German in America

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There's a Germantown in Philadelphia and a German Village in Columbus, Ohio.  in Fredericksburg (the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz) and in New Braunfels, they speak Texas German, and in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities in many states, they speak  Pennsylvania Dutch / German (Deitsch, Pennsylvania Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, Hinterwäldler-Deutsch).

From a German friend who worked for the American military government in Germany after WWII:

While working for Military Government in 1948 I had occasion to get together various materials for a seminar held somewhere south of Munich.  For that purpose I had authorization to request a military motor pool car.

However, getting down to the garage there was only one car left and an American Colonel ahead of me.  Being a very considerate gentleman he inquired about my need of a car and said, since he was not having far to go, we should share it.  In exchange I was trying to be helpful by translating to the German driver where he needed to go.  Instead of responding to my attempt, the man began rattling off where he needed to go and which route to follow — in the thickest Schwaebisch dialect!

I was absolutely astounded because up until then I had always found Americans bewildered in dealing with the German language, and this chap did not appear to have been German-born. In response to my surprise he quipped:

"ha no, da muss ma halt ma a bis-cha schwaetza kenna"

("ha no, da muss man halt mal ein bischen schwatzen koennen")

translation:  "Well (or why not)  one must, after all, you know, be able to gab a bit".

When I asked him how he was able to speak Schwaebisch so fluently, he said he was a native Philadelphian and merely picked this up on the street while growing up.  He had no clue about  the German language, Schwaebisch being all he knew.

I guess he was in his 50s in 1948, which might give you a timeline on where you might have had a Schwaebisch-speaking neighborhood in Philadelphia in the half-century before that.

Many's the time that I heard tales about German almost becoming the national language of America* (just as one of the southern Sinitic topolects almost became the national language of China rather than Mandarin**), but — despite living in Philadelphia since 1979 — until I received the story from my friend recounted above, I had no idea that German was still a living language in parts of my adopted city during the first half of the twentieth century.



Supposedly, though, that's an urban legend.


David Moser, A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language (Penguin, 2016).

S. Robert Ramsey, The Languages of China (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 7-8.

See "How Mandarin became China's national language" (7/31/15)


  1. Walt Wolfram said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    My wife, who is now 75, speaks Schwaebisch, which she learned as a child in Philadelphia from her family. She then reinforced it when she went to Germany by herself at age 10 and spoke it with all of her relatives in Stuttgart. She said folks were astonished to find an "American girl" speaking Schwaebisch in Germany. But she grew up in the same German community as I did. In our community, folks spoke a variety of German dialects and were not unified by the variety. I'm unaware of any German communities in Philadelphia where a unified variety of German was spoken, but families certainly did retain different dialects of German. But of course, I didn't know the whole of Philadelphia German communities. I grew up in Olney, not far from Germantown.

  2. John Burke said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 12:00 am

    My late mother-in-law, Patricia Martin (1924-2015), grew up on Ringgold Street in the Philadelphia neighborhood called Swampoodle. At one point she wound up spending some weeks in a German parochial school where insruction and informal conversation were entirely in German, leaving her baffled. I don't know what dialect the nuns and the other schoolchildren were speaking; she never learned any.

  3. John Walden said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 2:52 am

    Certainly the German-language press got its start in Philadelphia and seems to have been lively enough at the beginning of the last century:

  4. David Marjanović said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 4:46 am


    …Is that some kind of pun? While there is a forest (silva) in the name of Pennsylvania, William Penn can't be interpreted as "behind". Rather, Hinterwäldler means "hillbilly", "someone from the backwoods who has no clue". I can't imagine it's an endonym or anything like it.

  5. richardelguru said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:57 am

    @ David, 'Hinterwäldler'


  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 9:29 am

    On the day I moved into Frederick, Maryland, in 1973 I bought some small items in a downtown grocery. The lady behind the counter asked me, "Would you like that in a toot?" I had lived four years in the Pfalz where I called a paper bag a Tütte so I felt right at home. The first three newspapers in Frederick (in the late 1700s) were in German and there were German services in country churches in Frederick County until the 1940s. People still snitz apples for apple butter, kids call a tortoise a skill-pot (Schildpade) and the sun and a tree are often called "he."

