[breadcrumb]

Germans from Russia Symposium

North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
July, 1990

German Dialects of the Central Dakotas

Dr. Shirley Fischer Arends
McLean, Virginia
July, 1990


     Thank you Michael Miller for your introduction and for your invitation to speak here today. My lecture begins with the study of dialects in general and then continues with the insights and information gained from my research on the German dialect spoken in the Central Dakota area today.

     I would like to follow up on the seminar, "Recording Our Ancestors in Sight and Sound," taught by Dona Reeves-Marquardt and Lewis R. Marquardt this morning. Their work and the field methods, which they propose, are very important to us. We have a last unique opportunity to collect on audio and videotape the German dialects spoken by the Germans from Russia who immigrated to the United States.

     During the seminar this morning, many of you asked the question, "How do I know which dialect I speak?" This is an important question for many of you. I would like to try to help you find some answers to this question. I cannot teach the study of dialects, known as dialectology, in one brief hour. What I can do is give an overview of how the investigation of a dialect can be accomplished.

      Referring to the papers given to each participant at the symposium and included herewith as Attachment 1, you will find a series of sentences known simply as the 40 Wenker sentences. In 1876 in Germany, George Wenker developed this series of sentences, which he used to collect the sounds and forms of the various dialects of the German language until his death in 1911. His goal was the publication of a large linguistic atlas, which would describe and allow one to establish the site of all the dialect spoken in Germany. These 40 sentences became the standard tool, which German dialectologists have employed for several generations in their studies of the various dialects spoken in Germany and abroad. Because these Wenker sentences have been used for more than 100 years they have become an important standard, which we too can use.

      In looking at Attachment 1, you will see that the 40 Wenker sentences are given (a) in Standard High German, (b) in what I have termed the Central Dakota German dialect, that is the dialect spoken in the area from mid North Dakota to mid South Dakota, (c) in phonemic writing which holds the basic sound system of the Central Dakota German dialect, and (d) in English. (Attachment not available)

      In your interviews with dialect speakers, you can use the Wenker sentences in either Standard High German, line (a), or if you are not a German speaker, in English, line (d), whichever suits your own language ability. You say the sentence then the dialect speaker says it in his or her dialect. Be sure to tell the dialect speaker that there is no right way to say the sentence. They should think about it and express it as they would normally say it. You will find interesting differences in pronunciation, in words used, and in the way the sentence is structured.

      In collecting dialect tapes for publication I had to construct a way of putting the German dialect spoken in the center of the two Dakotas into writing since it is not a written language for any of us. What I have done is give the dialect, which I termed Central Dakota German, a written form. If you will look at line (b), this is what you are trying to record for your own dialect by making dialect tapes. It is the Central Dakota German dialect presented as a written language. It was previously only known as a spoken language. The Standard High German taught in the German schools in Russia and by the churches here in America was the written language.

      Line (c) is nothing you need to worry about. It is linguistics and it shows the phonemic sound system of the dialect. It is writing the sentence in its basic sound system. If you do not know how to pronounce the language, if you don't know how to speak the language, you can follow it by using the phonemic sentence. It is from identifying and creating this phonemic sound system that I was able to create a written language for our Central Dakota German dialect.

      When you are interviewing and recording, have the person express as much as he or she can in their dialect on each of the 40 Wenker sentences. That tape recording then can be saved as a permanent record of your dialect and your family's dialect, just as you make photographic or written records of your family.

      Eventually you should be able to give the recording to someone who knows dialectology and can interpret it for you. Because the Wenker sentences were sent to every school in German speaking Europe (except Switzerland), they have an incredible value in helping to determine where someone is from by the dialect they speak. We here in the Dakotas have not yet been "discovered" by German dialectologists. But they will come, and we will have begun the fieldwork before it is too late.

      A far more simple way to do a language study yourself is through the use of what is known as the Mitzka 200-word list. This is Attachment 2. This list of words is easy to use. Here you are not dealing with sentences; you are simply dealing with words, and a few brief phrases.

     The Mitzka list was developed by Walther Mitzka, who was a follower of Wenker. But Mitzka thought that Wenker did not give enough emphasis to synonyms. Synonyms are words that are different, but mean the same thing. The Mitzka 200-word list has been in use since 1939. It developed into the Deutsche Wortatlas or German Word Atlas, which has 22 volumes and took until 1972 to publish.

