University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Q&A: The rise and fall of Texas German

Following up on the university home page feature story, Vanishing Voices, here’s a Q&A that the writer Jessica Sinn had with with Hans Boas.

Hans Boas

Hans Boas

In about 40 years, Texas German – a language intrinsic to Texas that fuses English and 19th century German – will inevitably be extinct. Hans Boas, associate professor of Germanic studies, believes that once Texas German is gone, the last vestiges of Texas’ German cultural heritage will disappear as well.

In a race against time to create a veritable linguistic time capsule of the language, Boas founded the Texas German Dialect Project, through which he has interviewed more than 300 Texas German speakers. 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.”

Boas, who has spent the past eight years traversing Texas to document and preserve the dwindling language, discusses the importance of preserving this significant piece of Texas history.

Why is it important to document and preserve Texas German?

Looking back at the language you get a unique view of Texas’ culture that developed when the Germans began arriving in Texas 150 years ago. People will be able to listen to the stories and imagine what it was like growing up on a farm without electricity on the frontier, what the Texas Germans ate, how they made peace treaties with the Comanche Indians and what happened to the culture from one generation to the next.

What do you find intriguing about the interview process?

It’s very interesting to ask them how they feel in respect to their own identity. Do they consider themselves as Texans, as Germans, as Texas Germans or as Americans? A lot of times I’ve noticed many of them have not really thought a lot about that in great depth, so these interviews really prompt them to think about their heritage and realize the impeding death of the language and culture.

How does Texas German differ from traditional German?

English is really the major difference. Another big difference is the way Texas Germans interact. When Texas Germans talk to each other, they talk like speakers of English. They say things like ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ But if you talk like this with a German in a particular part of Germany, they’ll often look at you like you’re from Mars because they don’t have the same mannerisms. Germans greet each other simply by saying ‘hello’ and that’s it.

What makes Texas German unique?

Texas German is truly unique because it’s a mixture of different dialects. The German immigrants who came to Texas in the 1830s and 1840s came from at least four different geographical areas in Germany and brought their own unique dialects to Texas, thus creating an entirely new language mixed with various dialects.

What do you like most about studying this language?

I’m always fascinated by how people pronounce words with particular vowels, consonants and verbs, and the type of variation from one speaker to the next. So it’s really interesting to see how they each speak the language differently.

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