The roots of the German language in North America go back to the time of early colonization. The presence of German speakers peaked in the 19th century, with some 9 million people speaking German in the U.S. alone, according to recent estimates. A side effect of the strong presence of German was the rise of the language as a lingua franca between different ethnic groups. European immigrant groups such as the Sorbs, Czechs, Alsatians, Jews, and emigrants from Austria-Hungary were previously considered special cases. The significant role of German for African-Americans who had German-speaking neighbors or lived among German immigrants has only recently been revisited. In Texas alone, there were many instances of African Americans learning German in the 19th and 20th centuries. But why did they acquire German? Was it solely for economic reasons? Or did the Germans differ from other groups in their attitudes toward slavery and segregation? Did the outsider role Germans assumed during World War I even contribute to a feeling of solidarity between the two groups?
Our collaborating researcher David Hünlich is currently on a DAAD fellowship in Texas to investigate these questions. Results of the historical-linguistic project will be documented and made available as part of "German in the World." A recent contribution on the topic in Germany’s public radio can be found here.