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When Wisconsinites talk about the German their ancestors spoke, the words “Low” and “High” come up frequently, which refer to the elevation of the regions where they are spoken. In northern Germany, where the landscape is quite flat, the dialects spoken are called Low German (Plattdeutsch, Niederdeutsch). Further south in areas of higher elevation, especially Austria and Switzerland, one encounters High German (Hochdeutsch) dialects. Since the variety of German used in schools and the media derives historically from central and southern German dialects, the name High German is applied also to standard German.

German-speaking settlers in Wisconsin brought with them multiple Low and High German dialects, some of which continued to be spoken for as many as five generations after immigration. German appears to have survived longer in Protestant, especially Lutheran, communities, since many of their congregations placed special importance on the continued use of German as a liturgical language. Many German Protestants in Wisconsin came from northern Germany, and therefore the maintenance of Low German was especially promoted in the state.

Many Wisconsin Germans also knew Wisconsin High German, which was similar to varieties of regionally colored High German (landschaftliches Hochdeutsch) spoken in 19th-century Europe. Wisconsin High German enjoyed such prestige that some dialect-speaking parents preferred their children to speak this standard variety at home, a trend complemented by the use of German in both parochial and public schools. The language shift situation in many German-speaking communities thus involved two stages: German dialect > High German > English. It should be noted, however, that bilingualism in English and German was widespread among Wisconsin Germans, even before their descendants began to speak English only.

Nineteenth-century Wisconsinites, like their European cousins, learned to read German printed in Fraktur, and when they wrote German, it was in an old form of cursive known as Kurrent. Into the 20th century, print media consumed by Wisconsin German­ speakers, and German Americans generally, were mainly in Fraktur.

Today most heritage speakers of German in Wisconsin are elderly. However, Wisconsin’s several thousand Amish and Old Order Mennonites are a different group. They are bilingual in English and Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German), a language closely related to the dialects spoken in the Palatinate region (Pfalz), and they also still use High German, including the Luther translation of the Bible printed in Fraktur, for worship and personal devotion.

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Additional Reading on “Language”

The German Language in America, 1683­–1991 edited by Joseph C. Salmons, Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1993

German-American and American-English Dialects, a project of the Max Kade Institute, featuring among other things, recordings of heritage German-dialect speakers from the Max Kade Institute Sound Archive.

Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language by Mark L. Louden, John Hopkins University Press, paperback edition, 2019

Website on Pennsylvania Dutch maintained by Mark L. Louden