German language in the United States

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German language spread in the United States, 2000
German speakers in the US
Decrease 2,267,128
Decrease 2,188,006
Decrease 1,589,040
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[4]

Although over 50 million Americans claim German ancestry, which makes them the largest single ethnic group in the United States, only around 1.38 million people in the United States speak German.[5] It is the second most spoken language in North Dakota.[6] In 16 states, it is the most spoken language other than English and Spanish.[7]


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.[8][9]

German-language Methodist Church[edit]

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 newspapers in the U.S., 1922.

German-language press[edit]

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.[10] 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 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.[10]

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

A poster of WWII era discouraging the use of Italian, German, and Japanese.

Persecution during World War I[edit]

When the U.S. joined in World War I, an anti-German attitude formed quickly in American society. German-Americans, especially immigrants, came to be blamed for the aggression of the German Empire. Speaking German was seen as unpatriotic. Frankfurters were renamed hot dogs. Many families anglicized their last names (e.g. from Schmidt to Smith, Schneider to Taylor, Müller to Miller etc.), and German disappeared nearly everywhere from the public arena. Many states forbade the use of German in the public sphere as well as the teaching of German.

The extensive campaign extended against all things German, such as the performance of German music at symphony concerts and the meetings of German-American civic associations. Language was a principal focus of legislation at the state and local level. It took many forms, from requiring associations to have charters written in English to a ban on the use of German within the town limits. Some states banned foreign language instruction, while a few banned only German. Some extended their bans into private instruction and even to religious education. A bill to create a Department of Education at the federal level was introduced in October 1918, designed to restrict federal funds to states that enforced English-only education. An internal battle over conducting services and religious instruction in German divided the Lutheran churches.[11]

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 imposed restrictions on both the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction and on foreign languages as a subject of study. With respect to the use of a foreign language while teaching, 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." With respect to foreign-language education, it prohibited instruction of children who had yet to successfully complete the eighth grade. Teaching German, even in private schools, was forbidden in Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska. There was a Supreme Court case (Meyer v. Nebraska) which ruled those laws unconstitutional, but German never recovered as the second language of public life in the U.S.

Dialects and geographic distribution[edit]

German speakers in the United States by states in 2000[12]
State German speakers
New York

Pennsylvania Dutch[edit]

The Amish and other Pennsylvania Germans speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania German (also called Pennsylvania Dutch, where Dutch is used in its archaic sense, thus not limited to Dutch but including all variants of German).[13] 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.[14]


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.[citation needed] 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.


Main article: Texas German

There is a dying dialect called Texas German based in the Texas Hill Country in the vicinity of the town of Fredericksburg.[citation needed]


Main article: Hutterite German

Hutterite communities in the United States and Canada speak Hutterite German, an Austro-Bavarian dialect.[citation needed] 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.

German as the official US language myth[edit]

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.[15][16] 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[citation needed].

In Pennsylvania, which had a large German-American population, German was long allowed as the language of instruction in schools,[17] and state documents were available in German until 1950.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

German-American tradition in literature[edit]

The ties between Germany and the United States having been historically strong has brought about a number of important literary authors.[18] 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[edit]

According to a government-financed survey, German was taught in 24% of American schools in 1997, and only 14% in 2008.[19]

German is third in popularity after Spanish and French in terms of the number of colleges and universities offering instruction in the language.[20]

German language schools[edit]


See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Appendix Table 2. Languages Spoken at Home: 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2007.". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  2. ^ "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. 
  3. ^ "Language Spoken at Home: 2000". United States Bureau of the Census. Retrieved August 8, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Mother Tongue of the Foreign-Born Population: 1910 to 1940, 1960, and 1970". United States Census Bureau. March 9, 1999. Retrieved August 6, 2012. 
  5. ^ US Census 2000
  6. ^ "Language Map Data Center". 2013-04-03. Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  7. ^ Blatt, Ben, Tagalog in California, Cherokee in Arkansas: What language does your state speak?, retrieved 2014-05-13 
  8. ^ FAST-US-1
  9. ^ "The War on German Language and Culture, 1917-1925 by Paul Finkelman :: SSRN". 2009-11-17. Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  10. ^ a b Albert Bernhardt Faust, The German Element in the United States
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ "Table 5.Detailed List of Languages Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over by State: 2000". United States Census Bureau. February 25, 2003. Retrieved October 3, 2012. 
  13. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  14. ^ Smith, pp. 68-69, 84-85.
  15. ^ "Did Hebrew almost become the official U.S. language?". January 21, 1994. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  16. ^ Dennis Barron (March 1996). "Urban Legend: German almost became the official language of the US". soc.culture.german. Retrieved 2008-12-19. 
  17. ^ "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". Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  18. ^ "duktus operandi". duktus operandi. Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  19. ^ Dillon, Sam (20 January 2010). "Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 
  20. ^ Modern Language Association, 2007-11-13, New MLA Survey Shows Significant Increases in Foreign Language Study at U.S. Colleges and Universities. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
  21. ^ "Home". Cincinnati Public Schools. Retrieved 2014-03-27. 
  22. ^ "Home". German Language School Cleveland. Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  23. ^ "Welcome to Ohio German Language School". 2011-09-19. Retrieved 2013-11-08. 
  24. ^ "Milwaukee German Immersion School — Just another MPS School Sites site". 2012-03-17. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  25. ^ "Encyclopedia of Cleveland History:WAECHTER UND ANZEIGER". Retrieved 2013-11-08. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Kloss, Heinz (1998) [1977]. The American Bilingual Tradition (reprint ed.). McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems. ISBN 1-887744-02-9. 

External links[edit]