  7. Lane said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 11:35 am

    @Dan Lufkin, is the sun "he" in dialect? It's "die Sonne", feminine, in standard German.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

    Re "skillpot", the creek than ran through the woods at the end of the street that I lived on when I was a small boy was a nameless tributary of, whose name supposedly comes from the Swedish (or perhaps Dutch – both were floating around the region in colonial days) word for turtle, which is presumably a cognate of the German lexeme mentioned by Dan Lufkin. But I think the name of the creek was semantically opaque – it wasn't like turtles in general were called shellpots in local Northern-Delaware usage, at least not that I recall.

    For early 20th century Philadelphia German, one would want to know to what extent there was a sufficient continuous flow of new immigrants that kept it going versus the community being third/fourth/etc-generation descendants of earlier immigrants who had still not assimilated into being monolingual Anglophones. The usual story of immigration to the U.S. in which it's all Irish and German from c. 1830 through the Civil War but then by c. 1880 its all Italians and Poles and Ashkenazim etc until 1914 tends to overlook the fact that there was still considerable new German immigration in the later period in absolute terms even if it was smaller in percentage terms.

  9. Jonfrum said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    Boston's Jamaica Plain district had a significant German minority, many of whom worked in the local breweries. It was also home to musicians, some of whom were early members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I have 1915 maps that show workingmen's clubs, including the Schwaben Halle. Evidently, the various German regions kept to themselves, as the Arbeiter Club and the Schulverein were not far from the Schwaben Halle. I also count 5 German language newspapers published in Boston between 1864-1950.

  10. RP said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

    For the benefit of those who don't know, it should be pointed out that "schildpad" and cognate terms translate to "shield toad".

    The Dutch is "schildpad" (pronounced with "sh" at the start and "t" at the end), the Swedish "sköldpadda" (the initial sound being somewhat similar to "sh" in some accents, and never like hard "sk" as far as I know).

    The Swedish Academy's dictionary ( records that spellings in "-tt" have been attested in the past, even though the pronunciation today is clearly with "d" (at least in standard Swedish).

    The modern German word "Schildpatt", which is a borrowing from Dutch, is today defined as "tortoise-shell", whereas "Schildkröte" means tortoise or turtle ("Kröte" meaning a toad).

    None of the three languages draw the distinction that some varieties of English draw between tortoises and turtles. In Swedish, if such distinctions are needed, reference is made to a havssköldpadda (sea turtle), landsköldpadda (land turtle), and various other varieties.

  11. RP said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    Also relevant when observing the American borrowed forms, the "d" at the end of the first syllable of "sköldpadda" is often barely pronounced, if at all, and the Norwegian cognate is "skilpadde" (Bokmål), "skjelpadde" (Nynorsk), with the "d" of the first syllable omitted.

  12. David L said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

    None of the three languages draw the distinction that some varieties of English draw between tortoises and turtles.

    Nobody knows what the difference between tortoises and turtles is anyway.

  13. Belial Issimo said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

    [i]Nobody knows what the difference between tortoises and turtles is anyway.[/i]

    At least until you hear their voice in the land.

  14. John Swindle said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: The "toot" wouldn't have thrown me, in context, but that's because I would have assumed English and guessed "tote."
    Protestant worship services in Bayard, Nebraska, were in German when my mother was a child in the 1920s. Thirty years later they were bilingual, with a sermon in English and a sermon in German, but hymns were in both languages at once. By the turn of this century everything was in English. It wasn't Pennsylvania or Maryland, though.

  15. Stephen said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 5:37 am

    "and in New Braunfels, they speak Texas German"

    Are you sure? My wife's cousin lives in a neighbouring town (Boerne, pronounced 'burney' by the locals) which also has German roots.

    The cousin is married to a German (as in born in Germany) and has learnt pretty good German. She says that she has met loads of people who (finding that she is married to a German) say 'Oh, I'm German too' but all they mean is that their (great- or great-great-) grandparents came from Germany. She is surprised when someone has more than the few words of German that any educated person has picked up.

  16. RP said,

    March 29, 2017 @ 8:10 am

    Apparently Texas German is nearing extinction ( – from which I also learn that a documentary about the language is being filmed: ).

  17. David Marjanović said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 4:08 am

    Nobody has brought up can I come/go with yet?


