View Full Version : Kansas University Student Part of Revival of Kansas Germanic Languages

Mac Seafraidh
Friday, March 11th, 2005, 01:31 PM
By Terry Rombeck

Hanover — When Don and Dorian Bisping are at home, they almost always speak to each other in Low German, the language of their ancestors. Like many Lutherans in north-central Kansas, they stopped speaking German in public in the 1940s -- when blending into American culture and distancing themselves from Adolf Hitler meant more than preserving their heritage. It's an attitude that's largely persevered since then. So the Bispings were a bit puzzled last week when 141 people -- mainly residents of Marshall and Washington counties -- packed the community center in Hanover to revive the language they'd spoken mainly in private for more than five decades.

"It used to be my aunt would say, ‘Don't speak German so loud in the store,'" said Dorian Bisping, 69. "Now everybody wants to speak it." There's a buzz in the Hanover area about Low German, the dialect spoken by the Lutherans who moved from northern Germany to Kansas in the late 1880s. It's due mainly to Scott Seeger, a Kansas University graduate student who heard enough people say they feared the language's extinction that he decided to start courses to revive the language among older adults and also teach it to younger generations.

"It must be the right time," Dan Thalmann, editor of the Washington County News, said of the language renaissance. "Enough people are realizing if there's nothing done, it will die. Scott showed up as our German language savior." The idea first came to Seeger, a doctoral student in Germanic languages and literatures, when he was interviewing residents in north-central Kansas about their use of Low German, which he said was far different from the more common High German taught in some schools.

The older residents he talked with said they regretted not passing the language -- which also is called "plattdeutsch" -- on to younger generations. Some of the younger people he talked with regretted not having learned the language.

Scott Seeger, a Kansas University graduate student, is helping spark a revitalization of the Low German language in northcentral Kansas. Seeger was pictured last week outside the Max Kade Center on campus, which houses the German dialect atlas project Seeger works with. In addition to World War II, the widespread use of the automobile in the early 20th century helped wipe out Low German as people used English to conduct business in other towns.

The danger, Seeger said, was losing not only the language but the cultural aspects that accompany it. "Low German is becoming an endangered language," he said. "For these people, they have a strong identity with their German Lutheran heritage, through recipes, songs, church and from German at home."

Big response

So at the urging of Thalmann and Joyce Kracht of Bremen, Seeger had an informational meeting in January to gauge interest in reviving the language. "I thought there would be 20 or 30 people show up," Seeger said. "I was just amazed. People just kept coming and coming in. It was a multigenerational crowd." Ninety-nine people attended the initial meeting. The first class session, which was Monday, drew 141 people, filling Hanover's Kloppenberg Center. Attendees were divided into discussion groups based on the amount of Low German they knew.

Leland Holle, 69, of rural Hanover, was among those who said he was hoping to brush up on his Low German skills. He spoke the language when he was a child. Loma Turk teaches Collin Alleragiligen, 9, how to say colors in low German. Turk and Alleragiligen were among those participating in a low German workshop last week in Hanover. "The Indians' language is going to go down into the grave, which is going to happen to our language," Holle said. ‘If we don't revive it -- well, look around the room. There are a couple of younger people, but they're mostly 55 or older."

John Kern was among the younger students in the crowd. The 28-year-old teacher in Washington heard his grandmother speak the language when he was a child but only learned a handful of words. "To me, it's just the nostalgia of being able to know what my ancestors used to speak," he said. "I think it's phenomenal, really. It's bigger than anyone would have thought."

Community revival

Thalman, the newspaper editor, sees the project as more than language survival. It could be the communities' survival. Washington and Marshall counties have seen among the largest drops in population among Kansas counties in the past two decades. Washington has lost about a quarter of its population base; Marshall has seen about a 15 percent population decrease. The Low German heritage, he said, could lead to economic development and tourism.

"This is the most Low German region of Kansas," he said. "But you couldn't tell. I just drove through Lindsborg, and almost every porch has a Swedish horse on it. I'd like to see this be the Lindsborg of Low German. There's no reason not to be proud of it." Seeger plans to have classes the third Monday of the month in the area. He's hoping the project takes on a life of its own for after he completes his dissertation, which could be as early as May.

"A lot of doctoral dissertations get done and put on a shelf and maybe get looked at by academicians," he said. "But I tapped into this desire that was under the surface, and I'm seeing an immediate interest in my research. That's an absolutely fantastic example of how research can impact a community." Seeger estimated there are 300 to 400 speakers of Low German in Washington and Marshall counties.

Source: http://www.ljworld.com/section/kunews/story/197626