German language in the United States

Over 50 million Americans claim German ancestry, which makes them the largest single claimed ethnic group in the United States. Around 1.06 million people in the United States speak the German language.[6] It is the second most spoken language in North Dakota.[7] In 16 states, it is the most spoken language other than English and Spanish.[8]

American German
Amerikanisches Deutsch
RegionUnited States
EthnicityGerman Americans
Austrian Americans
Swiss Americans
Native speakers
1.06 million (2009–2013)[1]
Latin (German alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
German language by country in the US
German language spread in the United States, 2000
German speakers in the US
Decrease 2,267,128
Decrease 2,188,006
Decrease 1,589,048
Decrease 1,332,399
Decrease 1,201,535
Increase 1,586,593
Decrease 1,547,987
Decrease 1,383,442
^a Foreign-born population only[5]


German became the second most widely spoken language in the U.S. starting with mass emigration to Pennsylvania from the German Palatinate and adjacent areas starting in the 1680s, all through the 1700s and to the early 20th century. It was spoken by millions of immigrants from Germany, Switzerland, and the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, and their descendants. Many newspapers, churches and schools operated in German as did many businesses. The use of the language was strongly suppressed by social and legal means during World War I, and German declined as a result, limiting the widespread use of the language mainly to Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. After the First World War, German lost its position as the second most widely spoken language in the United States.[9][10]

German-language Methodist Church

Around 1800, two German-language Methodist churches were founded, the "Vereinigten Brüder in Christo" and the "Evangelische Gemeinschaft". Both used Methodist hymnals in German and published German newspapers, of which one existed until 1937. From the middle of the 19th century English was used as a second language in the churches, but there were regions in which German was the main church language into the 20th century. In 1937 both churches fused and joined the United Methodist Church in 1968.

German-language press

Bundesarchiv Bild 137-005795, Deutsche Zeitungen in Nordamerika
German newspapers in the U.S., 1922.
Don't Speak the Enemy's Language, Speak American
A 1940s-era poster discouraging the use of Italian, German, and Japanese.

The first German newspaper in the U.S. was der Hochdeutsch-Pennsylvanische Geschicht-Schreiber, oder Sammlung Wichtiger Nachrichten aus dem Natur- und Kirchen-Reich ("the High German-Pennsylvanian story-writer, or collection of important news from the realms of nature and the church"), later known as die Germantauner Zeitung.[11] It was a German-language paper, Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote that on July 5, 1776, was the first paper to report the American Declaration of Independence, and it did so in German translation. English readers would have to wait a day later to read the English text in the Pennsylvania Evening Post.

In the 19th century the German press increased in importance and the number of dailies exploded. In 1909 a report stated "every American city or town with a large German population possesses one or more German newspapers. In New York City there are twelve or more… the best… being…the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung. The Illinois Staats-Zeitung has nearly as large a circulation, and the Milwaukee Germania claims the largest circulation of all. The Milwaukee Herold comes not far behind. Philadelphia has its Demokrat, Baltimore its Correspondent, Cincinnati its Volksblatt, St. Louis…its…Die Westliche Post, where Joseph Pulitzer started his career, and Der Anzeiger des Westens." It also reported that compared to 17,194 English papers in the U.S. in 1900, there were 613 German ones. The next largest language group, the Scandinavian, had only 115.[11]

With repression of the German language during World War I, the German press in America was reduced dramatically.

Persecution during World War I

When the U.S. joined in World War I, an anti-German hysteria quickly spread in American society. German-Americans, especially immigrants, were blamed for military acts of the German Empire, and even speaking German was seen as unpatriotic. Many German-American families anglicized their names (e.g. from Schmidt to Smith, Schneider to Taylor, Müller to Miller), and German nearly disappeared in public. Many states forbade the use of German in public and the teaching of German in schools.

An extensive campaign forbade all things German, such as performing the music of German composers at symphony concerts. Language was the focus of legislation at state and local levels. It took many forms, from requiring associations to have charters written in English to banning speaking German within city limits. Some states banned the teaching of all foreign languages, though most only banned German. A bill was introduced in October 1918 to create a national Department of Education, intended to restrict federal funds to states that enforced English-only education. The Lutheran Church was divided by an internal battle over conducting services and religious instruction in German.[12]

On April 9, 1919, Nebraska enacted a statute called "An act relating to the teaching of foreign languages in the state of Nebraska," commonly known as the Siman Act. It provided that "No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language." It forbade foreign instruction to children who had not completed the eighth grade. A total ban on teaching German in both public and private schools was imposed for a time in at least fourteen states, including California, Indiana,[13] Wisconsin,[14] Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska. California's ban lasted into the mid-1920s. German was banned again in California churches in 1941. The Supreme Court case in Meyer v. Nebraska ruled that these laws were unconstitutional, but German never recovered its position as the second language in the United States. Pennsylvania's legislature passed a German-language ban, but it was vetoed by the governor.

