Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wisps of Language, Dark Breads and Enemas

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the grandchildren of forgotten languages. Much of my current work for the Texas German Dialect Project at the University of Texas involves carefully listening to archived interviews with the last remaining speakers of Texas German. Many of them express regret that this dialect that has existed in Texas for hundreds of years will in all likelihood disappear when they are gone, but it is often a small and resigned regret for something that appears inevitable. Very few of them say that they would describe this disappearance as "sad."

Two generations down, I do think that this is sad, and I wonder if the sense of the loss of a language is something that is often felt strongly by the grandchildren. Although my grandfather's first language was German, my father was raised entirely in English. I also grew up speaking only English, but I had a curiosity about my heritage that lead me to study Standard German in school.

Even before school, though, I had learned a few ancestral words and phrases. They were passed down from my father. They are the "leftovers" of the language, the very few words that I remembered from what my father remembered from what my grandfather said. It is a very odd list of words that survived above all others. Some of them are probably dialect variations, and some of them are garbled by time and the fact that I absorbed them as a child. But these are the words that took hold in my impressionable young mind:

1) Dunkelbrot - the first German word I remember from my childhood, the literal translation is "dark bread." It's not a word that I've ever seen in a Standard German dictionary. I always thought it meant pumpernickel bread.

2) Wurst - homemade sausage is a pretty common conversational topic at family get-togethers. 

3) Jeschismatia - I attributed it to my grandmother when she wanted to say something like "Oh my gosh!" I later learned that it was actually Czech. It never occurred to me that she was saying "Jesus Mary!"

 4) Du liegst mir im Herzen... - I learned the entire first verse to this old German folk song, which I considered to be my family's own personal theme song. My mother told me that she was never quite accepted into the family until the day that she learned the words to this song. I didn't learn the meaning of the song until much later.

5) Huttispritzl - as a young child I was told by grinning relatives that this was the German for "enema." The closest Standard German word I can find is Klistierspritze, which is also pretty fun to say.

6) Es regnet - "It's raining." I guess this one survived because it is such a noteworthy event in Texas.

7) Universit├Ąt von Ihnen - to me these were nonsense words that my father would say when he was pretending to speak German. It seems to be a strangely formal way of saying "your university."


Across the world now there are people whose grandparents are the last remaining speakers of languages. Many of them have in their minds a similar hodgepodge of random words and phrases. I'm sure that some of them wish that they knew how to do more than sing a song or curse in their ancestral language. 

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