COLING and the Texas German Dialect Project
Texas German, Texas Polish and Silesian, Texas Czech and Moravian, Texas Wendish/Sorbian as endangered heritage languages
One of the partners of the COLING project is the University of Texas at Austin, which, as the University of Texas System, is a member of ARENET – The Americas Research Network.
During their stay in Austin, Texas, several secondees (K. Klessa, M. Karpiński, T. Wicherkiewicz, B. Sawicka-Stępińska) from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań actively cooperated with the Texas German Dialect Project, especially with Prof. Hans C. Boas. Already during the 2019 COLING Project Workshop on Innovative Teaching Methodologies & Language Documentation in Austin, organized by the AMU team under the direction of Katarzyna Klessa, the TGDP project was presented by its leader Hans C. Boas and Margo Blevins from the Department of Germanic Studies / Linguistics Research Center / Department of Linguistics; the presentation is available here.
Founded in 2001, the Texas German Dialect Project is devoted to recording and preserving the Texas German language, culture, and history. Their goals focus on: recording and preserving Texas German; devoting the collected information to improving educational programs on language, culture, and history; better understanding the nature of language variation and change; and making the TGDP research available to the public. You are welcome to listen to Hans Boas talking about the project and about its context:
In September 2022, for his part, at the Department of Germanic Studies, Linguistics Research Center, Texas German Dialect Project, and the Texas Language Center, Tomasz Wicherkiewicz presented Wilamowice/Wymysoü/Wilmesau: A Forgotten Sprachinsel and Recovered Microlanguage in Southern Poland.
Further cooperation is planned between linguists from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and the University of Texas in Austin.
Texas German (Texasdeutsch) is a continuous group of German Sprachinseln in Central-Eastern Texas by descendants of German immigrants who settled there in the mid-19th century and founded several towns in Texas Hill Country, North Central Texas, and East Texas.
Although most heritage languages in the United States die out by the third generation, Texas German is considered unusual in that most German Texans continued to speak German in their homes and communities for several generations after the wave of settlement. The State of Texas recognized German as having equal status to Spanish from 1846 until World War I, when Texan education rules were established, mandating English-only instruction, requiring children to learn English in school regardless of what was spoken at home. Due to the assimilation of these communities and public hostility to the German language during both World Wars, Texas German speakers drifted towards English, and few passed the language to their descendants. By 1950, the number of new speakers of the language was virtually zero.
The Texan German vernaculars are near extinction, as according to the U.S.Census in 2000 (i.e., over twenty years ago), some 1,035 people reported speaking German at home in Fredericksburg, the town with the largest community of Texas German speakers, representing 12.5% of the total population, 840 in New Braunfels, followed by considerably lower numbers in Schulenburg, Stonewall, Boerne, Harper, Comfort, and Weimar. Gillespie County had a German-speaking population of 2,270, 11.51% of the county’s total. In all, 82,100 German speakers resided in the state of Texas, including European German speakers.
Despite the fact that Texans of German descent clearly associate Texasdeutsch with high identity and symbolic value, these dialects are close to extinction, because currently they are known (and very rarely spoken) by only a handful of native speakers aged 80+ – so characteristic of those disappearing before our eye languages.
Currently, Prof. Hans Boas at the University of Texas is recording and studying the dialect, building on research originally performed by Dr. Glenn Gilbert of Southern Illinois University in the 1960s. Therefore, a great source of knowledge about the history and changes of Texas German is the award-winning monograph by Boas, Hans C. 2009. The Life and Death of Texas German. American Dialect Society: Duke University Press.
An image of the sunchronic state of this belt of German-Slavic language continuum in Texas more than half a century ago – that is, from the time when the number of speakers of those heritage varieties still formed viable communities of thousands of speakers – is the monumental Linguistic Atlas of Texas German by Glenn G. Gilbert (1972) University of Texas Press.
According to those authors, modern Texasdeutsch has been a kind of mixture of 19th century German and English… almost none of the Texas Germans spoke [the same], … and 5-6% are loanwords from English.
In 2022, during his field work expedition to Central-Eastern Texas, T. Wicherkiewicz managed to visit the chain of these Texasdeutsch settlements: Gruene, New Braunfels, Luckenbach, and Fredericksburg. In his travel diary, he wrote:
- At the Sophienburg Museum and Archives, I was shown around a fairly basic exhibition by Tracy, whose ancestors came in the 1840s from… Dramburg in Pommern (that is, from Drawsko Pomorskie!).
- * The roadside cemetery of a now defunct German settlement in Smithson Valley (ah, those roadside cemeteries forgotten in the American wasteland – always remarkable, whether in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Carolina, or Kansas, Texas, Nevada…).
- * Fashioned in the specifically Bavarian fashion of Fredericksburg – with fancy shops (and once banks, saloons, cotton and beef markets) main street, wonderful southern colonial-Victorian villas with round porches and fans on their ceilings; in the center of the Marktplatz with the “Vereinskirche” (which housed the first school), a real „Maibaum” maypole, and a monument to the idealized friendship between German settlers (including the founder of Fredericksburg, J.O. Meusebach) and the Penatuka Comanches (Chief Santanna with a peace pipe).
- As already said, the first waves of German settlement fell in the years 1831-1844, when such mainstays of Texan Germanness as New Braunfels, Gruene, or Fredericksburg were built. In the second half of the 19th century, German-speaking settlements occupied more and more parts of eastern and central Texas, and the German language, initially competing with Spanish, became common.
- Several dozen titles of German-language newspapers were published in Texas alone. Among the arrived Germans, there were also inhabitants of Silesia, who founded in Texas, among others. The settlement of Breslau (apparently after some time completely… Bohemized).
- In the years 1830-1850, numerous Bohemian and Moravian settlers also arrived, thanks to them, central Texas soon became trilingual: German-English-Czech and Praha or Dubina appeared in the landscape of names. Here and there, they were joined by individual Slovaks.
- In 1849, the Sorbs (known here as the Wends) came to the same area – their center became Serbin, and in neighboring Giddings, the trilingual (German-English-Sorbian) Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt was published.
- The Poles came in several waves, the earliest from Greater Poland (from the vicinity of the Zielonka Forest near Poznań!) to the Brazos Valley in the north-west). In 1854, Polish-speaking Silesians founded the legendary Panna Maria (considered the first Polish colony in the Western Hemisphere).
- Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, French, English, Italians, Portuguese, Danes (cotton workers), Dutch, Chinese (railway builders), and Japanese also settled in East Texas.
According to Hans C. Boas, these colonies of settlers from various parts of the then German-ruled Central Europe created a unique cultural continuum complex of customs, traditions, cuisine, etc., linked in the first generation of newcomers by the “roofing” German language and German citizenship.
Therefore, taking into account the state of the critically endangered German and Slavic vernaculars in Texas – and the relatively good state of their linguistic documentation – a new ethno-linguistic interpretation and research perspective should be adopted, taking into account this continuity and intercorrelation within one diasporic heritage culture circle of middle-eastern Texas.
Read more about the Wendish~Sorbian diaspora in Texas.