      In each of the German Word Atlas volumes are maps. I have with me two volumes of Mitzka dialect maps for you to examine. Each map is based on only one of the 200 words with the word given in Standard High German and then in all the many dialect variations (synonyms) while showing you geographically where each of the variations are located. This will enable you to find the historical location of your dialect word on a geographic map.

      You can select 10 or 12 or more words from the Mitzka list. In fact, you can let your dialect speakers choose words from the Mitzka list which they know in their dialect. The dialect speaker will say, Mir saqen's so, which means, "We say it this way". You will be amazed how well aware they are of dialect differences, of what the word is in Standard High German, and of how they express it. They will go on to tell you how someone they know says it yet another way. Again I have given all the samples in both Standard High German and English, and you can use either language to elicit the dialect word.

      Taking an example from the Mitzka 200-word list, one of the maps in this volume, which I have brought with me, contains the word Schwiegermutter or "mother-in-law". By looking at the map you can see the many different ways you can say Schwiegermutter and exactly where each is located geographically.

       There are several different ways of saying mother-in-law in German dialect. You can locate where the word your family uses is spoken. It is a geographical record. If you do this with your 12 different words each one on its own word map, you will start to isolate the geographic area in which your dialect keeps reappearing. You will see a pattern and you will find that your dialect speaker's words come from the same area of Germany. You will have come close to identifying the dialect and locating the general area from which your family originated.

      The Standard High German word Schwiegersohn for "son-in-law" becomes the word tochterman in the Central Dakota German dialect. The word tochterman contrasts with most other dialects and is a very good sample to use for identifying the Central Dakota German dialect as Swabian.

      I have two of the Mitzka volumes on loan here with me. I would like to contribute to the buying of the whole 22 volume set. It would be a wonderful resource in Michael Miller's archive here at the North Dakota State University Library. I receive only 10% from the sale of my book, The Central Dakota Germans: Their History. Language. And Culture, and I would like to use that money to help buy these volumes if that is possible, so that they would be available to people doing dialect research.
     
      As discussed at this morning's seminar we often use a different word than another dialect speaker. As one of the participants said, "We say, well you can say it your way, but I say it this way." Well those words that you say differently from someone else are the basis for using the Mitzka word list. Ask the people in your family who still know how to speak German about the words on this list and guaranteed they will know enough of them for you to come up with a distinct few to research. Those words will help answer some of your questions on which dialect you speak.

      This is rather basic, not enough to constitute a dialect study, but enough to address questions on your dialect that are simply unanswerable to most of you here today. There is not much I can do to teach linguistics and dialectology in one hour. I do hope you are able to get a flavor of what it is about and how you can contribute to making a record of our dialects before they disappear.

      What I am also suggesting to you is that you can do the genealogy of your family in a different way, complementing the genealogy of your family name, birth, and death records. I'm asking you to do the genealogy of your family by doing the genealogy of the words they speak. Your language contains your cultural heritage. If you lose your language and you lose everything that your language contained and preserved, you also lose your culture. We don't think about language that way. All of these old customs we still uphold could not have existed if they hadn't existed as part of the language. The dialect maintained your religious customs; it maintained the customs of the home, your proverbs, and your folk traditions like brauche. As Professor Jean Schweitzer asked at the end of his lecture yesterday, "How can you preserve your culture without keeping the language?"

      I found that the German dialect spoken in the center of the two Dakotas is Swabian. Am I right? Well that fits historically with our written and oral history, the history found in history books and history as lived and remembered by our old pioneers. It fits with our customs and traditions. If you no longer have the records and you only know where you came from in Russia, not Germany, you can find the general area in Germany from which your family emigrated by working on your language and on your customs and folk traditions. Your language and your customs and folk traditions are another way of investigating your family history.

      Someone asked at the seminar this morning, "Well, which is the right German?" They meant which is the Standard High German word. What we call Standard High German is the standardization of German resulting from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German. Before Luther's standardization of the language you found only the dialects spoken by the different groups or tribes of Germans like the Swabians, the Bavarians, the Saxons, Franks, etc. Not only was the dialect spoken by a group, but that group was part of the same small state or duchy. Germany was not united as one nation until 1871.

