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Lonely Star State: Texan Germans dwindling

Countless German immigrants moved to Texas in the 1800s, forming their own unique culture. With their language now near extinction, Moises Mendoza spoke to some of the last speakers and a professor trying to preserve it.

Lonely Star State: Texan Germans dwindling
Photo: DPA

Rodney Koenig can look back upon a career as a high-powered attorney in Houston, but he often prefers to think about his childhood in rural Fayette County in southeastern Texas.

Back then, the 70-year-old remembers, everyone spoke German.

“It was our primary language at home,” he recently told The Local from his office where he handles tax and estate planning. “The neighbours all spoke it, the church services were in German.”

Today, like many other former havens for German Texans, his home county is now full of native English speakers.

And Koenig is one of the last-remaining native speakers of the unique German dialect native to Texas.

As the ranks of the roughly 10,000 speakers of the language dwindle, a piece of Texas history, and its rich German heritage, goes with them.

Koenig, who is now one of the dialect’s youngest speakers, knows it.

“There just aren’t that many of us left,” he said. “It’s sad for some people, but it’s reality.”

Searching for something better

Searching for better lives in America, hundreds of thousands of Germans immigrated to Texas in the 1800s.

Many integrated quickly into the dominant Anglo culture, helping to build the state’s big cities like San Antonio and Houston. Others created their own enclaves – with names like New Berlin and Fredericksburg – often modelled on German communities where innovation, hard work and industriousness was valued.

Like many immigrants, German Texans considered themselves to be patriotic, hard-working Americans. But they also clung to their heritage, holding festivals, giving their towns Teutonic names and continuing to speak German.

The peculiar dialect of Texas German thrived and evolved, becoming a language with its own unique features until the World Wars prompted the government to crack down on German Texans – some were sent to internment camps.

Soon, school and church services were only in English.

As English took over, and native Texas German speakers died one by one, so too did the language.

Today remnants of Texas’ German past are still there – New Braunfels still has its annual Wurstfest, the Beethoven Männerchor sings its songs in San Antonio. But like its unique language, the one-of-a-kind Texas German culture is slowly fading away.

Recording but not saving

University of Texas at Austin linguistics professor Hans Boas knows he can’t save Texas German.

So the Texas German Dialect Project he started around 2001 aims to catalogue it for posterity.

Boas – a native German – has criss-crossed the state, interviewing the dialect’s last speakers with a team of students.

His team has discovered Texas German has quirks not found in the standard version of the language.

Among others: The genitive case is rarely used and English words like “blanket” or “six shooter” have been integrated into the language.

He’s also learned that few, if any, German Texans passed the dialect onto their children. The youngest native speaker today is in his 50s, Boas said.

But there are still thousands of speakers to reach out to and time is of the essence.

“As languages die, you lose a window on the world,” Boas said. “That’s what’s happening with Texan German. In the next 20 or 30 years, it will be gone. That’s why we have to do this now.”

The last of their kind

Even today, German Texans are a hardy bunch. They’re proud to be Americans, but equally proud of the contributions their forefathers made to the country. They often look toward the past – and their now-changed culture – with a sense of resignation.

Warren Hahn a 76-year-old rancher from the small community of Doss, tries to get together with friends to speak Texas German whenever he can, but it’s not the same as it was.

“I just accept that’s it’s going away eventually,” he said. “You just have to accept that fact.”

And Diane and Bill Moltz, who live in New Braunfels and are both in their 70s say they’ve tried to maintain their heritage, in part by instilling a sense of German pride in their children and grandchildren.

“They are proud of their background but I don’t know how much they’ll retain,” said Diane Moltz, explaining that none of the kids really speak German.

Sometimes, Diane thinks back to her childhood, singing German songs at Christmastime. She’d like to pass that tradition on to the young people of New Braunfels, but it’s not easy.

“Nobody can sing with me,” she said.

Texas German is intelligible to speakers of standard German – but there are some key differences. Among them: Texas German generally doesn’t use the genitive case. It often appropriates English words that sound very different from their standard German cousins.

Examples of English words with Texas German and standard German translations:

Engine

Standard German: Der Motor

Texas German: Die Engine

To arrest someone

Standard German: festnehmen

Texan German: arresten

Airplane

Standard German: Das Flugzeug

Texan German: Das Luftschiff

Squirrel

Standard German: Das Eichhörnchen

Texas German: Die Eichkatz

Moises Mendoza

[email protected]

twitter.com/moisesdmendoza

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For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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