Much of the animosity against German had to do with the Socialist, pacifist and isolationist tendencies of many German-Americans.

Dialects and geographic distribution

German speakers in the United States by states in 2000[15]
State German speakers
New York


Alsatian, (German: Elsässisch), is a Low Alemannic German dialect spoken by Old Order Amish in Allen County, Indiana and their daughter settlements. These Amish immigrated to the US in the mid 1800. There are fewer speakers of Alsatian in Indiana than of Bernese German, even though there are several thousand speakers. There are also speakers of Bernese German and Pennsylvania German living in the community. Most speakers of Alsatian also speak or at least understand Pennsylvania German. Speakers of Alsatian in Indiana are thus exposed to five languages or dialects: Alsatian, Bernese German, Pennsylvania German, Standard German and English.[16]


Amana German, West Central German dialect, is still spoken by several hundred people in seven villages in the Amana Colonies in Iowa, which were founded by Inspirationalists of German origin. Amana is derived from Hessian dialects.


Bernese German, (Standard German: Berndeutsch, Alemannic German: Bärndütsch) is a subdialect of High Alemannic German which is spoken by Old Order Amish in Adams County, Indiana and their daughter settlements. There are several thousand speakers of the dialect in the USA.


Hutterite communities in the United States and Canada speak Hutterite German, an Austro-Bavarian dialect. Hutterite is spoken in the U.S. states of Washington, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota; and in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.


There is also a significant population of Amish and Old Order Mennonites located in rural areas of Elkhart County and LaGrange County, Indiana, who speak Pennsylvania Dutch. A much smaller community of Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking Amish is found in Parke County, in western Indiana. Many English words have become mixed with this dialect and it is quite different from Standard German (Hochdeutsch), but quite similar to the dialect of the Palatinate region.

Usually, Pennsylvania Dutch (often just "Dutch" or "Deitsch") is spoken at home, but English is used when interacting with the general population. The Amish and Old Order Mennonites of northern Indiana often differentiate between themselves and the general population by referring to them, respectively, as the "Amish" and the "English", noting the difference in language. Pennsylvania "Dutch" is sometimes used in worship services, though this is more common among the Amish than the Mennonites. More mainstream (city) Mennonites may have a working knowledge of the language, but it is not frequently used in conversation or in worship services.

Parking meter checker stands by his police vehicle which is imprinted with the German word for police (Polizei). It is part of the town's highlighting its German ethnic origins. New Ulm, Minnesota, July 1974.


Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites and other Pennsylvania Germans speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania German (widely called Pennsylvania Dutch, where Dutch is used in its archaic sense, thus not limited to Dutch but including all variants of German).[17] It is a remnant of what was once a much larger German-speaking area in eastern Pennsylvania. Most of the "Pennsylvania Dutch" originate from the Palatinate area of Germany and their language is based on the dialect of that region.[18] While the language is stable among the Old Orders and the number of speakers growing due to the high birth rate among the Old Orders, it is quickly declining among the non-plain Pennsylvania Germans (also called Fancy Dutch).


Plautdietsch, a Low German dialect, is spoken by "Russian" Mennonites, who immigrated mostly to Kansas in the mid 1870. These Mennonites tended to slowly assimilate into the mainstream society over several generations, but Plautdietsch speaking Mennonite immigrants mainly from Mexico, where there is no assimilation, invigorated Plautdietsch in Kansas. Plautdietsch speaking Mennonite migrants from Mexico formed a new settlement in Seminole, Texas in 1977. In 2016 there were about 6,000 Plautdietsch speakers around Seminole.[19]


A dialect called Texas German based in the Texas Hill Country around the town of Fredericksburg still exists, but has been dying out since the end of World War II. Following the introduction of English-only schooling during both World Wars, Texas German speakers drifted towards English and few passed the language to their descendants.[20]


The various German dialects that were brought to Wisconsin did not develop into a leveled dialect form, like e.g. in South East Pennylvania, where Pennsylvania German as a leveled dialect emerged, but remained distinct.