      On Attachment 3 you can see the names of all the dialects and where they are located. Once you have located the general area of Germany from which your dialect originates, this map will tell you the name of the dialect area. Each dialect has a value and each has its own distinct expression. It's not that one is better than the other. Dialects are local languages still spoken in the immediate community in the same areas where they have existed for hundreds of years. Standard High German is the standardization of German which is the common ground for all German speakers and for teaching German language in the schools, for reading and writing, for government and public life, for intellectual discourse.

      What you find in a dialect and particularly an old dialect like ours, are many old words that are from the Middle Ages and preserved in our language. Standard High German has often dropped these words, which also causes a difference between dialect and High German. We have retained and still use old words like peterlinge, our dialect word for parsley, or strele, our word for comb. These words are from the Middle Ages. We still say maistub mache. Many of you must know that expression. It is when you visit people, when you get together to chat, to talk. That expression again goes back to the Middle Ages, a time when the German language was quite different from that of modern Standard High German. It was then called majen. This lovely old expression still exists in our Dakota German language. We have preserved it in our dialect.

      There are also words like weib, which are still used today. People from Germany would say it is not a good word to use for woman because it is a little grob, a little coarse. They use the word Frau. But if you study German literature, sin wig is a well-known expression the knights used. How much more important and classical can words be than the expression sin wig from the age of knighthood. For the knights this expression was very important, as is the expression sein weib for us. It means the same beautiful thing. It is the woman you love, the woman who is a part of you. It is not just a legal state of matrimony, it is an identification, she is his wife. We do not use the Standard High German word Frau. We consider that a qrosstadt wort, that is a big city word and a woman who is a bit too fancy.

      An interesting thing to note about the Germans from Russia is that they are true bilinguals. I don't think we have focused on that. Many people come to America and they know one language. Here they learn English. For a brief span of time they know two languages. But for a very brief span of time, a generation, while they are switching from one to the other language. The Germans from Russia have always known two languages and think nothing of it. In fact they knew more than two languages. When they lived in Russia they had their own communities where they lived together and everyone knew the German dialect of the community. But everyone also knew the Standard High German language of their German schools. The Lutheran church particularly, but the Mennonite church and the Reformed all helped keep the language alive by having church services in that language. The story for the Catholics is all the more remarkable because Latin was the language used in their celebration of the Catholic Mass.

      The Germans from Russia knew not only their German dialect and Standard High German, but they also knew Russian. They learned the Russian language in their German schools. They used Russian when they were in the army; they used it in dealing with the government and with people in the market place. Most of the Black Sea and Bessarabian Germans could also speak a Romanian dialect known as Moldavian.

      In their homes they always spoke their German dialect, they never switched. The language of their schools was Standard High German. The language of the greater community in which they lived was Russian. They could speak Moldavian; they dealt with Romanians, Bulgarians, Turks, and others at the markets. When they came to America they were used to this linguistic situation having always spoken two or more languages. They didn't think that they had to immediately switch entirely to English. So when English was taught in the schools instead of German, the dialect could still live on. It didn't die. Our dialect had always been alive in the home and we kept it alive in the home.

      This is also one of the reasons why we have so many old beautiful words in our language. When we moved from Germany to Russia, we moved to what is called linguistic islands. It is like a shipwreck. There is no influence from elsewhere. They were isolated. They were not in Germany with the ongoing developments and changes in the language. They kept the language they had when they moved away from Germany, thus you find the many old words. We are basically speaking 18th century German dialects.

      What happens to a language when it comes into contact with another language? It is influenced by the other language if the contact is long and continuing. In Russia the Germans lived in their own separate communities. They knew Russian, studied it in language classes in their schools, but they were not under any pressure to be Russian speakers. Some foreign words entered the language, but because the Germans were in their own communities and because they had their own German schools, they picked-up few foreign words and these they simply added to their language. Attachment 4 is a word list of Russian, Romanian, and other foreign words, which crept into our language.

