Auf Wiedersehen to a Dialect

Texas German, once the primary tongue of nearly 100,000 Texans, is on the verge of dying out.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Approximately two hundred people tune in every week to the hour-long online radio show German Music—Texas Style, which is recorded in a tiny studio in New Braunfels. Most of them, it is safe to say, are eligible for Social Security. Clarence Scheel, one of the show’s two hosts, is well aware that his format is unlikely to appeal to the youth demographic, but during his precious time in the studio, he doesn’t let that harsh his buzz. One day last September, the 75-year-old leaned into his microphone and intoned, “Yes, it’s time for another hour of your favorite polkas, marches, waltzes, and other folk songs from Germany, from Texas, and from the rest of the USA.” Scooting his chair forward, he ditched his English. “ Guten Tag, Gruess Gott. Willkommen zum ‘Deutsche Musik—Texas Art’ von Neu Braunfels, Texas. An diesen Program werde ich Eure beliebste Polkas, Märsche, Walzer, und andere Volkslieder von Deutschland, von Texas, und sonstwo in Amerika spielen. ” Speaking in his native tongue, Scheel picked up speed and energy, careful not to bump the albums stacked on the floor ( Wunderbar and Sing Mit Heino sat on top). He gave a rousing introduction to the Border Security Headquarters Band’s “Winner’s Crown March,” then cued up the peppy trumpets.

“This radio show was on the air when I was a kid,” he said after he’d finished the last segment. “This show is sixty-four years old.” Scheel is a retired systems engineer, and while he resembles the actor Jim Backus, best known as the leisurely Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, he speaks with intensity and precision. When he was growing up in Converse, twenty miles northeast of San Antonio, German Music—Texas Style aired on KGNB, 1420 AM, and Scheel was a regular listener. In particular, he loved the Sunday broadcasts that featured live performances by regional groups like the Hi Toppers Orchestra, which he’d blast from the radio console in his family’s living room.

After 25 years in the military (including a stint at NORAD, in Colorado) and a career building computer programs, Scheel moved back to Texas in 1998 and settled in Garden Ridge. In December 2002, KGNB announced that it was pulling the show, news that was as welcome to Scheel as the lambada at Wurstfest. “For them to cancel the show, really, was criminal,” he argued. “They said it didn’t fit into the programming theme. Well, if New Braunfels wants to call itself a German town, the town should have kept it going.” Scheel teamed up with Roy Haag, a 69-year-old polka bandleader and instructor, who converted a room in his home into a sound studio. After Scheel set up a website (nbgermanmusic.com) to continue the program online, they were up and running. And it was more than just polkas and waltzes they saved. On their show, the hosts speak not in standard German but in Texas German, making theirs the only regular radio program broadcasting in this dialect. “I took two years of High German in college, but I don’t want to use it on the show,” Scheel told me. “I want to speak Texas German.”

The Texas German dialect is quite different from those spoken in Germany, having evolved far from its native soil for more than a century and a half. As its name suggests, it is spoken in no other part of the world. Scheel, like many of the kids he grew up around, spoke exclusively Texas German until first grade, when he learned English. These days, he speaks the dialect whenever he can, often with friends from Converse whom he has known for most of his life. (“We switch back and forth and don’t miss a beat,” he said.) He also sings in a men’s German chorus, the San Antonio Liederkranz, which was founded in 1892 as the primary choir for St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in downtown San Antonio. If he should ever require a retirement home, he would prefer to enter EdenHill Communities, a New Braunfels facility with so many Texas German speakers that it retains two fluent staff members. When he detects any sort of German accent from a stranger, he’ll attempt to elicit a conversation with an enthusiastic “ Sprechen Sie Deutsch? ” 

Scheel, who descends from three of New Braunfels’s first settlers, is a determined holdout from an earlier era. After he recorded his broadcast, I accompanied him to downtown New Braunfels, on a mission to procure a strudel. At one point he casually noted that we were standing near a cottage built by his mother’s great-great-grandfather Stephan Klein in 1846. This sort of attention to ancestry is not unusual among the few remaining Texas German speakers, who are a proud group. An ongoing study has found that most descendants of German immigrants in Texas do not classify themselves primarily as Americans or Texans or even German Americans. Rather, 69 percent identify themselves as Texas Germans. More than 150 years after their ancestors began arriving, the majority still consider themselves, at their core, settlers. 

Over time, however, Texas German speakers have gradually abandoned their original language, resuscitating it only occasionally, at the bakery, the feed store, or the genealogy club. In New Braunfels and many other Texas German communities, outsiders have moved in and locals have moved away, causing speakers to fall out of practice. Today there are only six thousand to eight thousand Texas German speakers remaining, the bulk of whom are senior citizens. Linguists estimate that the dialect will be dead by 2040.

Scheel shook his head as we discussed this fate. In his lifetime, he has witnessed a massive cultural shift in the region, the near disappearance of a language that was spoken exclusively by almost everyone he knew when he was a boy. He can fight it all he wants, but he knows what the outcome will be. “I have eight sisters and two brothers, and between us we have twenty-eight children,” he said. “Of those children, only one really speaks German

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