German as the official US language myth

An urban legend, sometimes called the Muhlenberg legend after Frederick Muhlenberg, states that English only narrowly defeated German as the U.S. official language. In reality, the proposal involved a requirement that government documents be translated into German.[21][22] The United States has no statutory official language; English has been used on a de facto basis, owing to its status as the country's predominant language[23].

In Pennsylvania, which had a large German-American population, German was long allowed as the language of instruction in schools,[24] and state documents were available in German until 1950. As a result of anti-German sentiment during World War I, the fluency decreased from one generation to the next and only a small fraction of Pennsylvanians of German descent are fluent in the German language.

German-American tradition in literature

The ties between Germany and the United States having been historically strong has brought about a number of important literary authors.[25] In modern German literature, this topic has been addressed frequently by the Boston-born author of German and English lyrical poetry, Paul-Henri Campbell.

Use in education

According to a government-financed survey, German was taught in 24% of American schools in 1997, and only 14% in 2008.[26]

German is third in popularity after Spanish and French in terms of the number of colleges and universities offering instruction in the language.[27]

German language schools

See also



  1. ^ US Census Bureau American Community Survey (2009 - 2013) See Row #24
  2. ^ "Appendix Table 2. Languages Spoken at Home: 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2007". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
  3. ^ "Detailed Language Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for Persons 5 Years and Over --50 Languages with Greatest Number of Speakers: United States 1990". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved July 22, 2012.
  4. ^ "Language Spoken at Home: 2000". United States Bureau of the Census. Retrieved August 8, 2012.
  5. ^ "Mother Tongue of the Foreign-Born Population: 1910 to 1940, 1960, and 1970". United States Census Bureau. March 9, 1999. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
  6. ^ "US Census Bureau American Community Survey (2009-2013)" (XLS). Retrieved 2017-01-19.
  7. ^ "Language Map Data Center". 2013-04-03. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  8. ^ Blatt, Ben, Tagalog in California, Cherokee in Arkansas: What language does your state speak?, retrieved 2014-05-13
  9. ^ "FAST-US-1 Intro to American English Reference File". 2013-02-24. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  10. ^ "The War on German Language and Culture, 1917-1925 by Paul Finkelman :: SSRN" (PDF). 2009-11-17. SSRN 1507122. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  11. ^ a b Albert Bernhardt Faust, The German Element in the United States
  12. ^ Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 176–85, 190–3
  13. ^ "When Indiana Banned German in 1919 | Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana's Digital Newspaper Program". 2015-08-26. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  14. ^ "Expression Leads to Repression | Wisconsin Historical Society". Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  15. ^ "Table 5.Detailed List of Languages Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over by State: 2000" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. February 25, 2003. Retrieved October 3, 2012.
  16. ^ Chad Thompson: The Languages of the Amish of Allen County, Indiana: Multilingualism and Convergence, in Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 69-91
  17. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  18. ^ Smith, pp. 68-69, 84-85.
  19. ^ Roslyn Cherie Burns: New World Mennonite Low German. An Investigating of Changes in Progress.Berkeley, 2016, page 26.
  20. ^ O'Connor, Kyrie (2013-03-10). "Texas German dying out: language of settlers aging with its users". San Antonio Express-News. Retrieved 2013-06-02.
  21. ^ "Did Hebrew almost become the official U.S. language?". January 21, 1994. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
  22. ^ Dennis Barron (March 1996). "Urban Legend: German almost became the official language of the US". soc.culture.german. Retrieved 2008-12-19.
  23. ^ Harmeet Kaur (June 15, 2018). "FYI: English isn't the official language of the United States". Retrieved November 27, 2018.
  24. ^ "Some states mandated English as the exclusive language of instruction in the public schools, while Pennsylvania and Ohio in 1839 were first in allowing German as an official alternative, even requiring it on parental demand". Archived from the original on 2010-06-24. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  25. ^ "duktus operandi". duktus operandi. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  26. ^ Dillon, Sam (20 January 2010). "Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  27. ^ "New MLA Survey Shows Significant Increases in Foreign Language Study at U.S. Colleges and Universities" (PDF). Modern Language Association. 2007-11-13. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
  28. ^ "Home". Cincinnati Public Schools. Retrieved 2014-03-27.
  29. ^ "Home". German Language School Cleveland. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  30. ^ "Welcome to Ohio German Language School". 2011-09-19. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  31. ^ "German School Phoenix — German Saturday School". 2015-10-23. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  32. ^ Goethe-Institut: USA
  33. ^ "Milwaukee German Immersion School — Just another MPS School Sites site". 2012-03-17. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  34. ^ "German International School Chicago".
  35. ^ "Encyclopedia of Cleveland History:WAECHTER UND ANZEIGER". Retrieved 2013-11-08.