      For instance, one knew the word bastan or large garden was Russian. It was the "sod" garden where the crops that grew above ground such as watermelon, cucumber, pumpkins, yellow melons, corn, were planted. The vegetables that grew below ground, such as radishes, and the more delicate plants like lettuce, were grown in a soft earth garden known as der garten, "the garden." There is often a lot of meaning packed into a foreign word which is why it becomes so useful to add to the language.

      In the United States all the children went to the country school with the other American children and the language of the school was English. German was no longer used in the schools. They were under pressure to be English speakers. The English words learned at school began drifting into their German language. The surprising thing is that there is so little English in the Central Dakota German dialect.

      For instance, in the Wenker 40 sentences which I did with many different people, only two foreign words had crept into the German dialect, prairie and farm. One of the reasons for this is that the Wenker sentences are old, from 1876. Another reason is that they are from the time when Germany was more of an agrarian nation and we are an agrarian people. The vocabulary that Wenker was using is very similar to our own vocabulary which has remained unchanged. Prairie and farm were words that had to do with where they were living. Again, these are also words that contain a lot of meaning.

      The German dialect of the Central Dakotas remained unbelievably intact. Professor Kurt Rein from the University of Munich, responsible for two of the German word atlases, is well known in the field of socio-linguistics and dialect studies. When he listened to my tapes and to language speakers he could not believe how intact our Dakota German is and how this language still lives. One of the features that shows the strength of the Central Dakota German dialect is the fact that it has taken English words into the language and made them into German words.

      I would like to give you examples now of English words which have crept into the dialect. They don't show up in the Wenker sentences or Mitzka lists, but on the general conversation tapes. It is very important to make a standard tape like the 40 Wenker sentences and the 200 Mitzka words, but it is equally important to make general conversation tapes. Conversations that tell stories are helpful in retaining cultural heritage as well as for expressing language style, vocabulary, and meaning. Again, I won't go into how to record the conversation tapes as I could not improve upon the presentation given by the Marquardts.

      When researching oral history you will start to pick up on English words incorporated into our dialect, but you really need to be aware to be able to recognize them. As I said, one of the reasons experts find our dialect so strong is that these English words don't appear in the dialect as foreign words. You don't even realize they're English words. When you meet people who immigrated from Germany after World War II, you notice that they use English words differently. They speak German and then they simply insert English words. If you are a true dialect speaker from the Dakotas you do not simply add an English word to your sentence. You change it and you mold it and you make it German.

      I'll explain how this is done.

      For instance the word store. What do they do to the word 'store' to change it to the dialect word schtore? We don't have the phonemic sound "st" in German; "st" in German becomes "scht" and thus you have a German sounding word by making this phonemic change from "stor" to "schtor". They changed it to a German word with the same sound as is found in the word stein 'stone', or the German word most English speakers know, bierstein. Thus, the word appears in the language as if it belonged there.

      In dialect we say obstais for "upstairs". People think this is a German word, but it is not. It's the English word upstairs, but the dialect is so strong that it just pulls it in, remolds it, and it comes out as a German word.

      The German word gleichen is used to mean "to like". That's not the same meaning as the Standard High German word which means "like" in the sense of "to compare". Gleichen became the English word "like" in all of its meanings, one of which is "to like" as in "I like you" which the dialect expresses as Ich gleich dich.

     Another thing that happened is what linguists call diffusion. The early pioneer Germans from Russia who had gone to German schools wrote Fraktur, that is the old beautiful German script. When they were no longer taught to write the script in school they changed to the English system of writing. In Germany today they also write the Latin letters as we do in English instead of the old German script, but they kept the rest of the rules of writing of their German system, particularly capital letters on all nouns. We switched totally to the American English system and capitalize whenever they do.

      The dialect speakers also do what is technically called loan blending. The technical definition is not important. What it is, they borrow something from one language and blend it with something already in their own language. What is a strawberry? "Straw" means stroh in German so instead of saying the Standard High German word Erdbeere, "earth berry", they took the English "strawberry" and call them strohbeere.

      We also find mixed words which are half dialect and half English. They use zurick baecke. Zurick means to "go back" as does baecke which is simply the English word "back". They use the two together. Huehnerzaun is what you say in German for "chicken fence". Central Dakota German hehnerfence uses the German word "chicken" and the English word "fence".

