Language really is a fascinating thing.
It is essentially history and culture in an audible form, giving the listener an entire corpus of information about the people speaking it. This makes the complete extinction of a language from our world truly a great loss, one that unfortunately is occurring at an accelerated pace in today’s modern and globalized world. According to UNESCO’s list of endangered languages, in the last three generations around 200 have become extinct, with 2,500 currently under threat.
Many would think that this phenomenon wouldn’t have much to do with Texas, where English and Spanish are alive and well; however, that assumption is not quite the case. Texas is home to many different immigrant communities that have settled in its fertile land over the centuries, bringing their language and culture with them. In most instances, a native tongue dies out by the third generation after immigration, but Texas contains one curious case of a language that has clung to life for much longer, changing and evolving into its own unique dialect (think of a dialect as a “language subspecies”) in the process.
That dialect would be Texas German, or Texasdeutsch as its speakers would call it. Its history began with the German immigrants that came to the state before it could even be called one, during years of the Republic of Texas. Immigration surged in the following decades, with many Germans, known as Forty-Eighters, fleeing their homeland after the failed Revolutions of 1848 that occurred throughout Europe. The ethnic German colonies that developed in Texas, mostly in the Hill Country region, were mainly isolated from the developments of the language back home, keeping many aspects of the dialect in a pre-industrial form (for instance, while standard German has a word for “airplane,” Texas German’s word for this technically translates to “air ship”). It’s a fascinating and unique dialect of German, born and bred right here in Texas.
But, like far too many aspects of traditional cultures around the globe, the modern world is snuffing out this curious language, and its dying days are approaching. World War I created nationwide anxiety about German citizens and their possibly conflicting loyalties in the war. Schools were legally required to teach English and only English, and anti-German sentiments swept the nation. As the war ended, Germany was once again a threat within two decades in the second World War, causing a similar wave of cultural cleansing. By 1950, extremely few, if any, children were learning Texas German at home.
Without new speakers, the language’s days were numbered: as the decades have gone by, its speakers have grown old and passed. Today, the language is sadly near extinction, with only a small number of elderly speakers remaining, mainly in Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, and various other smaller towns in the Texas Hill Country, more specifically Gillespie County. Although there may no longer be hopes of saving the language, there are efforts being made to preserve its memory to history.
The Texas German Heritage Society, as its name would imply, is a group of individuals dedicating themselves to the preservation of this unique cultural legacy. New Braunfels, one of the cities with the largest German Texan presence, contains the Sophienburg Museum dedicated to the German Texan culture. Language professors, such as Dr. Hans C. Boas of the University of Texas have been making efforts to record and catalogue the language for the Texas German Dialect Project. A short documentary, called All Gut Things, has even been dedicated to the dialect. Filmmakers Chase Honaker and Ashley James, the documentary’s creators, are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to assist in the documentary’s distribution, and are accepting donations.
The next time you find yourself visiting a Texan Oktoberfest or Wurstfest, keep your ears open. You might be able to hear a snippet of a language that may not be here much longer.