Further reading

  • Gilbert, Glenn G. (ed.). The German Language in America: A Symposium. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.
  • Kloss, Heinz (1998) [1977]. The American Bilingual Tradition (reprint ed.). McHenry, Ill.: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems. ISBN 1-887744-02-9.
  • Salmons, Joe (ed.). The German Language in America, 1683-1991. Madison, Wis: Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1993.

External links

  1. ^ Halverson, Rachel; Costabile-Heming, Carol Anne (2015). Taking Stock of German Studies in the United States: The New Millennium. Rochester: Camden House. ISBN 9781571139139.
AP German Language and Culture

Advanced Placement German Language and Culture (also known as AP German Language and Culture, AP German Language or AP German) is a course and examination provided by the College Board through the Advanced Placement Program. This course is designed to give high school students the opportunity to receive credit in a college-level German language course. It is generally taken in the fourth year of high school German study.

Amana German

Amana German (German: Amana-Deutsch or Kolonie-Deutsch) is a dialect of West Central German that is still spoken by several hundred people in the Amana Colonies in Iowa.

The Amana Colonies were founded in 1856 by Inspirationalists of German origin who came from West Seneca near Buffalo in New York. Amana is derived from the Hessian dialect, which is a West Central German dialect. There are seven villages in Amana with slightly different dialect features.

Even though the use of the language is in decline, it is far from being moribund. There are several major studies about the language of Amana.

Fancy Dutch

The term Fancy Dutch or Gay Dutch refers to the Pennsylvania Germans who do not belong to the Anabaptist churches. They, unlike the Amish, conservative Dunkards, or Old Order Mennonites, do not wear plain clothing, nor do they refuse to fight in wars. Many popularly associated characteristics of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, including spielwerk, hex signs, and other aspects of Pennsylvania Dutch art, music, and folklore, are derived from the Fancy Dutch. The tourism industry and mainstream media often erroneously attribute such contributions to the more conservative Plain Dutch, though they would reject these aspects of their more worldly Fancy counterparts.

For most of the 19th century, the Fancy Dutch far outnumbered the Plain groups among the Pennsylvania Dutch. But since the two World Wars and the subsequent suppression of the German language in the US, there was a huge pressure on the Pennsylvania Germans to assimilate. Today however, most Pennsylvania German speakers are members of Plain groups, while the Fancy Dutch have mostly been assimilated into the larger culture of the United States. While Plain Dutch communities are centered on Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and Holmes County, Ohio, the Fancy Dutch live in the countryside surrounding Reading, Allentown, York and Lebanon.

Frederick Muhlenberg

Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg (; January 1, 1750 – June 4, 1801) was an American minister and politician who was the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. A delegate to the Pennsylvania state constitutional convention and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and a Lutheran pastor by profession, Muhlenberg was born in Trappe, Pennsylvania. His home, known as The Speaker's House, is now a museum and is currently undergoing restoration to restore its appearance during Muhlenberg's occupancy.[1]

German American School

The German American School of Portland, Oregon, offers a dual language program in German and English for preschool to 5th grade. It is one of the five schools in the United States accredited by the Federal Republic of Germany's Zentralstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen, Federal Office of Administration. 170 students from 25 nations attend school each day. The school offers full day and half day options for preschool, before-school care, extended care, after school programs, and music lessons on site. It is located at 3900 SW Murray Blvd., Beaverton, Oregon.

Preschoolers and kindergartners are introduced to the German language as a part of creative and playful activities, so that they are comfortable with bilingual instruction as they enter the first grade. Classes are also offered for adults. Upon completion of the fifth grade, students are eligible to attend a partner school, Gilkey International Middle School, of the French American International School, which offers German-language instruction in language arts and social studies.On Saturdays, the school rents out its facility to a German Immersion Saturday school that is named for Sophie Scholl, a young woman who resisted the Nazis.In 2006, the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders of the German American School were among 100 winning schools in a poetry contest, and were awarded a free trip to Europe their German poems about soccer.In 2011, the German-American School opened its SolarLab and solar panel displays to the public.