      What is known as interference in the language is found in an expression like kalt kriege which means "catch a cold" in dialect. In Standard High German they say erkaelten. Dialect speakers know that in English you "catch a cold" so they changed it and now they can 'catch cold' in German too, kalt kriege. Kalt stands for "cold", kriegen means "to get". In a different type of interference English "raspberry" interferes with the Standard High German word Himbeere to give us the dialect word raspbeere.

      Another type of loan is simply a new coinage; dialect words like feierwuermle, which comes from "firefly" in English and Gluhwuermchen in Standard High German. They took the English and German and produced feierwuermle or "fire worm". Most dialect speakers know that a Heuschrecke is a "grasshopper" yet, they changed it to qrasshogfer. Using German grass and German hogfer to express English "grass" and "hopper" incorporated another new word into the dialect.

      A beautiful example of a new word is the example of the Standard High German word Sonnenblume. We have so many "sunflowers" in Dakota and they could have used a word which existed in their dialect. But, they changed it and called them sonnenrose. What a lovely expression, "sun roses". It could be because they had no roses here on the prairie and we all know how much the German women loved flowers.

      What is so amazing as one studies language is that language changes are not just thrown in and said differently as one pleases. They always follow a pattern. The basic dialect, its form and its pronunciation, is in control of the changes. The new words fit into the system of the language in a very orderly way.

      Another interesting fact about the Central Dakota German dialect which I found in my investigations, is that we still have the old German words for sickness. Er hat die sucht is what we would say in our dialect. We don't use the Standard High German word Krankheit for "sickness" or the Latin words which describe diseases. Research on the old vocabulary of disease and health is facilitated by one of the books written by Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie.

      Luther and Grimm did the most important work on the German language. Luther standardized German and Grimm investigated language and language change. How do dialects work? How do we determine and describe the language changes from one dialect area to another? This is a very large topic and needs more time than I have today.

      But to return to Jacob Grimm and the German words for illness, the words that he records as having been the old German words for sickness and disease are the very words we still use in our Dakota German dialect. In Grimm, I found that the words, which we use, are the original German words that had always been used. At some point at the beginning of the last century, they changed all the words to Latin so that medical terminology became international. Disease description and doctor's prescriptions are done in Latin in Germany as well as here. But when you go to our dialect, all the old words previously used in German are still preserved there.

      It so much reminds one of a relic. It's like finding a buried treasure and its old; you investigate, you scrape it off, and you say, "Look, look at this beautiful relic which I have found."

      What are some of these old ways of expressing disease? What does the word sucht mean? The word sucht was used to describe "diseases". Old German words for diseases generally had the suffix sucht, such as Gelbsucht "yellow jaundice". Sucht was considered in the Christian sense to be "God's will". But in pre-Christian understanding, it was the work of spirits. This belief in the working of spirits is what had caused diseases to become personified. They attack, they grab at you, they overcome you. People considered themselves to have fallen prey to the disease. The family would simply resign themselves and say, Ja, der hat die sucht. You knew it had him, it was his destiny.

      They used other words to personify, like the word for fever. They would not simply say, "He has a fever". They would say ER hat wildfeuer "He has the wild fire". The fever was a wild fire racing through the body. When you think about it, if you don't have any way to stop a fever and you are burning up, it is like a wild fire, racing and increasing. A fever could very well be thought of that way.

      How do you treat these personifications? Here is where we get into something, which we call brauche. How many of you have ever dealt with the healers, the brauchere in the community? I know Professor Timothy Kloberdanz has done a lot of work on where they were located and how this practice existed here on the prairie. My work is different and complements his investigations. Mine is the language of brauche, what does it mean, what are the actual verses, and how do you get into this meaning.

      I have brauche verses which I have collected from my grandmother and my mother, and from a well-known brauchere, Eva Dockter Iszler in Ashley. Eva was probably the most well known brauchere in recent times. I realized when I read the Grimm materials that a lot of the old words he discussed and regretted losing from the German language exist in our brauche verses. After years of research I can explain some of the fascinating story of brauche. We will never know it all for it is so old that it predates our concepts of time and place.

      The time today is too brief for me to tell you all I have found on the custom of brauche. I will therefore, explain the implications of only one of the verses I have collected.

