Rural Dodge County in the Early 20th Century – A Trilingual Community

Oderbrüchisch, Standard German, and English

Anna Seifert grew up speaking the Oderbrüchisch Low German dialect of her immigrant ancestors. She also learned to read and write in standard German at a German Lutheran parochial school not far from her home in Dodge County, Wisconsin, that she attended from ages six to fourteen. As a Wisconsin native, Anna was surrounded by English monolinguals and German-English bilinguals and could speak and read English, but was uncomfortable writing in it.

In 1983, Lester Seifert wrote the following about language use in the community he grew up in: “In my family we were brought up trilingually. We used English in the schools, and with people who knew no German we were rather surprised at such ignorance. We used a variety of Standard German in church, to a limited extent in the parochial school, and with Germans who did not know our dialect. The language of the home and the farm, of play with most of the children from neighboring farms, of large family gatherings and parties and picnics—there were dozens of such celebrations—for all these things our language was the Oderbrüchisch Low German dialect.” (Seifert, Lester W. J. 1983. Some German contributions to Wisconsin Life. Yearbook of German-American Studies 18: 173-184.)

Oderbrüchisch Low German

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Oderbrüchisch Low German was spoken in the marshlands along the Oder River that straddle the former Prussian provinces of Brandenburg and Pomerania and today’s northern border of Germany and Poland. Oderbrüchisch was a variety of Brandenburgisch, which belongs to the East Low German dialect group. Owing to its proximity to Poland, Oderbrüchisch had Slavic-derived vocabulary, for example, Kapitze (< Polish kopiec) ‘hill’ and Wruke (< Polish brukiew) ‘rutabaga’. In more recent times, Oderbrüchisch was influenced by the speech of Berlin, owing to its proximity to the German capital. Today, there are few speakers of Oderbrüchisch left; most are elderly residents of small villages.

In her letters, Anna’s spelling occasionally betrayed the Low German Oderbrüchisch dialect she spoke at home, for example when she spelled the word for ‘yesterday’ as jestern rather than the standard German gestern.

Click here and listen to Anna Seifert reciting a children’s tale in the Oderbrüchisch dialect.


Click here to read more about HIGH AND LOW GERMAN and here to read more about GERMAN DIALECTS IN WISCONSIN.

Kurrent vs. Latin Script

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Anna Seifert’s letters are written in Kurrent, the old German script. Her sentences are in standard German, but she includes many English expression and some Low German words.

Adhering to common spelling conventions, Anna wrote personal names, place names, and English words in Latin script. It is interesting, though, which words Anna perceived as “English” by using the Latin script and which English words she wrote in Kurrent, which suggests that she understood these expressions to be a part of Wisconsin German. Examples of words written in Latin script are “car,” “road,” “tractor,” “truck,” “hospital,” “nurse, “Watertown Fair Day,” “card club,” “dining room,” “corn crib,” “silo,” “check,” “money order,” “turkey,” “musk rat,” “peatches” [sic], and interestingly, “beer.”

Anna also wrote in Kurrent some Wisconsin German words borrowed from English. They were often spelled to reflect German phonetics and spelling, such as Inschurenz (insurance), schmoken (to smoke), Karpet (carpet), Zein (sign), butschern (to butcher), renten (to rent), penten (to paint), kannen (to can).

Click here to read more about GERMAN PRINT AND HANDWRITING.

English Expressions in German sentences

Anna frequently used expressions that were translated directly from English into German: Weil ich blos zwei Kühe melke, nimmt es nicht lange. (Because I only milk two cows, it doesn’t take long.) [1940-30-28]; Sie haben Ralph’s Vater abgelegt in die Fabrik. (They laid off Ralph’s father at the factory) [1940-07-24]; Er musste die Fenz fixen (He had to fix the fence) [1934-01-31]; Schreib mir wie du das Hemd gleichst (Write me how you like the shirt) [1941-04-10]; Er hat schon kalt für 4 Wochen (He has had a cold for four weeks already); Habe eben die Nachbars Frau aufgerungen (I just rang up the neighbor on the phone) [1941-04-03]; Leos sind gemuft (Leos moved) [1939-10-05].