Herman Ridder

Herman Ridder (March 5, 1851 – November 1, 1915) was an American newspaper publisher and editor.

Hutterite German

Hutterite German (German: Hutterisch) is an Upper German dialect of the Bavarian variety of the German language, which is spoken by Hutterite communities in Canada and the United States. Hutterite is also called Tirolean, but this is an anachronism.

List of most commonly learned foreign languages in the United States

The tables below provide a list of foreign languages most frequently taught in American schools and colleges. They reflect the popularity of these languages in terms of the total number of enrolled students in the United States. (Here, a foreign language means any language other than English, and includes American Sign Language.)

Meyer v. Nebraska

Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), was a U.S. Supreme Court case that held that a 1919 Nebraska law restricting foreign-language education violated the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Muhlenberg legend

The Muhlenberg legend is an urban legend in the United States and Germany. According to the legend, the single vote of Frederick Muhlenberg, the first ever Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, prevented German from becoming an official language of the United States. The story has a long history, and has been told in several variations, which may be based in part on actual events.

The United States however has no statutory official language; English has been used on a de facto basis, owing to its status as the country's predominant language. At times various states have passed their own official language laws.


The National-Zeitung (NZ, National Newspaper) is a weekly, extreme right newspaper, published by Gerhard Frey, who also founded the far right Deutsche Volksunion (German People's Union) as an association in 1971, turning it into a political party in 1987.

The newspaper was first published in 1951 as the Deutsche Soldaten-Zeitung, came under Frey's control in 1959, was renamed Deutsche National-Zeitung und Soldaten-Zeitung in 1960–61 and Deutsche National-Zeitung in 1963. In 1999 the newspaper was merged with another of Frey's publications, the Deutsche Wochen-Zeitung – Deutscher Anzeiger, and became the National-Zeitung.

The Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution classifies the National-Zeitung as propagating a xenophobic, nationalist and revisionist world view.

National German-American Alliance

The National German-American Alliance (NGAA; German: Deutschamerikanischer National-Bund), was a federation of ethnic German associations in the United States founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 6, 1901. Charles John Hexamer was elected its first president, and served until 1917. The mission of the NGAA was to "promote and preserve German culture in America"; it essentially sought to resist the assimilation of Germans in America. At the peak of its growth, around 1916, the national organization had chapters in forty-five states, and the District of Columbia, and a membership of approximately 2.5 million people.A professional movement, the NGAA promoted German language instruction in school, the foundation of educational societies, including the German American Historical Society, and the publication of histories and journals to demonstrate "the role German-Americans had played in the development of the United States."

Standard American German

Standard American German is a mix of historical words, English loan words, and new words which connect together a standard version of the German language used by the non-Amish or Mennonite descendants of the original pre-20th century German immigrants in the United States.

Texas German

Texas German (German: Texasdeutsch) is a group of German language dialects spoken by descendants of German immigrants who settled in Texas in the mid-19th century. These "German Texans" founded the towns of Bulverde, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Boerne, Walburg, and Comfort in Texas Hill Country, Muenster in North Central Texas, and Schulenburg, Brenham and Weimar to the east.

Wisconsin German

The term Wisconsin German refers to both Wisconsin High German and to heritage dialects of German spoken in Wisconsin. By 1853 a third of Wisconsin's population was coming from German-speaking lands; by the end of the 19th Century, Wisconsin's largest minority of non-English speakers were German speakers. Unlike other heritage languages, which tend to become moribund by the third generation, Wisconsin German speakers have maintained their heritage language(s) alongside English for multiple generations, from the 1840s to well until the mid-20th century. This is due in part to their immigration patterns: the German immigrants tended to settle within ethnically homogeneous (or similar) communities, with similar linguistic, cultural, and geographic backgrounds. Additionally, the maintenance of the language was supported by German being taught and used in many local churches, schools, and the press. While Wisconsin German retains many standard and/or dialectal features of German, it has not only incorporated some linguistic elements of English, but also developed unique and innovative (morphosyntactic, syntactic, lexical) characteristics of its own. By the early mid-20th century, social, political and economic factors, such as urbanisation, contributed to a general shift from German to English.

Oral Indigenous
Manual Indigenous
Oral settler
Manual settler
Immigrant languages
(number of speakers
in 2010 in millions)

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