Language and Immigration Workshop at the University of Wisconsin, Part I

On Thursday September 24th we arrived at the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at about 9.30 a.m.. The Center is located right on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. Joe Salmons, the Director of the Center, welcomed us and served us with sodas and sweets.

The first lecture was held by Antje Petty and Kevin Kurdylo, Both of them work at the Max Kade Institute which explores issues of German-American Studies. They introduced us to the institute and their work. They are recording for instance old German documents in old German writing.

In their library they restore German books and other documents that had been brought to the USA by the first German settlers and immigrants. Furthermore, they also have German books that actually had been published in the USA to help the first settlers to feel comfortable and home and they mostly worked as a kind of guideline. These books are mostly about farming, religion, health and so on. It was very interesting to see how the people tried to help each other to become integrated fast. By their analysis of personal documents and letters the Max Kade Institute also got to know lots information about the feelings and struggle of the settlers in their new home. Also sound recordings of old German dialects told them more about the lives of German immigrants. The recordings offer information about religious life, schools, music organizations and other businesses. Furthermore, these dialects also tell scholars where from Germany the immigrants came from. Over all, German communities tended to be multi-lingual speaking English and German all together.

The second lecture was held by Mark Livengood.

He is actually a geographer who is mapping certain issues like historical language data. He told us about a small town in the state of Wisconsin which is called Hustisford. The 2000 census showed that from a total population of 1135 persons about 60% were of German descent and 6% of Irish descent. And 3% of the towns population was still speaking German. When it was founded a lot of immigrants from Germany and Ireland accumulated there. And so the German language was passed on from generation to generation. Some parents told their children how to speak German and even only spoke German at home. Mark Livengood now saw his task in reconstructing the places where these German speaking people actually had lived. His map showed that in 1910 there were at least 19% of the Hustisford population that were only German speaking and did not know a word of English. Moreover, also Irish and Anglo-American people learned how to speak German. And up to 1914 the churches of the village did not even allow English instructions and services, so English speakers were even forced to learn German in order to understand the service and other basics of their daily life in Hustisford.

The third lecture had been about the Relative Rates of Language Shift and was held by Felecia Lucht and Ben Frey. The explained in 1800 came a lot of Germans to Wisconsin and Milwaukee became the center of the German language. All in all, the German population made up 30% of the overall population in the 19th century. Shortly after, a language shift took place. Nevertheless, this shift happed faster in urban areas. In southeaster parts of Wisconsin 20% of the population had been German. These communities were also marked by close community ties offered by churches, schools or other extra activities. Milwaukee reached its peak in 1900 when there had been about 70.000 native Germans whereas in 1930 there were only 40.000 of them left. So there have always been huge German communities in this place. But according to the Network-Theory, community ties also influence language ties and might provoke even language shifts. The language shift is clearly shown by some figures: in 1918 there had been only 29 English services in a month in the churches of Milwaukee but by 1935 there were already about 90 Services held in English in the churches of Milwaukee. All together, there were also more than 500 books and newspapers published at the German publication peak in 1890 in Milwaukee. One of those newspapers was called “Watertown Weltbürger”. It had a steadily rising circulation: in 1870 it carried out about 1500 issues and in 1930 already 2180 issues. So one can probably see why Milwaukee was also often called “Small Germany”. And still today there are institutions to keep up the German background and history in Milwaukee. These institutions are mostly driven by either churches, parents or community-networks. So there is still a “Plattdeutscher und Schwäbischer Verein” and clubs that keep up German traditions. Although, only few of these clubs still exist they nevertheless help to keep the German language in Wisconsin alive.

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