German: The Language of Our Ancestors

By Sylvia M. Hertel, 2015.

I’m no expert on linguistics, nor on the German language, but having grown up with parents whose first languages were two different dialects of German, I’ve had to learn a little about the differences between them.  In high school, we were told there were 58 dialects within today’s boundaries of Germany.  Many of those dialects are unintelligible to each other.  High German is the official dialect, since Martin Luther declared it as such in the early 1500’s, or at least, that’s what we were taught.  The history of the German language is somewhat confusing.  Supposedly, the High German originated in the upper elevations of Germany, thus the term “high”, which would be in southern Germany, but many think of it as originating in the northern parts.

My mother, having come directly from Germany, spoke High German, and my father’s first language, having come out of the German-Russian culture, was Schwabien German, considered to be a Low German dialect.

After WWII, my mother’s family came back to the U.S, one and two at a time, as they were allowed.  My mother and her younger brother, born in the U.S. to German immigrants (my grandparents, who ended up returning to Germany during the depression), still had unquestioned U.S. citizenship, so they came back first.  They had never learned English, so they were especially pleased to learn their sponsors spoke German fluently.  Their sponsors, and their community, McLaughlin, S.D., were equally excited to have people who were directly from Germany coming into their area.  On the day my mother and her brother arrived, of course, their sponsors were there to greet them, but much to the shock of both parties, their greetings were unintelligible to each other.  Neither understood what the other was saying.

The German-Russians had very strong feelings about maintaining the purity of their culture, including their language, both in S. Russia and in the U.S.  I always questioned their actual ability to accomplish that in light of the many contacts they had with several other languages.  The fact that my great grandfather, Johann “John” Hertel, spoke at least five languages fluently, and still others not so well, is testament to the number of other languages they met.

In the early 1980’s, my sister’s husband was stationed at an Army instillation in, I think, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and if not there, in a very near-by location, and of course, my sister joined him there.  My parents decided this was a good opportunity to go back to visit.  It had been nearly 40 years since Mom left there.  So, they went to visit my sister and her family first, then went north to the Lüneberger Heide, where my mother grew up, to visit with family she still had there.  In planning this trip, Mom and Dad had agreed, when it came to business, that is, talking to waiters, asking directions, etc., Mom would do the talking, since she had grown up there.

A couple of days before it was time to go north, they went to the train station to buy their tickets.  Mom told the clerk where they were going, but he tried to route them to a different city.  So, Mom repeated the name of the town, but he still didn’t understand her.  Obviously, Mom and Dad had forgotten the lesson they learned almost 40 years previously.  Mom and the clerk went back and forth for about 15 minutes, when Dad realized he understood the clerk perfectly.  He stepped in, telling the clerk in the Schwabien German he grew up with, their town of destination.  The clerk understood him perfectly, and started processing their tickets, while he and Dad continued to converse.  It had been almost 200 years, and two major migrations since his ancestors left there!

When Mom and Dad got home, Mom had to tell the story.  Us kids all roared over it, and Dad’s buttons were popping with pride, but knowing the story around the dialects, and those Mom told me when I was a kid, I think I was most impressed with the fact that Dad and the clerk understood each other so perfectly.  How did our ancestors manage to keep the language of their culture that pure?

In doing my family’s research, I’ve found myself all over Germany, practically speaking.  What I’ve noticed is there isn’t that much difference in spelling between the dialects.  The Germans have to know only a few basics in linguistics to be able to understand the written German in another dialect.  For instance, w, f, b, and p are all interchangeable.  So the surname Riewesel, can also be spelled Riefesel, Riebesel and Riepesel.  The real difference between the dialects is in the pronunciation of the vowels, such as ~eu is pronounced ~oi , as in boil, in High German, where it is pronounced ~ie, as in bike, in Schwabien German.

When coming to the U.S., our German ancestors often altered the spelling of their surnames to get the proper sound with English, and they had to get rid of the umlauts and etszets, because those letters don’t exist in the English alphabet.  So Kräntzler or Kränzler, in Germany, became Kranzler or Krenzler in the U.S., and Groß, in Germany, became Grosz, or Gross in the U.S.

Also, there is no “h” in the Cyrillic alphabet of Russia, so they replaced it with “g”.  Fortunately, those people in the German-Russian organizations, who transcribed the German surnames from the Russian language, accommodated for that problem, so we don’t have to worry about that spelling variation.

Hertel is often spelled Härtel in Germany, and in the U.S., Hartel, Harttel, Hartell, Hertle, Herdle, Hirtel, etc.  My 4th great grandfather, Johann Georg, who was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden, was responsible for a number of the variations found in my line while they were in S. Russia.  Although he was born with the spelling of Hertel, his son Franz Friedrich, got the spelling of Hertle, and his daughter, Juliana, who married Georg Rohrbach, got the spelling of Herdle., but for her it didn’t matter that much, because when she was married, the spelling of her maiden name was a moot point.

My father told me one time the story of the Hertel spelling change in the U.S.  His grandfather, Johann “John” (born in S. Russia), told him that my 2nd great grandfather, Jacob, Franz Friedrich’s son, decided the spelling he was born with, Hertle, was a bunch of nonsense, so when they came to the U.S., he changed it back to Hertel.

This story of the variations of the Hertel spelling also underlines the importance of passing down the stories of our ancestors to the next generation.  It’s an invaluable aid in the preservation of our culture, but we should also understand the ins and outs of their language, which they worked so hard to preserve in its purity, and through the assimilation process, we as their descendants, are losing touch with.


Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller