Linguists work with remaining speakers of dying languages to preserve cultural memories

Jan. 11, 2010

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In a hill country home amid the scenic vistas of New Braunfels, Texas, Hans Boas, associate professor of Germanic studies, conducts hours of interviews with the last remaining speakers of one of the Lone Star State's oldest dialects, Texas German. During an interview, Alton Rahe struggles to remember a German word as Boas records their conversation.

Hans Boas
Hans Boas, associate professor of Germanic studies, founded the Texas German Dialect Project, an archive of recordings, transcripts and translations of the dwindling Texas German dialect.

At 77, Rahe has forgotten some of the German language he learned growing up in Sattler Lake, a small German community in the Texas Hill Country. As a kid he was encouraged to only speak English. And now that many of his fellow Texas Germans have died—or just stopped speaking the language altogether—it's getting harder and harder to remember it.

Boas believes that once Texas German is gone, by about 2050, the last vestiges of Texas' German cultural heritage will vanish as well.

"It's important to leave a record—not just of the interesting vocabulary and sentence structures—but also the history and culture that developed with the dialect since the Germans began arriving in Texas 150 years ago," Boas says. "It contributes to the history of where we've been, and it will give us some kind of guide to where we're going."

Boas is one of many linguists at The University of Texas at Austin who are racing against time to research, document and preserve endangered languages teetering on the brink of extinction.

Most linguists agree about 6,000 languages exist in the world today, and in the next century about 90 percent will disappear. With these unprecedented levels of extinction, the need for documentation is urgent, says Nora England, professor of linguistics.

"Funding for language documentation, as well as the number of university positions for specialists in the field have increased to meet the growing demand for salvaging dying languages," she says. "The ultimate goal of linguistics, to understand what human language is and how it works, depends crucially on knowing the inner workings of individual languages."

The Rise and Fall of Texas German

Until Boas took a road trip from the University of California, Berkeley, to Austin to start his career at the university during summer 2001, he never imagined he would devote his research to preserving Texas German. But when he overheard a table of Texas Germans speaking at a restaurant in Fredericksburg, he was hooked.

Boas, who grew up in Goettingen, Germany, found himself intrigued with such words as "der Cowboy" (Cowboy spoken with a German accent) and "die Stinkkatze" (skunk, or simply, stinky cat).

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"It's an odd mixture of English and 19th century German," says Boas, who previously worked as a research fellow in linguistics at UC Berkeley. "Hardly any of the Texas Germans speak alike. There's a lot of variation in the dialect. Texas German borrows about 5 to 6 percent of its vocabulary from English, creating words like 'der hamburger' or 'der cowboy.'"

Soon after his discovery, Boas began documenting and researching the dialect, resulting in the Texas German Dialect Project, through which he has interviewed more than 300 speakers of the language over the past seven years. With more than 200 Texas Germans on the waiting list for an interview and limited resources, Boas has his work cut out for him.

The recordings, transcriptions and translations are stored in the Texas German Dialect Archive, an online database of audio and textual materials from personal interviews with the Texas Germans. An in-depth analysis of the project is detailed in his recent book "The Life and Death of Texas German."

When It's Gone, It's Gone

Texas German faced its first major challenge as anti-German sentiment arose around World Wars I and II. As English-only laws in schools and churches were passed, Texas German—which once had as many as 110,000 speakers—began to dissipate.

Boas and his team of interviewers traverse small towns in Texas to places like Fredericksburg, Doss, Giddings, Brenham and Round Top, even areas along the Texas coast, to observe the numerous forms of dialects and to catch a glimpse into what life is like as a Texas German.

"We basically have 20 to 30 years left to record this jewel," Boas notes. "If you're an archeologist it doesn't matter if you're digging something up 100 to 500 years down the road, it's most likely going to be there. But when you deal with language and culture, once the people are gone, there's no way of recording it anymore."

In the 1800s tens of thousands of Germans came to Texas through Galveston looking for cheap land and a better way of life. For several generations, they built roads, schools and churches and started their own newspapers in Texas. Their influence on the state made it what it is today, Boas says.

Barbara E. Bullock
Barbara E. Bullock, professor of French and Italian, studies and documents language shifts in the linguistic enclave community of Frenchville, Pa., and on the island of Hispaniola, along the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

"If you look at Texas historically you look at the contributions the Germans made to the infrastructure, the educational system, ranching, farming, culinary customs, beer—you name it—it's all uniquely Texan," Boas says, smiling.

Much like Texas German, Texas Czech is another uniquely Texan dialect that is on the road to extinction.

During the late 19th century, thousands of Czech immigrants incorporated their various dialects across Texas, developing a new language intrinsic to the state. Now as the last remaining speakers die, so will the language. John Tomeček, a Slavic and Eurasian studies graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, estimates the 150-year-old language will not survive another decade.

Using Boas's model for interviewing speakers of the language and digitally cataloging the dialects, Tomeček recently founded the Texas Czech Dialect Project to document and preserve the dwindling language before it's too late.

"Texas Czech is a part of the cultural and historical landscape of the great state of Texas—just as much as we consider Spanish to be," Tomeček says. "These languages were allowed to flourish and adapt in the Texas environment, free and open as it was, into new dialects of their former languages, which is what makes the state's linguistic and multicultural diversity truly unique."

University professors are making similar efforts beyond the state's borders, as well.

Preserving Linguistic Artifacts

Along the banks of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in the Appalachian Mountains of central Pennsylvania, lies a rural French community, aptly named Frenchville.

In 1991 Barbara E. Bullock, professor of French and Italian, ventured into the sleepy community to investigate a unique French dialect spoken by only a handful of old-timers.

Frenchville historical marker
A historical marker of Frenchville, an isolated farming community of French speakers in central Pennsylvania where Barbara E. Bullock, professor of French and Italian, interviewed the last remaining speakers of a rare French dialect. Photo: Barbara E. Bullock

"What's interesting about Frenchville is that people emigrated there directly from eastern France," Bullock says. "This is unique because most settlements of French speakers in the United States are transplants of Acadians from Canada."

By word of mouth she tracked down two brothers who spoke the language as their native tongue. With a digital recorder, Bullock interviewed the brothers every 18 months, monitoring variations in the dialect.

"This research provides the best evidence of how rural eastern French was spoken in the 1830s and 1840s," Bullock says. "These two men speak this variety better than anybody in France today because they had no access to standard French. They're like linguistic artifacts."

Stigmatized as uneducated immigrants, the French settlers isolated themselves from people in larger towns who often called them names like "down-river rats." Bullock attributes their cultural isolation to the remarkable resilience of the language.

"I went out there to investigate how a minority language tends to degrade over time," Bullock says. "But what's fascinated me about this research is that the structural integrity of the French dialect was still intact. In fact, even a contemporary French speaker could sit down and have a conversation with these people and understand them just fine."

A rural community of farmers and loggers, the French immigrants had no access to education in the French language, which actually helped prevent the language from eroding, Bullock explains.

Once Bullock's digital archive is completed, she plans to deposit it in a museum in central Pennsylvania.

"Back in the '70s and '80s, a lot of linguists conducted fieldwork in Frenchville, but they never published their research and didn't return anything to the community," Bullock says. "I don't want to do that with my recordings because if they're lost that's the end of the language."

For more information, contact: By Jessica Sinn
College of Liberal Arts


On the banner: "Texas German beer drinkers" photo courtesy
of Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives, La Grange, Texas

Photos of professors Boas and Bullock: Christina Murrey

Texas German video: Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services