Walking down the street in small town Texas, you wouldn’t expect to hear the locals chattering away in German. But Germany’s complex history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in a global diaspora, and the language is spoken in numerous regions outside of Europe. Here are some of the most significant and surprising places in which German is still spoken.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely locations for the presence of a modern-day German dialect is Texas. German was transported to Texas in the mid-19th century, as a part of the wave of immigration to the United States.
Emigration to the state was boosted in 1842 by the Adelsverein, which sought to establish and support German colonies throughout Texas. Moreover, in 1847, the Meusbach-Comanche Treaty further helped to settle German colonists on the land; it remains the only unbroken treaty between European-American colonists and Native Americans.
German in Texas was unusual for an immigrant language in the USA: most died out after the third generation, but German continued to be spoken several generations after settlers brought it to the state. However, the First and Second World Wars lead to a repression of German culture, and residents felt ashamed about speaking the language openly. Consequently, the dialect largely died out and is now spoken mostly by a small number of elderly Texans seeking to preserve their heritage.
The Hutterites are an ethno-religious Christian group based in North America. There are an estimated 34,000 speakers of the Hutterite dialect of German, of which around 85% live in Canada, and 15% live in the Great Plains of the United States. Throughout its long history, the Hutterite group emigrated from central and Eastern Europe to Russia, before settling in North America in the mid-19th century.
Hutterites live in colonies in which every member of the colony contributes towards the running and well-being of the community. Everything, including cooking, meal-times, clothes-washing are communal, while all property is owned by the colony. The children generally learn Hutterisch, before they are taught English at schools within the colonies.
Hutterisch is based on the Tyrolean dialect spoken by the founder of the Hutterites, Jakob Hutter. Hutter, who lived in the first half of the 16th century, was a hat-maker and leading Anabaptist. Originally from the Puster Valley, in what is now in South Tyrol in Italy, Hutter was burnt at the stake in Innsbruck in 1536 for his beliefs. Hutterite German is influenced by the Carinthian dialect, and has number of loan words from English and Russian. Hutterisch is mostly an unwritten language, although there have been attempts to write it as a dialect, such as the 2006 children’s book Lindas glücklicher Tag by Linda Maendel.
Namibia was a German colony from 1884 to 1915; it was known as Deutsch-Südwestafrika and was part of Imperial Germany’s attempt at constructing an overseas empire. During the First World War, Namibia was taken over by South African and British forces. Following a tense post-war relationship, Namibia gained independence from South Africa in1990.
Although English is Namibia’s only official language, German is still recognized as a national language, and is the mother tongue of roughly 30,000 Namibians. German and Afrikaans had been official languages in Namibia until independence, after which they lost their status.
The German-speaking demographic is mostly caucasian; around one-third of Namibia’s white population speaks German. It is also spoken by a small part of the well-educated black population, who speak it as a second language.
Mexico is home to about 95,000 descendants of Mennonite immigrants who have retained their Platdietsch dialect. In the early 20th century, several thousand Russian Mennonites immigrated to Canada; however, conservative Mennonite factions soon moved to Mexico, as post-war anti-German sentiments governed Canadian society. In more conservative Mennonite communities, rules dictate that men can speak Spanish, whereas women are only permitted to speak German.
Another wave of German immigration to Mexico came at the end of the 19th century, as German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Mexican President Porfirio Díaz collaborated to exploit agricultural potential in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Almost 500 German families were sent to Soconusco in Chiapas to establish coffee plantations and food processing facilities. In fact, a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that, in Soconusco, the mestizo population had a higher concentration of German heritage than Spanish.
The Colegio Alemán Alexander von Humboldt in Mexico City, which was founded in 1894, is the largest German school outside of Germany. It has three campuses, and most classes are taught in German.
There are about three million German speakers in contemporary Brazil, and German is the second most common first language in the lusophone nation. The primary German dialect spoken is Riograndenser Hunsrückisch, which is particularly prevalent in the south of Brazil. This dialect has, unsurprisingly, been influenced by Portuguese and, to a lesser extent, indigenous languages such as Guarani and Kaingang. The influence of Portuguese is especially notable concerning terminology for nature, and for modern technological advances: words and notions which would have been unfamiliar to the original German settlers. The word for plane, for instance, is not Flugzeug, but Aviong, which is derived from the Portuguese avião.
German is the best-preserved minority immigrant language in Brazil. There are various factors for this. The disparity between German and Portuguese made it harder for German immigrants to learn the dominant language; in comparison, Italian immigrants could learn Portuguese with relative ease.
The preservation of German was also aided by the high birth-rate amongst German immigrants in the 19th century; second generation German immigrant women had an average of 10.4 children, which resulted in a boom amongst the German-speaking population.
A third factor which influenced the preservation of German was the attitude of many German immigrants. In their largely rural colonies, they sought to recreate the society which they had left and believed they would never return to.