Professor Talks About Differing Dialects

Leiker, Joy. "Professor Talks About Differing Dialects." Hays Daily News, 16 February 2001.

Thursday morning was more than just another lecture about the German language for William Keel.

He said his visit to northwest Kansas was “like the prophet coming back to the mainland ­ and everybody is ready to throw rocks at him.”

Keel, professor of Germanic languages at the University of Kansas, was the featured speaker during the week of festivities commemorating the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the Volga Germans ­ ethnic Germans who had settled the Volga River region of Russia.

He has researched various German dialects in Kansas and continues his studies each year with regular trips to Germany.

More than 60 people, including a large number who had grown up in these Volga-German settlements, gathered on the Fort Hays State University campus for Keel´s presentation.

At one point, a man in the front row cautioned the Lawrence professor as he started to talk about some of the differences in the Victoria-area dialects.

“Be careful, I´m from Victoria,” he said with a laugh.

But Keel said his research, especially recordings of conversations with area residents, are some of his best references.

And when the 1990 Census indicated that less than 40 percent of Kansans claimed any German ancestry, Keel said that was disheartening news.

“For me, that´s like the loss of a natural resource,” he said.

Specifically, he examined some of the differences and similarities in the dialects of the area Volga-German settlements, including Catherine, Victoria, Munjor, Schoenchen, Pfeifer and Liebenthal.

And while some would call the local dialects “sloppy,” Keel said he has found tendencies in the language that reflect a variety of social situations.

He noted that the area reflects “a very complex mix” of people that moved from settlements along the Volga River to Kansas.

Some of the most simple phrases and words, such as “I am” or “soap” have as many as 10 different noted translations just from the communities in Ellis and Rush counties.

“You have to start putting all the different pieces of the puzzle together,” Keel said. “Each of these villages had its own language, plus its own grammar.”

Historically, the Victoria dialect has been noteworthy because the past participles were dropped from the end of phrases. But Keel said there were a number of settlements in Germany that reflected the same tendency.

Keel said many of the discrepancies in the local dialects have been traced to the original settlements in Germany.

For instance, Keel said he suspects that Volga Germans didn´t have potatoes when they lived in Germany. But once they migrated to Russia, they were probably introduced to spuds and ultimately adapted the Russian word for potatoes.

Leona Pfeifer, a local language historian, said she had always joked that her husband Ed was “bilingual” since he was able to adapt his German to communicate with both his family and her family.

Those “mixed marriages,” as Keel called them, of two people from different German communities, created an even more unique dialect in some areas.

And although he has concluded that all of the Ellis County dialects are derived from middle Germany, he said it is natural to have several differences in the local language.

“A lot of these languages have undergone two transplants,” Keel said.

Reprinted with permission of The Hays Daily News.

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