christi, a Lutheran pastor was whipped after he continued to preach in German despite a ban.

After a short revival in the 1920s, German retreated from nearly all public domains in the next two decades, Boas writes. World War II revived stigma as some Germans were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers.

Growing up in Fredericksburg, Carol Latta remembers, children from this German town weren't seen as cool in the eyes of their English-speaking peers in other towns. At high school football games, the Fredericksburg team brought its own announcer to pronounce the multisyllable surnames.

"Everybody called us the Krauts and we were kind of isolated and weird and they didn't know what to make of us. Now we're quaint," said Latta, a painter who recently recorded her Texas German during an interview with Boas.

'When it's gone, it's gone'

At 85, Julia Crenwelge can remember when a person could walk the streets of Fredericksburg and hear German. That's rare now, even in a town that's built a tourism industry around its German heritage.

Crenwelge says she still "yaks" German with friends and her children. On her trips to the market in Kerrville, she and a friend speak mostly German.

"But as soon as we get there, we speak English because, you know, you just don't want people to look at you and stare at you and think, 'Boy, well, you're from another country.' "

While she's proud of her German heritage, she doesn't see her first language as a vital part of her culture.

"I tell you what, a lot of people around here, when they say 'what nationality are you?' they'll say German. I don't do that. I say I'm an American and I'm a Texan, but I speak German, so I'm not German. It kind of provokes me," she said. "I'm fourth generation here."

And she's not shedding tears over the impending demise of Texas German. "When it's gone, it's gone. In a little while, I'll be gone, too," she said.

However, it's different for the Behrends. They were raised in German, married in German. The language is woven into their culture.

But many of the people with whom they've spoken are passing away. It's even a challenge to find enough people for a game of German-style cards, in which men spar with women.

"The husbands have died. Now we have to invite two of the widows and make a man out of one of them to be able to play," said Elizabeth Behrend.

If only her children had learned the language, but she realizes it was never really theirs. In mid-conversation, she stops to ask one of her daughters why she never learned to speak fluently.

"She's too lazy, that was one answer," the mother says jokingly. "But, it's not her comfort zone. And that's why we want to hang on to the German. It's our comfort zone. It's the first language we had."


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