    Yes, except that term was reportedly coined by Hungarians, and I don't know if they meant to convey anything more than literally "behind the forest".


    Tüte, long ü.

    The Dutch is "schildpad" (pronounced with "sh" at the start and "t" at the end)

    No, it's [sx] ~ [sχ] at the start. As it happens, the [sx]-[ʃ] isogloss lines up with the border between Germany and the Netherlands pretty well; it's actually just on the Dutch side.

    the distinction that some varieties of English draw between tortoises and turtles.

    And terrapins!

    Nobody knows what the difference between tortoises and turtles is anyway.

    In England, turtle seems to be the default, and refer by default to sea turtles; that's why Great A'Tuin is a sea turtle to the great bewilderment of everyone else. Tortoise is reserved for testudinid land turtles, which don't occur in Britain.

    In Australia, there are no tortoises by this definition, but the term is applied to the chelids, whose shell has a shape reminiscent of testudinids. Chelids are a southern-hemisphere phenomenon absent from the northern continents.

  18. Elizabeth Yew said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 7:21 am

    The Marilyn Monroe character in The Prince and the Showgirl, set in Europe in the early 20th century, explains her ability to understand the conspirators' German by saying "I'm from Milwaukee."

  19. Seth Largo said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 8:27 am


    Yeah, German was alive and well in most of the Midwest until the 1940s. The old ladies in your average small town Lutheran church could probably sing some hymns auf Deutsch. One old Lutheran I talked to remembered his pastor switched to English sermons when a cross got burned in front of the parish hall. The de-Germanification of the Midwest is a story yet to be told in detail. Just moved to Nebraska and I've been shocked how totally de-ethnicized this part of the country is. Full of Fischers und Kreutzers but no one knows even how to make spaetzle.

  20. RP said,

    March 30, 2017 @ 10:48 am

    @David Marjanović,
    Thanks for the correction.

  21. MD said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 5:53 am

    Nobody has brought up can I come/go with yet?

    What about it? That construction can be heard in the small Mississippi river city I grew up in. I think I can use it myself. I'm in my 20s. Is the consensus that it's German in origin? I know that in (Mennonite) Low German the equivalent expression ends in met. So in High German it probably ends in mit, right?

    Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch) is another type of German in America, by the way. It's found in Kansas and maybe elsewhere. I've become interested in it recently for some odd reason. Maybe it's because I think it might give us some insight into what people in eastern Prussia sounded like. I think the guys in that video are from Canada, where I believe the dialect is more common than it is in the US. There is also Hutterite German in the Dakotas and parts of Canada. It's apparently a type of High German if anyone is curious.

    I also stumbled upon this article about Germans in Missouri. This was after learning about Missouri French, which also blew me away. The article mentions rural black Americans with German as their first language in the not so distant past. If that is indeed true I find it fascinating. That's not extremely far from where I grew up either.

  22. MD said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:10 am

    Oh and here's a 1 hour long talk about Germans in Kansas and the dialects they spoke or speak, if anyone is interested. I watched the entire thing.

  23. MD said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:11 am

    The link.

  24. austimatt said,

    March 31, 2017 @ 6:41 am

    @David Marjanović said,: Although tortoises aren't native to Britain, they are (or were once) widely kept as pets. Perhaps because of this and fables such as that of the tortoise and the hare, for me (London-born) tortoise is definitely the default and in my experience, people always make a clear distinction between tortoises and turtles.

  25. Graeme said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 1:56 am

    I'm heartened to learn, via the link in Victor's post, that 'Muggeseggele' was voted most the attractive Swabian word.

    'Bee's Dick' is the synonymous entomological metaphor in Australian English.

  26. Peter Rettig said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 11:35 am

    It should be noted that not all "Germantowns" got their name from German settlers: For example, when we visited friends in Germantown, Tennessee, we were surprised to learn that the name goes back to a surveyor, N.T German, who had laid out the town lots in 1834.
    Similarly, we discovered while writing a Blog post about Mark Twain and his fondness of Heidelberg (where he had stayed for 3 months while struggling with the German language), that the "Heidelberg" in Mississippi that some writers had thought Twain might have known, was founded by a Washington Irving Heidelberg in 1882. If you are interested in more about that history and how "Heidelbeerenberg" translates into English read this post–mark-twain

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