The life and death of Texas German

The life and death of Texas German. By Hans C. Boas. (American speech: A quarterly of linguistic usage 93.) Durham, NC: Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society, 2009. Pp. 144. ISBN 9780822366584. $20 (Hb).

Reviewed by Peter Freeouf, Chiang Mai University

The German language has been spoken in North America since the seventeenth century.

Texas German is a variety of American German that has attracted extensive scholarly attention, including a linguistic atlas. Hans Boas’ book is the latest major contribution to the study of this variety of American German.

An innovative feature of this book is that all excerpts from interviews conducted in the dialect are referenced to archived recordings at the digitized Texas German Dialect Archive, which can be accessed for free online.

Boas focuses on the variety of Texas German spoken in and around New Braunfels in the western part of the Texas Hill Country. Until the first decades of the twentieth century the Texas Hill Country, extending south and southwest from Austin to San Antonio, was heavily German-speaking. Predominance of German ended with US entry in the First World War, when laws against instruction in non-English languages in the schools began to be rigidly enforced and the public use of German was stigmatized as disloyal and un-American. The resulting loss of prestige quickly led to a generational break in transmission of the language, with the last generation of fluent speakers being born between the early 1920s and the late 1940s.

Ch. 1, ‘Introduction’ (1–32), summarizes the history of research in Texas German, and the methodology and concerns of the present study. Ch. 2, ’Sociohistorical context’ (33–75), describes the history of the German-speaking settlers and their descendants in the Texas Hill Country and the fate of their language as a Sprachinsel (‘speech island’) in the sea of North American English.

Ch. 3, ‘Dialect contact and new dialect formation’ (76–99), is concerned with research into varieties of German spoken outside German-speaking central Europe and with issues of dialect contact and koineization in the formation of new dialects. B proposes that the development of Texas German can best be understood by using Peter Trudgill’s three-stage model of new dialect formation, whereby Texas German has reached a stage between stages two and three, and hence does not yet qualify as a unified new dialect.

In Ch. 4, ‘Developments in Texas German phonology’ (100–73), and Ch. 5, ‘Morphosyntactic developments in Texas German’ (174–238), the author compares his data to research from several decades ago to determine the changes that have occurred in the Texas German of the New Braunfels area. B’s database is much larger and more extensive than those of previous studies. The phonological and morphosyntactic generalizations for the Texas German studied in the book are based on selected phonological and morphosyntactic features well-known in German dialect research. The features used in this study include unrounding of front rounded vowels, affricated voiceless stops, the case system, and word order.

Ch. 5, ‘Language death and language maintenance’ (239–82), explores why Texas German has become ‘critically endangered’ and will be extinct by the middle of the twenty-first century. From his research into language attitudes among Texas German speakers, B concludes that while the last generation of Texas German speakers has a positive attitude towards Texas German, they paradoxically express reluctance to support concrete measures to promote the language. B attributes this reluctance to the long-time stigmatization of German in Texas.

Ch 6, ‘Conclusion’ (283–96) sums up various points. Texas German is dying out so rapidly that its structures have not had sufficient time to show features commonly associated with language obsolescence and approaching death. The last generation of aging native speakers use the language less and in ever fewer contexts. No coherent new variety of Texas German has had time to emerge. The task remaining is to collect and archive as much as possible of the language as a historical record and as the basis of further research.

The book finishes with an extensive bibliography and a very detailed index. Numerous clearly laid-out figures and tables as well as reader-friendly maps appear throughout the text. Typos, mistakes, missing bibliographic entries, and other editorial shortcomings mar but do not lessen the value of this informative and important addition to the study of the varieties of German spoken outside of Central Europe.