      The words gichter "convulsions" and gedarm "intestines" could refer in some respects to colic according to Grimm. But at some point he says, it's more than colic, it is ruhr "dysentery". I will tell you about a verse for a child that is extremely sick with dysentery and colic, and his intestines could well be twisted in pain. I looked at the brauche verses after reading this in Grimm to see if I could find something comparable to his explanations. I found a brauche verse for darmgichter, a child's convulsions and colic in the intestines.

      A brauche verse has to be said three times. Every part of the ritual is done in threes. Even in pre-Christian times the Germanic people always had the belief that the number three was the ultimate religious symbol. We Christians have faith in the Holy Trinity, the powerful number three. The Christian brauchere simply added to the brauche verses the Christian blessing, Gott Vater, Gott Sohn. Gott Heiligergeist, "God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost".

      Here is the brauche verse for darmgichter in Central Dakota German dialect and in English.


Es stehen drei jungfrauen an dem sand
sie haben das gedarmverrenk on der hand
eine zu der rechte und die andere links
und die andere gerade aus.

Three virgins are standing on the sand
they have the entrails in their hand
one to the right, the other to the left
and the other straight ahead.

     The three virgins in the verse, standing one to the right, the other to the left, and the third straight ahead all holding the dislocated entrails or intestines, could well be the three Fates in classical Greek and Roman mythology who determine the length of the thread of life of each of us. Clotho who spins the thread of life, Lachesis who draws out the thread, and Atroos who cuts off the thread of life.

      The same concept appears as a part of Germanic mythology and here it is even closer to the verse above, almost an identification of the verse as early Germanic. In Grimm's book on German mythology we learn the three women were called norns or nornir. The oldest was named Urthur, she is what was, or the past. The middle one was Verthandi, what is, or the present. The third one and youngest was Schuld, what shall be, or the future. These three virgins allot to every man his term of life. The norns spin the threads of fate, and they stretch the golden cord; one norn to the east, another to the west, a third to the north.

      Compare this to the three virgins in the verse, one to the right, the other to the left, and the other straight ahead. The brauche verse is giving its due to the power of the three who decide the length of the child's life. In this acceptance of the power, she is asking for mercy.

      Grimm found the belief in the three nornir written in the Edda, which records the oldest oral stories of the Germanic people, the Germans and the Scandinavians. The Edda stories were written in the 13th and 14th century in Iceland but the oral stories contained in it date to the years 800 or 900 A.D. and before.

      If you study the brauche verses you are working with language which has been encapsulated in an earlier time because the verses have remained unchanged. They were memorized and retained, passed on as a secret to the chosen daughter who followed. You discover how old our language is and how old this cultural heritage is which rests in our language. The ancient culture is hidden inside the language of the verses.

      In closing I would like to ask you to join me, and begin your fieldwork and research. We have a lot of work to do. We cannot miss this last window of opportunity before our beautiful old dialects disappear and we lose much of our cultural memory along with them.

      Begin recording the dialect speakers in your family and in your community. Have them say the 40 Wenker sentences and be sure to remember to tell them that there is no right or wrong way to say them. There is simply the way that they would express them. Record dialect speakers and their choice of synonyms from the Mitzka word list. These will prove invaluable to you when trying to determine the origin of your dialect. Record verses and poetry and proverbs. You will find that the older pioneers as well as those whom I term the young pioneers because they were born on the prairies of Dakota, know many beautiful songs. Recording these songs is an important project which needs to be done.

      But most importantly, let them tell you their stories. Record our history as told by them in their own personal history which I call, the remembered past.

      It would be a strain to do all of this with one person at one sitting. You have to do it over several sessions. You will find, though, that people are just so thrilled and so grateful that you really care about their language and that you want to learn about the culture. They will begin to remember more as you work with them. You will find a lot of pain in their remembrance of incredible hardships, but you will also find happiness and a deep and abiding faith in God. This faith is the underpinning of the story of the Germans from Russia. Thank you.
Followed by a question and answer session.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
Libraries
NDSU Dept #2080
PO Box 6050
Fargo, ND 58108-6050
Tel: 701-231-8416
Fax: 701-231-6128
Last Updated:
Director: Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Library North Dakota State University North Dakota State University GRHC Home