The Central Dakota Germans: Their History, Language, and Culture

Review by Kurt Rein

Arends, Shirley Fischer. The Central Dakota Germans: Their History, Language, and Culture. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990.

Since the discovery of the fact that the ‘melting pot theory’ never worked the way it originally expected to, there has been a constant increase of investigation of the multi-ethnic roots of Americans.

The German ‘slice of the American pie’, as it was put at the Germantown tricentennial in 1983, has been well investigated throughout the years (except for the time of the two World Wars and the periods immediately following).

But whereas the famous Pennsylvania Dutch or the best known German settlements in Delaware and Wisconsin have been the focus from the very beginning, there has been less interest in the German-speaking groups that came from other countries than Germany proper: from Austria-Hungary, Poland, or Russia.

It was these Germans from secondary German settlements or ‘linguistic islands’ abroad who maintained their German language and other habits as much as one or two generations longer than the mainstream German immigrants from the Reich. Thus, recent research has turned these still existing secondary language groups, not only to the Germans from Russia, especially the Volga Germans, the Black Sea Germans, the Hutterites, and Swiss Mennonites, but also very recently to Austro-Hungarian Germans like the Bucovinians, etc. The book of Shirley Fischer Arends proves to be a landmark in this newly discovered area. It exhibits a high standard of investigation into the Germans of the American Midwest (esp. the Black Sea Germans) and shows as well a fresh approach to scientific and methodological procedure.

This book is an effective mixture of ethnohistorical research based both on oral history and ethnographic fieldwork. Arends transcends the ‘mere’ folkloristic description of habits and customs as she skillfully integrates recent sociolinguistic research and methodology, such as the ‘ethnography of speaking’ of Hymes and other sociolinguistic fieldworkers of the New World, with the traditional dialectology of European – especially German – standards.

Of the six chapters in the book, Chapter Three is entirely devoted to describing the dialect of the North Dakota Germans. As Arends clearly points out, this language consists of a mixture of two German dialects found in Russia, one spoken in the Black Sea area, the other, to the west, in Bessarabia. Both go back to Northern Swabia, the said place of origin of the majority of the know emigrants who went to Russia at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. The exactness with which linguistic proof of this’ general impression’ or tradition can be given by mere linguistic device is striking. Arends uses her data base elicited translations of the famous ‘Wenker-sentences’ and the ‘Mitzka word list’ into the North Dakota German vernacular and locates the ‘shibboleth’ (forms or words) on the corresponding maps of the German Linguistic Atlases (Deutscher Sprachatlas 1926 ff. and Deutsche Wortatlas). Her work has given substances to the old tradition.

In addition to the relevant linguistic data, Arends adds an extensive description of the traditional ways of life, from beliefs and superstitions to cooking and even more valuable oral traditions (e.g. songs, fairytales, sayings, proverbs) to give a detailed picture of this very special group among the Midwest Americans. Her work comes just in time before further amalgamation with mainstream (WASP) America obscures these ‘roots’. Arends also declares that one of her main issues is to contribute to the self-understanding and even pride of the German inheritance of the North Dakotans, thus enlarging the survival chances of their linguistic and nonlinguistic culture for another generation.

As can be expected with that ideal mixture of scientific thoroughness and populistic appeal, there will soon be another reprint; in this case some desiderata: There were some misprints in the Germans standard version of the sentences in the first printing; they have been corrected in the second. Better and larger maps – especially linguistic ones – could bring out more clearly the results of the research invested. Space (and printing costs) could be saved by omitting the full length quotation of some or most of the songs, especially Kirchenlieder, if they don’t vary from the generally known versions. Music historians could be very interested in the melodies and variations respectively of these songs too, but this is another task to be done in this field.


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