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A to Z Texas: G is for German Dialect

Sure, he looks like Elvis, but he might speak Texas German (photo by Tui Snider)
Sure, he looks like Elvis, but he might speak Texas German (photo by Tui Snider)

German Culture is Part of Texas

For some reason, when people speak of immigrants to the USA, New York’s Ellis Island gets all the press. We tend to overlook the fact that the port of Galveston in Texas brought many newcomers to our country, as well.

Starting in the 1830’s, for instance, tens of thousands of Germans came to Texas. Although their cultural influence extends across the state, most of them settled in the Hill Country (near Austin), creating towns such as Fredricksburg, Boerne (pronounced, “bernie”) and New Braunfels.

While the German flag never flew over Texas, its language and food have woven themselves deeply into the cultural fabric. Not only can you find German bakeries, delis and restaurants throughout the state, but Texas even has its own German dialect.

Texas has its own German dialect

While German natives can understand the version spoken in Texas, it comes with some unique features. Tex-German is more similar to 19th century German than what’s spoken today. It’s like a linguistic time capsule, studded with old-fashioned sentence structure and words that settlers made up along the way such as, der Cowboy, der Hamburger, and even, die Office.

Not all of their linguistic additions are English words with, der, and, die, stuck in front of them. The Texas German word for skunk, for instance, is stinkkatze, which literally means, “stinky cat.” Meanwhile, in Germany, the word skunktier is used. Also, while the Tex-German word for a piano is piano, in Germany, they call it a klavier.

Nor is there one concrete version of this Texas German dialect; it varies widely from place to place, even family to family, in part because settlers came from different regions of Germany, and also as a result of the geographical distance betwee all these German-speaking Texas towns.

German is still spoken in Texas

Although the Texas German dialect is dying out, it’s still possible to bump into those who speak it. It happened to me one day at Sam’s Club. For those who don’t know, Sam’s Club is one of those big warehouse shopping markets where you save money buying in bulk. When you leave, they always make you show your receipt at the door, so they can make sure you aren’t sneaking off with more than you what you actually bought.

Usually when we check out, a lady at the door quickly scans our purchases, marks the receipt with a yellow highlighter and says, “Thank you for shopping at Sam’s Club. Have a blessed day.” This being Texas, the word, “blessed,” is stretched into two distinct syllables, and the phrase tends to echo in my head as we walk off, since I’m from the north where the word, “blessed,” is a one syllable affair.

One day, however, as the door watcher handed our receipt back to my husband and me, she said, “Thank you for shopping at Sam’s Club. Danke schoen!”

Feeling cheeky, I replied with the full extent of my German, “Bitte schoen.” I was taken off guard, however, when the woman rattled off a long reply to me in German.

Flustered, and not wanting to reveal my ignorance, I merely nodded my head and blurted, “Have a blessed day!” (And yes, I pronounced, “blessed,” with two syllables.)

Sure, she looks like the Queen Mum, but she might speak Texas German (photo by Tui Snider)
Sure, she looks like the Queen Mum, but she might speak Texas German (photo by Tui Snider)

Texan German has endured longer than most dialects

In the United States, most immigrant dialects disappear after two generations, so it’s impressive that the Texas German dialect has endured in some families for up to five generations. In the 1940’s, as many as 159,000 Texas residents spoke German as their first language.

Flogged for Speaking German in Texas

Even so, as I mentioned before, Texas German is dying out. Experts predict it will be completely gone by 2050. Its decline began when anti-German sentiments flared up during World War I and World War II.

Laws were passed mandating that English be spoken in churches and schools. At the height of this xenophobia, simply speaking German was against the law in many Texan towns. In 1918,  a Lutheran pastor in Corpus Christi was flogged for delivering his sermons in German. During WWII some Germans were even sent to internment camps. (Please bear in mind that anti-German sentiment occurred all across the USA during this time, not just in Texas.)

Texas German is Dying Out

Not surprisingly, people began to fear speaking Texas German in public and quit passing it down to their children as frequently as they had in the past. Now, in 2013, of the roughly 8,000 remaining native speakers of Texas German, the youngest ones are in their 60’s, so it’s only a matter of time before the language dies out completely.

Texas German Dialect Archive Project

Thankfully, a German-born linguist named Hans Boas created the Texas German Dialect Archive project. Boas and his team members are busy recording, transcribing and translating the various types of German spoken throughout Texas while they still can. (You can hear samples of Texas German on the project’s website.)

More A to Z blog posts

This was my post for the letter G of the A to Z blogging challenge. Tune in tomorrow to see what quirky Texan thing the letter H will bring!

In the meantime, click on this link to find out what other A to Z blogging challenge folks are writing about.

Tui Snider
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Published inTravel Photo Essays

31 Comments

  1. Well that’s silly. I replied to the wrong comment :/.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      No problemo, Charlie! I get confused, too. ~Tui

  2. This is so interesting! I knew German culture had a strong influence here in central Pennsylvania, but I didn’t realize it was such a big part of Texas history! I love the A to Z Challenge for this reason – we learn so much from each other! For example, my “G” post was for “Grizzly”, and I shared an excellent infographic on how to survive a bear attack. Safety, Culture, etc – A to Z Challenge is awesome for learning!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Jen,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ll definitely check out your grizzle bear attack post!
      (You just never know.)

      ~Tui

  3. Wow, fascinating! Texas German, who knew??? I’ve heard of the Norwegians in Minnesota, thanks to Garrison Keillor but I had no idea there were German outposts in TX.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Courtney,

      It was news to me, too. I’m really enjoying all the tidbits I’m digging up about Texas for the A to Z challenge.

      ~Tui

  4. I live near New Braunfels, and a lot of the shopkeepers there still speak Texas German. Lots of Germans and Czechs in South Texas. My maiden name is German.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Carol,

      I really want to swing through the Hill Country and hear some Texas German for myself sometime soon.

      ~Tui

  5. Margaret Almon Margaret Almon

    My husband is Pennsylvania German, and he remembers his grandfather speaking it. I didn’t know about Texas German! My grandmothers family was of German descent and helped found a Lutheran church in El Paso, but no one ever talked about family history, or whether they spoke German.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Margaret,

      Maybe you can find out about more about your grandmother’s German history. I hope so!

      ~Tui

  6. Deutschsprache ist eine große dinge doch in die Texanerschule. Wann war ich in Uni, wir hatten ein gros Deutschklub. Viele Gymnasium in der Nähe haben Deutschtanzen, singen, und sprachen auch! Meine Deutsch ist leider ein bisschen schlecht :(.

    German speaking is a big thing in the Texas schools. When I was in University, we had a big German club. A lot of high schools in the area have German dancing, singing, and speaking classes too. My German is unfortunately not so good. :(

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Charlie,

      How cool that you studied German!

      It’s always interesting to see how similar Dutch is to German. Slecht equals schlect, for instance.

      ~Tui

  7. Wow, cool post! I love the theme of your AtoZ blog, I don’t know enough about Texas but now I will!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Katka,

      Thank you for swinging by! I will definitely check out your blog again.

      ~Tui

  8. Very interesting. You were right in saying most people think of Ellis Island as the only place of immigration. I had no clue that German was around in Texas much less had its own dialect. Thanks for sharing.
    Elliot

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Elliot,

      I must confess, I’m one of the people who used to think of Ellis Island as the main gate to the USA!

      ~Tui

  9. I learned something new today. Thanks for sharing this. It was a very interesting post.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Suzy,

      Thank you! Aint the A to Z challenge fun? I’ll be swinging over to your blog, too, as soon as I catch up on comments.

      ~Tui

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Bhavya,

      Thank you!

      ~Tui

  10. Fascinating post, Tui! The cultural influences are very interesting.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Joanne,

      Texas culture is fascinating. There’s so much to learn.

      ~Tui

  11. Now that is something I never knew. I would never in a million years have realized how much German there was in Texas. Thats a very cool and highly educational post!

    *~ MAJK ~*
    A to Z Blog Challenge

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi MAJK,

      I had no idea, either, when I moved here. I figure it’d be nothing but BBQ and cowboys down here, but there is so much more to Texas than I realized.

      ~Tui

  12. Wow, I live near Boerne and spend months pronouncing Greune in the German way instead of “Green” like the locals do, but I didn’t realize there were still German speakers, or even Texas dialect German speakers left. I’ll have to keep my ears open!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Willa,

      Now that you know about Texas German, maybe you will overhear a conversation in German. Let me know if you do!

      ~Tui

  13. I never knew German was spoken in Texas. Is there a history behind it? Perhaps a large scale immigration and when?

    • If you ever manage breakfast in a cafe in Fredericksburg or Comfort on a weekday morning and notice some elderly folks around listen in close and you’ll hear some Deutsch!

      • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

        Hi Charlie,

        I hope to have that opportunity sometime soon. That would be fun!

        ~Tui

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