America, particularly in her Southern regions, is well known for her various dialects. Across the country we round our r’s, draw out our vowels, and begin our sentences with howdy or hey. Our mouths curl around our words and push them out like breadcrumbs of our regional heritage, perfect clues placed in the air to help others understand from where we hail. Texans are famous for their drawls, but even that most particular of states holds its own surprises of language. Perk your ears to the subtle auditory clues found deep in the heart of Texas’s hill country and you’ll discover a secret, and dying, dialect: Texas German.
The mid-eighteenth century marked the height of European immigration to the United States. Waves of Germans migrated through young America, settling in the heart of Texas. Towns like New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Boerne, and Walburg bear the signs of German colonization, not just in their names, but in their deep-rooted traditions and histories. As large groups of German immigrants settled in the hills of Texas, the isolated communities preserved their heritage and their language, even as they developed new traditions and unique, regional dialects.
German remained the dominant language in those cities into the nineteenth century. Schools, churches and businesses in the hill country between Austin and San Antonio all operated primarily, if not solely, in German. The Republic of Texas even required in 1843 that all laws be published in both English and German so that the large populations of German immigrants and descendants could also understand new statutes. As time passed and these communities developed without direct influence from Germany, however, unique dialects blossomed. Technological advancements entered the vocabularies of Texas-Germans, but without access to the new German words, they developed their own terms or simply used the English ones. “Helicopter,” for example, would be referred to as “hubschrauber” in Germany, but for Texas Germans, who had no way of knowing the new term, it simply became “der helicopter.” Much like Spanglish, in which Spanish and English are casually mixed and molded into a unique language, Texas German has become an eclectic and often personalized mix of English and German. And since the small, exclusive communities were basically uninfluenced by one another, each town, and even each person, developed their own way of speaking Texas German. It became, and still is, a uniquely personal dialect with massive variations.
The acceptance of German in Texas, both as a language and a culture, faded at the start of the twentieth century. In 1909, the government began enforcing English-only laws in schools, and German speakers were forced to switch to English early in childhood. With World War I and World War II, German gradually fell further out of favor in American society. Where once there were upwards of 10,000 Texas German speakers, by the 1950’s families even stopped speaking the language at home. Fifth and sixth generation Texas Germans did not inherit the traditions nor the language from their parents, and today the dialect is almost dead. Modern hill country still holds a few Texas Germans,, but the dialect is restricted to the older generations, most speakers over sixty years old. Anthropologists estimate that the dialect will be completely extinct within the next thirty years.
But there is a movement to prevent the inevitable and preserve this unique dialect. Those seniors who still speak Texas German are holding onto it with white knuckles and straining to teach their descendants to do the same. They sing in German choruses, participate in German bowling leagues, attend monthly gatherings with traditional polka dancing, and listen to online radio broadcasts like “German Music—Texas Style.” Anthropologists are recording the unique dialect for future generations in case it should die out, but Texas Germans are also determined to keep it alive. There is a unique pride in the vestiges of Texas Germans spotting the Texan landscape; they do not identify as German, or even American, but as Texas German. To lose their dialect would be to lose their history.
Experts theorize that by the end of our twenty-first century, half of our 6,900 languages across the globe will be extinct. Texas German is on the verge of that very precipice, but, with a tenacity and grit distinctive of Texas, it’s holding on.