German language in the United States

American German
Region United States
Ethnicity German Americans
Native speakers
1.38 million (2000 census)[1]
Latin (German alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
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]

Over 50 million Americans claim German ancestry, which makes them the largest single ethnic group in the United States. Around 1.38 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]


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 newspapers in the U.S., 1922.

German-language press

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 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 drastically.

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

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

Pennsylvania German

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).[16] 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.[17] 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).


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.

Bernese German

Main article: Bernese German

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.

Alsatian dialect of German

Main article: Alsatian dialect

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 thousands 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.[18]

Texas German

Main article: Texas German

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.[19]

Hutterite German

Main article: Hutterite German

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.


Main article: Plautdietsch

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 "Russian" Mennonite immigrants mainly from Mexico, where there is no assimilation, invigorated Plautdietsch in Kansas.

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.[20][21] 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.

In Pennsylvania, which had a large German-American population, German was long allowed as the language of instruction in schools,[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

German is third in popularity after Spanish and French in terms of the number of colleges and universities offering instruction in the language.[25]

German language schools


See also



  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 2000" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  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". 2009-11-17. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  11. 1 2 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. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  17. Smith, pp. 68-69, 84-85.
  18. 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
  19. 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.
  20. "Did Hebrew almost become the official U.S. language?". January 21, 1994. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
  21. Dennis Barron (March 1996). "Urban Legend: German almost became the official language of the US". soc.culture.german. Retrieved 2008-12-19.
  22. "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.
  23. "duktus operandi". duktus operandi. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  24. Dillon, Sam (20 January 2010). "Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  25. "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.
  26. "Home". Cincinnati Public Schools. Retrieved 2014-03-27.
  27. "Home". German Language School Cleveland. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  28. "Welcome to Ohio German Language School". 2011-09-19. Retrieved 2013-11-08.
  29. "German School Phoenix — German Saturday School". 2015-10-23. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  30. Goethe-Institut: USA
  31. "Milwaukee German Immersion School — Just another MPS School Sites site". 2012-03-17. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  32. "Encyclopedia of Cleveland History:WAECHTER UND ANZEIGER". Retrieved 2013-11-08.

Further reading

External links

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