The German Language in the U.S.

Although the popular tale that German missed becoming the official language of the United States by one vote is nothing more than an urban legend, the German language has been spoken in America from the earliest colonial days to the present.

The first German colony in the US was Germantown in Pennsylvania, founded in 1683. The first German-language newspaper in America, the Philadelphische Zeitung was published in this state in 1732 by none other than Benjamin Franklin. The operation was short-lived, not even surviving the year, but many small German dailies have been printed in cities across the country; at their peak it was estimated that 800 daily and weekly German-language periodicals existed in the US. This included the still-existing New York Staats-Zeitung, which in 1886 had over 60,000 readers, more than the 40,000 of the New York Times, and the Westliche Post, a German-language newspaper of St. Louis which employed the Austro-Hungarian Joseph Pulitzer, the namesake of the prestigious journalism award.

Who were the readers of these newspapers? In 1790 as many as 100,000 Germans had immigrated to the US, making up 8.6% of the country’s population and 33% of the population of Pennsylvania. Over the years the Deutsch spoken in this state evolved into a dialect known as Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, or Pennsylvania Dutch, just one of many varieties of German which developed in our country. Professor Mark Louden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (a fluent speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch) shows that there are distinct dialects of German spoken (or historically spoken) in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas, and also provides many recorded interviews in “Dutch” with native speakers.

Unfortunately the past century has witnessed the demise of American German dialects- except among the Old Order Amish and Mennonites. Professors B. Richard Page of The Pennsylvania State University and Joshua Brown of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire discuss how the difference in how they view their mother tongue dictates the respective survival and decline of German for sectarian (read: Amish) and non-sectarian (non-Amish) speakers. Bilingual non-sectarians are generally not ambilingual, meaning that they reserve the use of the minority language, Pennsylvania German (PG), for certain situations- usually profanity or to express anger or humor. Its domain of use keeps it far from children and thus prevents it from being learned by them and passed on to successive generations.

On the other hand the Old Order Amish and Mennonites view Pennsylvania German as an important marker of their identity and so maintain it for in-group communication. Amish children grow up speaking PG as a first language and only learn English upon entering school. At this age English takes on an important role- it is the language of instruction at Amish schools and is also the language in which all written communication takes place. The Amish also receive formal instruction in the High German spoken in Germany, and so some may even be trilingual. Interestingly enough, Professors Page and Brown also note that the Amish are less likely to have an accent when speaking in English than are their non-sectarian brethren.

The Amish are now the only custodians of the American German which once so richly flourished in these United States to the point of becoming a language on its own right, distinct from its mother European tongue. The secret to their success are not their horses and buggies but the fact that they view their language as an important part of their heritage, not as a scar or a defect. This kind of attitude might allow German to be cultivated once again among German-American communities in our modern towns and cities. The story that German nearly became the official language of the US may be nothing more than an urban legend but nonetheless, there is no official language in our country. Professor Louden’s audio collection of German interviews are a beautiful sample of simple stories of American life in this century, and they remind us that being American can be expressed in a language other than English.