Project Title:
The Global Importance of Midwestern Heritage Languages

Project Description:

Immigration is a major global issue that continues to define the history and culture of the American Midwest. Learning a new language and preserving the old are central concerns for all immigrant communities. Our project will focus on the dynamics of language acquisition, retention and loss among German-American communities in the Midwest. Our scholarly understanding of this process is changing rapidly thanks to recent studies on German spoken in the Midwest. The emigration of German-speaking people to the Midwest has had a profound effect in shaping the demographic landscape. According to Moltmann (1985:14), between the years of 1815-1914, 5.5 million German-speaking emigrants settled in the United States. Three concerns will define our research into German immigrant language communities: (1) learning of English, (2) retention and loss of immigrant tongues and (3) effects of immigrant languages on American English dialects.First, Wilkerson & Salmons (2008) present evidence against the widespread belief that earlier immigrants quickly learned English. Second, an emerging theory of why communities do (not) maintain languages (Lucht 2007, Frey 2013, Brown 2011) shows that loss is driven by broad forces transforming community structure, the displacement of locally interconnected organizational structures in favor of ones connected primarily to extra-community organizations. Third, some once argued that immigrant languages exercised only minor influence on regional varieties of English, but current work shows deep effects in pronunciation, word forms and sentence structures (Bousquette et al. manuscript, Sewell & Salmons forthcoming). All of these aforementioned efforts have been spearheaded by doctoral students: Sewell is writing her dissertation and the rest are faculty or postdocs.
The Midwest’s rich diversity is visible in regional cultural traditions, and, crucially for us, language. Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (2003) attribute numerous features of pronunciation and vocabulary in the Midwest to sustained contact with non-English communities. This linguistic heritage is a core trait defining this area as a “global” domain. A major part of Pennsylvania’s rich linguistic heritage is Pennsylvania German, a uniquely American language that flourishes three centuries after separation from its linguistic hearth. The language is currently undergoing linguistic changes due to sustained and recently intensified contact with American English (cf. Louden 2006). Among heritage languages, Pennsylvania German is the exception rather than the norm, as most do not survive more than 3-4 generations (Schmid 2011).
A fundamental question pertaining to these heritage varieties is what sorts of linguistic changes and nuances can and should we expect to manifest themselves in a heritage grammar that continues to be passed on from one generation to the other (e.g. Pennsylvania German) versus another of similar heritage that is now moribund? The Midwest, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in particular, offers ideal testing grounds for such research on heritage varieties of German. IAH funding will allow the PIs to build collaboration on heritage German varieties in the Midwest. We propose a socio-historical and linguistic comparison of Pennsylvania German spoken in Big Valley, Pennsylvania (Brown 2011) and Rhine-Hessian dialects of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin (e.g. Sewell 2013), closely related to the ancestral dialects of Pennsylvania German. Over the next 12 months, we will pursue deeper understanding of two key aspects each of heritage language pronunciation and grammar. First, we will compare the vowel systems of German with English. Second, we will compare word order. Preliminary work on both topics is already underway on both campuses, including laying the necessary ‘digital humanities’ groundwork. As the first paragraph shows, work in this area is driven by graduate student researchers and we will continue this tradition.
To date, heritage language research has focused heavily on sociolinguistic interviews with speakers and more recently controlled experiments, which are then compared with monolinguals. Putnam & Rothman (manuscript) argue for a shift in focus to comparing related and unrelated heritage grammars themselves rather than heritage grammars with a monolingual control group. This will yield evidence whether similar properties emerge in heritage languages under similar conditions, informing us about the properties of “heritage languages” far beyond Midwestern German, in ways that will launch careers for the next generation of scholars.
Our objectives are as follows. First, the full team will develop elicitation materials. Methods include classic sociolinguistic interview techniques and structured, laboratory-like elicitations, including sentence translation, grammaticality judgments and comprehension tasks. The sociolinguistic interviews will enable speakers to produce stories and natural discourse in their heritage variety of German. This will not only support our other tasks and experiments designed to learn more about the grammar of these dialects, but will also contribute to a growing database of oral histories of indigenous language speakers throughout the Midwest. We will create comparable data on vowels and word order and make sure that the instruments are suitable for both communities, e.g. elderly speakers less familiar with computers than younger people.
Under the guidance of the PIs, the graduate students will:

This will enable us to address two key questions raised by Putnam & Rothman:

  • Are the changes observed in heritage languages the result of their status as heritage languages or other factors (e.g. sociolinguistic and/or psychological)?
  • Does lack of usage and activation (in both individual speakers and communities as a whole) contribute to a simpler version of the heritage grammar?

