115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Texas German as a Heritage Language in the 21st Century: Why Is it Dying Out?

Hans Boas, University of Texas, Austin

This talk presents a sociolinguistic analysis of the Texas German community of New Braunfels, Texas, to determine the reasons why Texas German is dying out.


The first part of the talk summarizes the long history of the German language in Texas. German settlers first arrived in the early 1830s, and large scale immigration continued up until for a number of decades thereafter. For many years, German was a well-established prestige language in Texas; there were German-language schools, newspapers, and church services, as well as a lively social circle for Texas Germans, encompassing choirs, shooting clubs, and other social organizations, and one can trace the emergence of a new variety of German, namely Texas German (Nicolini 2004). The current situation is radically different; although there are still approximately 8,000-10,000 speakers of Texas German, as many of these German-language social organizations have either been dissolved or have abandoned German in favor of English and Texas German is clearly an endangered dialect. 

The second part of the talk addresses some of the major reasons for the decline of German in Texas, starting with World War I and the resulting increase in anti-German sentiment, which led to an English-only law for public schools in 1918 (Salmons 1983). The resulting stigmatization of German also affected institutional support for the widespread maintenance and use of German in venues like the press, schools, and churches. World War II brought additional challenges to the maintenance of German language and culture in Texas. Increasing migration of non-German speakers to the traditional German enclaves, as well as the refusal of these newcomers to assimilate linguistically to their new homes, led to the large-scale abandonment of German in the public sphere, e.g. in financial transactions. The increased use of English in the public domain pushed German even further into the private domain (Boas 2009). At the same time, younger Texas Germans left the traditional German-speaking areas for employment in larger cities such as Austin, San Antonio, and Houston, or to enroll in college or enlist in the military (Jordan 1977). 

The third part of the talk determines the reasons for the current state of decline of Texas German, specifically among younger Texas Germans. Based on sociolinguistic interviews with 52 speakers in the New Braunfels area (http://www.tgdp.org), I argue that the negative language attitudes play a crucial role in the lack of interest in Texas German among younger Texas Germans. More specifically, whereas German used to be the major minority language in Texas up until the 1930s, it has now given up that status to Spanish. The interview data demonstrate that the while the overwhelming majority of younger Texas Germans attach a high symbolic value to their heritage language and are proud of their Texas German identity, they nevertheless refuse to learn German. Instead, they prefer to learn Spanish as it is much more practical and offers potentially more employment opportunities.

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