Of all the towns where German is still spoken in the state, aka the Texas “German Belt,” that fading ember burns the brightest in Fredericksburg. From a peak of about 160,000 German-speaking Texans in 1940, only a few thousand remain, and the dialect is expected to be extinct by 2035.
“From the 1830s, you had many communities in Texas which were completely functioning only in German,” said Hans Boas, speaking to The Local, an English-language German news website. “You had German schools, German churches, German shops. There were portions of the Texas Hill Country where up until the 1920s, 97% of the population was German-speaking. Very few people actually spoke English.”
Boas, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this article, founded and heads the 20-year-old Texas German Dialect Project, whose goal is to “preserve the Texas German dialect” by interviewing surviving Texas German speakers and archiving the interviews. Boas believes the preservation is important “as it reflects the rich cultural and linguistic traditions of its residents,” who today are no more plentiful than in Fredericksburg.
“At one point, New Braunfels was the more German of the two largest German cities in Texas, but in more recent years that title passed to Fredericksburg,” says Matthias Warmuth, a German-born Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of Texas in Austin. As a researcher for the Texas German Dialect Project, he has studied both Texas German as a dialect and the Texas German people as an ethnic enclave.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, the highways opened things up more, and New Braunfels’ proximity to San Antonio and Austin watered down the German,” he says. “Whereas in Fredericksburg, you are surrounded by all these ranches, where all your neighbors were also German.”
The Texas German dialect emerged out of chaos here and in Germany. Up until 1871, Germany was not yet unified, and each region and city had its own dialect, broken down broadly into High German (spoken in the mountainous south), and Low (spoken in the flatlands in the north and east). Within the High and Low were hundreds of mini-dialects that exist to this day, despite 150 years of attempts at standardization in German schools.
The emigrants to Texas, starting in the 1840s, came from all over the German map—Boas believes five or six dialects contributed to the stew. Because of that, the German that emerged here was an attempt at leveling regional differences, all while coping with technological advances such as the telegraph, hot-air balloon, airplane, and so on. There was also the Texas wildlife—Germans had no word for skunk, which were deemed (translated from literal German) “stink-cats,” and armadillos, aka “panzer pigs.”
English words were also incorporated freely. Boas estimates that as much as 5% or 6% of the Texas German vocabulary are loanwords such as “die fence,” for “fence.” Germans had words for hedges, stone walls, and other property-marking barriers, but not for plain fences. And there are hybrids, such as “was ever” for “whatever.”
Before 1919, the Germans saw no real need for English instruction, isolated as they were in their own communities, surrounded by miles and miles of German Texas. World War I put an end to that attitude. A state law was passed in the war’s aftermath mandating English-only instruction in Texas public schools. The language and the people became anathema; German classical music was banned and frankfurters were renamed hot dogs, for example. Texas towns with names like Brandenberg and Marienfeld became Old Glory and Stanton, respectively; and Houston’s German Cemetery was rededicated as Washington Cemetery.
James Kearney, an author, historian, and UT lecturer who teaches a course on 19th-century European immigration to Texas, cites another factor in sealing the fate of Texas German.
Kearney, a native of the Colorado County hamlet of Glidden (between Columbus and Weimar) on the eastern edge of the German Belt, said that in his two-room schoolhouse, even as late as 1950, German remained “the language of the playground,” the one the kids spoke after the bell rang.
“And then they consolidated so many of the country schools,” he says. “Kids were bused to bigger schools in larger towns, where English ruled in the classroom and on the playground. To me, that was huge.”
Scholars believe the last Texan to be born with German as a first language would have been born sometime around 1950. “They are dying off fast,” Kearney says. “Like World War II veterans, one day there will be none left.”
Warmuth has interviewed 700 Texas Germans in his studies. They love the language but know its days are numbered. He reports enthusiastic assent to questions like “Do you wish the language was preserved?” “Would you like to see road signs in German in towns like Fredericksburg?” and, “Would you like your grandchildren to learn German?” Absolutely, the vast majority reply.
“But then I ask, can it be rescued, what is to be done, and the answers they give are no and nothing,” he says. Part of the problem is there is no standard: the Texas German of New Braunfels varied from that of Fredericksburg. “Who gets final say?” Warmuth wonders. (Indeed, Boas, the leading authority on the subject, has said no two Texas German speakers sound alike.)
Scholars and the dwindling number of speakers of the dialect agree that Texas German may well be kaput soon, but even so, the spirit of the people lives on. As reflected in the graduate school writings of UT’s Warmuth, a sense of “Germanness Beyond Germany” still prevails. Ethnologists who have studied the entire length of the German Belt—from what is now just beyond the suburbs of Houston through Fredericksburg—have found a sense of pride and belonging to a distinct culture: fully two-thirds of them describe themselves first as “Texas Germans,” ahead of other designations, like “Americans,” “German Americans,” or “Texans.”