For vowels, a key question is whether and to what extent the systems of German dialects and English overlap, a questions currently being investigated in Wisconsin by Lisa Yager. Phonetically German and English vowels are produced quite differently. The vowels of German Bett ‘bed’ and English bet may sound similar, but are acoustically quite distinct. Our question is whether heritage speakers ‘economize’ by producing these vowels similarly, and whether this has deeper phonological ramifications in terms of abstract patterning of vowels. In word order, German and English differ drastically and while our understanding of heritage German patterns is advancing rapidly (thanks in part to work by Hopp & Putnam, Sewell, Bousquette and others), how those patterns interact with the English patterns of heritage bilinguals has only begun to be explored (Sewell & Salmons forthcoming).
With graduate students as lead authors, we anticipate developing one conference presentation each on the phonetic/phonological and on the syntactic aspects of the work, plus one overarching presentation on the implications of the work generally for heritage language linguistics. From there, we plan to develop the three papers for publication in top-tier linguistics journals.
In summary, the beginning of our proposal speaks to the significant societal and human implications of this work. Putnam & Rothman ground our need to understand related heritage grammars. Finally, as sketched above, this work is also conceived in terms of digital humanities, in terms of documentation, archiving and analysis.
Beyond this seed funding, the PIs will pursue additional sustained funding for the next two years through this initiative for Global Midwest groups as well as other grant opportunities. The PIs are collaborating together with Richard Page (PSU), Robert Howell (UW-Madison) and graduate students at both institutions. In addition to these scholars at PSU and UW, the PIs have long-standing collaborative research efforts underway with the following scholars: Joshua Brown (sociolinguistics, Pennsylvania German, UW–Eau Claire), Joshua Bousquette (syntax, Wisconsin German, U. Georgia), Holger Hopp (multilingualism, psycholinguistics, U. Mannheim).

Following Putnam & Rothman, the next phase of this project will extend in two domains:
  • First, broader research into the pronunciation and grammar of German heritage languages will continue. In this second phase, we will test for speech and perceptual differences, including ‘voicing’ in consonants (Samantha Litty’s focus).
  • Second, discourse and narrative data will allow construction of experiments to gain further insights into these respective heritage language-speaking communities (primary focus of Joo, Putnam, and Schwarz’s research).
  • Third, in the next phase of this multi-year project we will extend fieldwork to heritage Norwegian speakers in Minnesota and Wisconsin and heritage Icelandic in Manitoba.

The inclusion of heritage Icelandic and Norwegian enables us to pursue broader comparison, and would enhance international collaboration with colleagues, such as Janne Johannessen, affiliated with the Center for Multilingualism in Society Across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo and Höskuldur Thráinsson, University of Iceland, specialists in these heritage languages. Both PIs are Affiliate Members of the Center for Multilingualism at the University of Oslo and have strong ties with these faculty researching and documenting heritage Icelandic and Norwegian in the Midwest and Canada.
In conclusion, the proposed student-driven research on varieties of heritage German in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin investigates an important facet of the historical and ever-developing global identity of the Midwest. Through these efforts, we have a rare opportunity to understand aspects of the current multilingual situation and to analyze how these grammars have changed over the last centuries. Support from IAH would enable us to continue this time-sensitive research on heritage varieties of German in the Midwest while we still can.

Bousquette, J., N. Henry, B. Frey, D. Nützel, M. Putnam, J. Salmons & A. Sewell. 2013. How deep is your syntax? – Filler-gap dependencies in heritage language grammar. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 19.1: 21-30.
Bousquette, J., B. Frey, D. Nützel, M. Putnam, J. Salmons & A. Sewell. 2014. Manuscript. Parasitic Gapping in Bilingual Grammar: Evidence from Wisconsin Heritage German.
Brown, J. 2011. Religious identity and language shift among Amish-Mennonites in Kishacoquillas Valley, Pennsylvania. PhD dissertation, Penn State University.
Frey, B. 2013. Toward a General Theory of Language Shift: A Case Study in Wisconsin German and North Carolina Cherokee. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin.
Hopp, H. & M. Putnam. 2014/under review. Syntactic restructuring in heritage grammars: Word order variation in Moundridge Schweitzer German. Manuscript. Universität-Mannheim and Penn State University.
Lucht, F. 2007. Language Variation in a German-American Community: A diachronic study of the spectrum of language use in Lebanon, Wisconsin. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin.
Louden, M. 2006. Pennsylvania German in the 21st century. In: N. Berend & E. Knipf-Komlósi (eds.), Sprachinselwelten - The world of language islands, pp. 89-108. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
Moltmann, G. 1985. The pattern of German emigration to the United States in the Nineteenth Century. In: F. Trommler & J. McVeigh (eds.), America and the Germans: An assessment of a three-hundred year history: Vol. 1 Immigration, language and ethnicity, pp. 14-24. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Putnam, M. & J. Rothman. 2014. Beyond description: The epistemological case for bringing together multiple Heritage Grammars to determine the source of difference. Manuscript. Penn State University and The University of Reading (UK).
Schmid, M. 2011. Language attrition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sewell, Alyson. 2013. A socio-historical study of heritage languages: Accounting for variation among Wisconsin German varieties. Second International Conference on Heritage/Community Languages. UCLA. March, 7-8, 2014.
Sewell, A. & J. Salmons. Forthcoming. How far-reaching are the effects of contact? Parasitic gapping in Wisconsin German and English. In: R. Nicolai (ed.), Questioning Language Contact: Limits of Contact, Contact at its Limits. Leiden: Brill.
Wilkerson, M., & J. Salmons. “‘Good old immigrants of yesteryear’ who didn’t learn English: Germans in Wisconsin.” American Speech 83 (2008): 259-283.
Wolfram, W. & N. Schilling-Estes. 2003. American English. Malden, MA: Blackwell-Wiley.

Organizer Name:

Prof. Michael T. Putnam (Penn State) & Prof. Joseph C. Salmons (UW-Madison)

Organizer's Contact Information:

Penn State University
427 Burrowes Building
Phone: 814.863.2138

University of Wisconsin
842 Van Hise
1220 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706
Main Office: 608.262.2192

Organizer's Departmental and University Affiliation:

Department of Germanic & Slavic Languages & Literatures
Penn State University

Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures
University of Wisconsin-Madison