Sprechen Sie Deutsch? — My Ancestry and Language Liberation
What languages did your ancestors speak? For me, on my dad’s side, one set of great grandparents spoke German as their first language. By the time I came along, our family only had vestiges of it. I remember singing some Christmas carols in German, and my father talking about how — in German — our name would have an umlaut over the “a.” I want to reclaim German, both for my genealogy work and for myself.
The dominance of standard American English has pushed many generations of people to lose their ancestral languages and accents to assimilate. If we recover the languages of our ancestors, we may be rewarded with a richer life and a unique connection with our family heritage, while supporting others to do the same.
As a genealogist, I dig into records of birth, marriage, and death. I find information in newspapers, church records, censuses, government certificates, and on gravestones. Much of that information is available online, especially for people of European heritage. So, I can open my computer and take a trip into my family’s history. Much of the information is in German.
I was lucky to grow up in Wisconsin, where I could learn a little German in high school (vielen Dank, Frau Baumore!). Many of my friends had German last names. My high school marching band was in the Oktoberfest parade. In my experience, German foods and culture are celebrated in Wisconsin, and many communities have a shared sense of pride in German heritage. My ethnicity puts me squarely in the majority.
As immigrants in the late 1800s, my German ancestors would have spoken in their birth language for most of their lives. They went to churches that used German, read newspapers in German, and had their own schools where German was the predominant language. The prevalence of German is is written in stone on their graves, which often had inscriptions in the language.
World War I was the turning point, when many people with German ancestry stopped being German and became American. My father told me how his grandfather’s family learned not to speak German outside the home during that time. There were waves of anti-German sentiment. Kids were bullied at school, and there was a need to be Americans first and Germans second.
Today, we see a similar strong pressure to assimilate for non-English speaking immigrants. Language assimilation has long been celebrated in the United States as part of the “melting pot” ideal. Immigrants arrive here with their own languages, and within a generation, their children speak English with the perfect accent of their region. The second generation becomes “Americanized,” more easily blending in and climbing economic ladders unavailable to the un-Americanized.
It is not just language. Assimilation affects every aspect of life: family structure, clothing, holiday traditions, sports, shared popular culture references, and even ways of thinking. Everything gets subsumed into American culture, which is a majority white space and a majority English-speaking space.
What is lost in this pressure to assimilate? A lot.
First, full assimilation has only ever been available to people who can pass as white. Fully assimilated 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put in concentration camps by the US government during World War II. That they did not round up my German-American ancestors is an example of the white privilege this country was founded on. Asian Americans and other BIPOC continue to face the prospect of never being able to fully assimilate.
When a language is lost, it is not just words that are lost. Each word in a language is not just a translation of an English word. Instead, it is a unique concept that is sometimes only weakly correlated to the English word. To live and think in another language is to live within the concepts of that language and the culture that produced it. I speak Spanish, having lived for three years in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer. I know from experience that I am able to think differently in Spanish, and I feel I am a different person when living in Spanish.
Assimilation has also been used against Native Americans since the first interactions with settlers. It was official US Government policy until as late as the 1970s to remove children from their families and take them to boarding schools, where they would be punished for speaking their languages. Inherent in this policy was the idea that people would be improved by speaking English, becoming American, and rejecting their own language and culture. The teachers in the boarding schools were trying to “Kill the Indian, to save the man,” with devastating results for the cultures and languages of the tribal nations.
There has always been resistance to assimilation. Today, Native nations have been recovering their ancestral languages, saving the knowledge and culture embedded in those languages. These languages are born of the land and ecosystems of this continent, and they contain ecological wisdom in how to live in this place.
We are coming to a new understanding of America, not as a melting pot, but as a mosaic. Each piece of the mosaic is worthy of self-determination. Each piece enriches the whole, not by disappearing, but by shining.
My partner in life is learning Finnish, the language of her grandmother. She takes such delight in her daily lessons. Even for people like her, for whom their ancestral language is not in danger of disappearing, learning the “family language” can be an act of liberation, solidarity, and resistance. The dominant culture in the United States is a generic “white culture.” To claim one’s own ethnicity and language is to acknowledge that “white” is a construction that we can alter in order to be more inclusive of our ancestral diversity.
Part of my ancestry journey is to recognize and own what it means to be white in America. To be white in America is to have the chance to feel that how you speak, and what you think, is “normal.” This is especially true if your accent does not mark you as “other,” like those who have a strong Southern or Appalachian accent. I’m not saying that American culture, on the whole, is bad. But people should not be forced to lose their original languages and customs in order to succeed here.
I imagine a world where Americans live in a web of mutual respect. American English is useful, and I’m not suggesting people not learn it. What I am asking is that people should not feel pressure to lose their own language and culture as they become fluent in English. Those of us who were born into American English, like myself, would benefit greatly from learning both our ancestral languages and the languages of people with whom we interact.
What, and who, were my ancestors before they became white Americans? Before they were assimilated, they were defined by identities like their language, religion, work, place, and ethnicity. Even though it might be a century after the fact, I can resist assimilation by learning my own ancestral languages, finding out where exactly my people came from, and discovering details about their lives, and why they emigrated to the US. It also puts me in a better position to recognize and provide solidarity when others are facing the pressure to assimilate.
It feels complicated to me to claim my German-ness, because how can I be proud of my connection to a people complicit in the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust? There is a difference between claiming my German heritage and being proud of my German heritage. Although there are many reasons to be proud of German people and their contribution to the world, and there are also plenty of reasons to feel shame about actions taken by Germans in the past, by claiming my ancestors as my people, I get to simply sit with the truth about their lives. By claiming, I open myself up to pride and shame and everything in between — feelings and knowledge I might not have had otherwise. As I come closer to connecting with who I am, I put myself in a better position to choose who I want to be.
Ancestry research changed how I see myself, and how I understand history. I am still on this journey and would like you to join me. Each month, as I examine family tree research and connect it to history, I will be creating these stories. We are each at the center of our own stories. I start with my own story and I invite readers to send me questions about their family histories.
A shortened version of this essay appeared in the April 2021 edition of the Hay River Review, a local monthly newspaper in Northwest Wisconsin.
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