And their legacy lives on in the culture they’ve left behind. Kearney points out that so many of the places the Germans settled have become “in” places today. Texas Highways contributor Michael Corcoran has deemed “the Hamptons of Texas” as centered on heavily German Brenham and Round Top; the population of New Braunfels has quadrupled in the last 40 years; that of Boerne has sextupled.
As for Fredericksburg, the population has “only” come close to doubling, thanks in part to its isolation from major cities, but also just how very expensive it has become: Six years ago, Fredericksburg was found to have the most millionaires per capita of anywhere in Texas, and much of that wealth comes from real estate, which…is not cheap.
Some of it is the real estate itself—while other settlers sought out bottomland suitable for cotton crops, Germans had a canny eye for finding the prettiest parts of Texas in which to settle. But it’s also in what the Germans did once they got here. There’s the quaint architecture, and the immeasurable contributions to our cuisine: not just barbecue and chicken-fried steak, but also chili, where in the stealthily very German city of San Antonio, German Texans played a vital role in popularizing the dish nationally and globally. (As Alamo City journalist Robert Rivard once put it, “The German imprint on San Antonio is everywhere if you look for it, and invisible if you don’t care.”)
But it’s still more than that. The Germans inoculated much of South Texas against a malady that afflicts pretty much every other region of the Southern tier of states save for South Louisiana: Puritanism.
That absence of Puritanism has long fascinated Kearney. On his father’s side, Kearney’s roots in multi-ethnic Colorado County run deep. His mother, on the other hand, came from Comanche County, southwest of Fort Worth. In his youth, Kearney recalls, the county was 100 percent Anglo-Saxon white Protestant.
“It was an epicenter of puritanical upper South mentality: It was dry, and all these Christian fundamentalist sects believed that anything fun was sinful. They didn’t dance—they didn’t even know how. They didn’t drink. Well, they did, but they would sneak out in the woods to do it. But I grew up among all these Germans and Czechs, and you’d have these church fairs with the priest staggering around drunk with a beer in one hand and a big ol’ cigar in the other, polka music blaring, kids of all ages everywhere having a good time, and nobody thought a dang thing about it. When I would go visit my grandparents up there in Comanche County, everything was different. They have a different dialect, they really do, and I thought I was going to a foreign country.”
That dichotomy set his life’s path, in some ways: “This difference was so striking that I believe it was the genesis of my interest in all these things,” he says. (Among “these things” was Friedrichsburg, an 1867 novel by Friedrich Armand Strubberg, the former colonial director, or de facto mayor, of Fredericksburg. Translated with historical annotations by Kearney, it is a romance grafted on to the history of early Fredericksburg and the Germans’ uneasy but relatively peaceful relationship with the Comanche. Kearney believes the novel to have been of vital importance to the later development of Western literature, both in German and in English. The book was very well-received, winning the 2012 Summerfield G. Roberts Award for the best contribution to Texas history.)
Whether or not they are descended from German or Czech Texans, the lifestyle of the German belt and increasingly the rest of Texas is not so puritanical and getting less so by the year. I spent my own childhood moving back and forth between Houston and Nashville, and the difference was clear, if not so stark as that between Colorado and Comanche counties; Houston was much more relaxed and freewheeling, whereas the Nashville of the 1970s and early ’80s was still very staid and Baptist.
In years past I’ve talked to some travelers—both American and European—who have been to Fredericksburg, and while invariably charmed by the town, felt the German trappings a wee bit overdone. Oma-this, Opa-that, willkommen here, and cut-outs of jolly beer-swilling men in Alpine attire there. Kearney says he and his friends refer to this as “lederhosenkultur.”
Warmuth sees more than that. Yes, lederhosenkultur is corny and inauthentic, but the mere fact that Fredericksburg exists, that Old World-style bakeries exist in that town, that it hosts a wildly popular Oktoberfest yearly, still counts for something. And the same goes for the other German and Czech towns in Texas and elsewhere in America—the languages may be dead or dying, but the culture has been absorbed into the mainstream of those areas.
What’s more, Warmuth adds, look at Munich: that ancient Bavarian city’s annual Oktoberfest is now swamped with tourists, not just from outside Bavaria but all over the world. If you are seeking authenticity, he advises, head to the smaller towns off the well-beaten path to Munich. Which is not to say you won’t have a blast in Munich, just that true authenticity isn’t everything.
As for Kearney, he frets that Fredericksburg has become a victim of its own success. “Every weekend there are thousands of tourists, people are moving in, ‘Oh look how quaint it is,’ and people love the community spirit,” he says. “The act of moving in is killing the very thing that appealed to them in the beginning.”
One way to arrest that overheated development: resurrect German and speak it exclusively.
This story is part of our ongoing coverage of Fredericksburg’s 175th anniversary. Read more stories about the beloved Hill Country destination here.