LAWRENCE – Each fall, communities throughout Kansas and the Midwest mark their German heritage and affection for beer with Oktoberfest celebrations. For decades, a University of Kansas professor has studied the lasting legacy of the region’s large influx of German immigrants and the many dialects of language they brought with them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, after Spanish, German is the second most common non-English language spoken in homes in Kansas and most other Midwest states. In a cluster of counties in Kansas, German is even more common than Spanish.
William Keel, a professor of Germanic literature and languages, has tracked the immigrant populations that brought multiple dialects of German to Kansas throughout the 19th century. And he has studied the descendants of German immigrants who continue to speak the language.
Keel and other KU scholars have complied an online database, the Linguistic Atlas of Kansas German Dialects, which contains sound recordings of Kansans speaking in German dialects, maps of where German is most commonly spoken in the state and other historical information. Keel and his team are working to expand the website to include samples of German dialects collected in Missouri.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, German-speaking immigrants came to Kansas from colonies in Pennsylvania and other eastern states and the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. They were drawn to the region for varying reasons from Kansas’ abolitionist leanings to the prospects of free or cheap land made available through the Homestead Act and expansion of transcontinental railroads.
The multiple waves of German immigrants brought with them different regional dialects and religious affiliations.
In these German communities, German was spoken in churches, taught in schools and used in more than 120 newspapers and periodicals circulating in Kansas between 1885 and 1910.
While strong anti-German sentiment during World War I accelerated German immigrants and their families’ transition to English, Keel said that Henry Ford had a greater role in the decline of the use of German than Kaiser Wilhelm.
“It was based more on the increased mobility of the population and the movement from rural areas to urban areas,” Keel said.
With the exception of Older Order Amish, who continue to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, nearly all the immigrant communities who came to Kansas in the 19th century have fully transitioned to English. For many German-speaking communities, English became the majority language before World War I. However, in a few communities, German remained the dominant language until the 1930s and even as late as the 1950s.
Today, different German dialects can still be heard in older generations of Kansans. Keel found that those born after 1960 have practically no experience with their ancestor’s German dialect.
The recent arrival of a new set of immigrants has brought renewed life to German spoken in Kansas. Traveling from Mexico and up through Texas, several thousand Mennonites from colonies in the Mexican province of Chihuahua have come to southwest Kansas as farm laborers and meat packing workers. Leaving southern Russia in the late 19th century, the group immigrated to Canada and then to Mexico. Keel’s research of these newly arrived German immigrants found that at home, the language of everyday use is Plautdietsch. While schools are taught in English, some church services continue to be held in German.
While German usage in Kansas has largely faded, the legacy of the immigrants who spoke it remains. Keel points to town names in Kansas – Dresden, Humboldt, Bern and Stuttgart – that reflect their settlers’ heritage.
Even more striking, Keel said, are the rich variety of religious denominations and their places of worship. The religions include German Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, Evangelical and Reformed Protestant churches, Older Order Amish and Old German Baptists.
Another unmistakable sign of German influence is the continued popularity of foods such as lebkuchen, springerli and bierocks throughout Kansas.