The German Language in America

The German presence in America goes back at least as far as 1683, when a small group of German-speaking Mennonites and Quakers founded the settlement of Germantown, which is today part of the city of Philadelphia. From the 1680s until the American Revolution, some 100,000 German-speaking immigrants came to America, with most settling in rural southeastern Pennsylvania in what is known as the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The Pennsylvania Dutch language, which is most similar to Palatine German dialects (Pfälzisch), developed during that time and is still actively spoken some two and a half centuries later.

The nineteenth century saw much larger numbers of German speakers immigrate to the United States. Approximately 5 million came between 1820 and 1900. At that time, the vast majority of people living in German-speaking Central Europe spoke regional dialects, though many were literate in the emerging standard language known as High German (Hochdeutsch). The “High” in High German referred originally not to its prestige but to its origins in the High German dialect area. As the nineteenth century progressed, increasing numbers of German immigrants also spoke forms of standard German known collectively as regional High German (landschaftliches Hochdeutsch). These were oral varieties of the written standard that were strongly influenced by regional dialects, especially on the level of pronunciation. The so-called regiolects (Regiolekte) spoken in Germany today, which are regionally colored forms of spoken standard German, trace their origins in large measure to the regional High German varieties of the nineteenth century.

The high point of German immigration to the US was reached in the 1880s, when nearly one and a half million German speakers came to this country. Most arrivals settled in a group of states extending from the northeastern seaboard (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts) westward, across the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and parts of Nebraska and Kansas. The map below shows concentrations of residents born in German-speaking Europe based on census data from 1890. This region became known as America’s German Belt. Note also the German presence in Central Texas, where Texas German developed.

1890 US Atlas, German Americans

The many German dialects and forms of regional High German spoken by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century immigrants to the United States resulted in a diversity of heritage varieties of German spoken by their descendants in some cases well into the twentieth century and even later. The majority of German Americans—like most other non–English-speaking immigrants to this country, contrary to stereotypes—assimilated to their new linguistic environment and became English monolinguals within one or two generations after immigration. Especially those living in urban areas, where contacts with non-Germans were frequent, shifted to English rapidly. Philadelphians of German background, for example, who comprised about one-third of the city’s population into the nineteenth century, were largely English-speaking by 1800.

Other German Americans, especially those living in rural areas, continued speaking German for generations after immigration, though rarely as monolinguals. An important turning point in the history of German in America occurred in the first half of the twentieth century, when major changes affecting all of American society, including industrialization, urbanization, increased social and physical mobility and marriage across ethnic and religious lines, accelerated the shift from bilingualism to English monolingualism not only among German Americans, but in essentially all heritage language communities in the United States, including Native Americans. The result is that today, most speakers of heritage varieties of languages brought to this country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including forms of German, Scandinavian languages, Yiddish, Italian, Dutch, and many more, were born before 1940.

The map below shows the highest ancestries in the counties of the continental United States based on data from the US Census. Note the large number of counties (light blue) in which more residents claim German ancestry than any other. This includes the traditional German Belt from Pennsylvania to the Midwest and extending into western states.

US Ethnicity by County

The percentage of Americans who claimed German ancestry in 2012 was 14.9%, which was the highest of any ancestry. (Irish and English were in second and third places.) This map shows the percentages of German Americans in US counties.

German Roots by county

Compare the maps above with the one below, which shows which languages other than English were spoken most commonly at home according to census data from 2000. While there are still enclaves of speakers of heritage German in the traditional German Belt, most today are in the Dakotas, Montana (alongside Native American languages), and Kansas. Note that heritage French is holding its own in northern New England and southern Louisiana’s Cajun Country.

US Census Languages Spoken at Home

The most striking exceptions to this trend toward English monolingualism are the Germanic languages spoken by members of highly traditional and endogamous Christian and Jewish communities, namely Pennsylvania Dutch, Hutterite German, Mennonite Low German, Amish Swiss German, and Yiddish. These heritage languages are not only surviving, but thriving. In fact, due to exceptionally high birth rates and low attrition, the numbers of speakers of these languages are doubling approximately every twenty years. No other languages on the planet, large or small, are growing as rapidly. And it must be pointed out that these sectarians are also fluent in English, demonstrating that stable bilingualism, which is the norm in other parts of the world, is possible in the heart of American society.

In general, heritage varieties of German in America fall into one of three types, two of which involve a linguistic process known as koinéization. When speakers of multiple dialects of a language relocate into a new area and intermarry, the result is often a new dialect, called an immigrant koiné. In the first type of German-American variety, several regional dialects were combined with one another to yield a new, compromise dialect. This is what happened with Pennsylvania Dutch in the eighteenth century. Speakers of multiple southern German and Swiss German dialects settled in rural southeastern Pennsylvania and their descendants intermarried. Since Palatine German (Pfälzisch) speakers were in the majority, Pennsylvania Dutch is a koiné that resembles those German dialects most closely.

The second type of German-American linguistic development also involved koinéization and is exemplified by Texas German. German-speaking immigrants to Texas arrived there a full century after the Pennsylvania Dutch founding population had come to America, at a time when regional High German was much more widely spoken than had been the case in the eighteenth century. German-speaking settlers in Texas brought with them a diversity of dialects much greater than in Pennsylvania, but their descendants created a koiné that was not based on a particular dialect or group of dialects but on regional High German. The result is that Texas German, unlike Pennsylvania Dutch, is quite intelligible to speakers of European standard German.

In other German-American settlements founded in the nineteenth century, the linguistic outcome was different from what occurred in Texas. These communities, most of which were located in the Midwest and Plains states, were much more homogeneous in terms of the dialects that settlers spoke. For example, there were very few communities in which, say, Pomeranians and Hessians, settled together in more or less equal meaure and intermarried, meaning that koinéization could not occur. Rather, particular European German dialects were “transplanted” in America, though they did not stay frozen in time. The result was German-American dialects that were very similar to linguistic “cousins” in Europe but no longer identical to them since they developed independently of one another, much as the English spoken in America and Great Britain and Ireland have diverged. The leading figure in the study of heritage languages in the US, Einar Haugen, found the same situation in Midwestern American communities in which Norwegian was spoken, which formed an archipelago of particular Norwegian dialects spread across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

Wisconsin is a good example of this third type of German-American dialect situation. Multiple, distinct dialects were spoken there, alongside a form of regional High German. There was therefore no unitary “Wisconsin German” spoken across the state, but several independent Wisconsin German dialects. As Jürgen Eichhoff noted in a 1971 essay, English became the dominant lingua franca for Wisconsin Germans who spoke different dialects.

This site currently features clips from the three major types of German-American language situation: Pennsylvania Dutch, Texas German, and Wisconsin German Dialects.

We hope you enjoy learning more about the German language in America!