German in the USA

When we were driving up through Wisconsin last year, flicking between local radio channels, we came across what sounded like yodelling and turned out to be a whole channel dedicated to Germanic music. This was amusing for a while, and then a bit confusing. How on earth did a local radio station survive playing what sounded like early-20th century traditional German country music for hours on end?

Well it turns out that there’s a public for it in Wisconsin. I don’t know what the exact figures are, but when millions of German immigrants came over to the USA in the 19th century, a good bunch of them settled in Wisconsin. We even heard rumours of local people (born in the US) speaking English with a German accent, although disappointingly never met any.

Then recently I came across an article on mental floss about a particular Wisconcin town where census data revealed that German was still being widely spoken in the 1910s, half a century and 3 generations after the original settlers arrived. Village life went on as it did everywhere else, but in German. I guess in the pre-mass communication, pre-higher education age you didn’t much need to communicate with anyone else outside of your own community, so if English didn’t come to you, you didn’t go seeking it out either.

This odd situation dissipated with the arrival of WW1 and anti-German sentiment, and presumably also with radio communication which introduced English into homes. This was also when German lost its position as the second most widely spoken language in the United States. Someone though clearly got on that radio bandwagon in Wisconsin and started a German radio station, which was maybe, just maybe, an ancestor of the one that we heard as we drove up to the Land of a Thousand Lakes.

In the same German vain, did you know that Benjamin Franklin published the first German-language newspaper in North America, the Philadelphische Zeitung, in 1732? And that German was still the second most spoken language in North Dakota in 2010? (Check it out through the Language Map Data Center) Or that the first Germans to cross the Atlantic in 1683 established a community called Germantown which is today part of Philadelphia?

In any case, if you’re a lonely German speaker in Wisconsin, I would invite you to check out the German Wisconsin Community Facebook page for Deutsche-themed events.


2 thoughts on “German in the USA

  1. Actually, visiting my grandma’s farm in WI in the 1970’s and 80’s, German was still widely spoken albeit by the older generation. So that “particular ” WI town was commonplace in 1910, since it was fairly common 60-70 years later. Danke Schon!

    Robert Schmitz

    • Thanks Robert, yes I’m sure the phenomenon was more widespread than just the town mentioned in that one recent study, in fact I just checked the MLA Language Map Data Center and it looks like although numbers are falling, there are still almost 37,000 German speakers in WI!

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