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.

The Thoughts of Mark Twain

Following on from the last post, it seems that Mark Twain had his own bit to say about English orthography, and notably proposed a reformation plan:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k”or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 orso modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the mainzov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

It wasn’t just English though that rubbed Twain up the wrong way. When in France he famously proclaimed: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” And upon finding a French translation of his own story which he deemed sub-standard, he proceeded to re-translate this French version of  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” into English, maintaining the French sentence structure and turns of phrase as a less-than-subtle mockery of the language of the frogs.

Here’s what a section looks like:

“It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

Finally, perhaps the language which got his goat the most was German. If ever in need of a pick-me-up, find a quiet spot and read Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, which is simply entitled ‘The Awful German Language‘.  In his witty, at times utterly hilarious style, Twain rants about the innumerable exceptions, the unmemorisable use of appropriate cases, the bizarre and illogical construction of the German sentence, the confusing adjectival declination, the never-ending word constructions and finally, the outright odd gender system whereby ‘turnip’ is feminine but ‘maiden’ is neuter.

To illustrate this latter point, Twain offers us a literal translation of the “Tale of the Fishwife and its sad fate” which starts like this (nouns are capitalised as in the German):

“It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward.”

I leave you to discover the Fishwife’s sad fate on your own as I continue to search out other such little treasures from Mark Twain’s cynical pen.