poppy image  The German Language In America poppy image

Carl SchurzI tell you, when I see how German-American parents neglect to teach their children their native language, and how this invaluable treasure is often carelessly discarded, it embitters my German heart and infuriates my American conscience.”

This speech, originally in the German language, was given in New York City on January 9th 1897 by the notable German-American Carl Schurz on the occasion of the 50thAnniversary of the “Liederkranz”, a German singing society. Schurz, a liberal democrat took part in the 1848 Revolution in Germany and had to flee his native land in 1852. In America he became Secretary of the Interior under President Hayes, Ambassador to Spain under President Lincoln, Major-General of the Union Army during the civil war, editor of the New York Evening Post from 1881-84, and Republican Senator from Missouri in his later years.

Translated from German and edited by Frank Schmidt.

The German Language brought forth German songs

The response to the toast given by a member of the Liederkranz should actually have been sung, as the Liederkranz has done so often – and so movingly. Therefore, it would perhaps be more appropriate if the Liederkranz stood in my place right now.

We are gathered here today to celebrate the versatility of our German mother tongue, as it is manifested in our songs. I know very well that there are other languages, which through their full-sounding vowels and soft consonants seem better adapted to singing than German.

However, no other language has such a rich store of songs of intimate beauty and spiritual power as those that have sprung from the hearts of the German people. They have made their way around the world, and though there may be some opposition to the German spirit and enterprise, nothing stands in the way of German music and song.

German-American parents commit a sin when they fail to teach their children their heritage language.  These irresponsible parents have robbed their children of one of the great cultural treasures they could have bestowed on them. That is why I honor every German-American society in which our mother tongue is spoken and fostered. These organizations have done for future generations and the world community a great service. As in the past half century, which now lies behind us, I hope that the Liederkranz will remain unwavering in its dedication to the German language and its rich store of songs.


The fidelity of the German Language

When we speak our German mother tongue we should not become overly sentimental. This is not a sign of weakness, for one should remember Heinrich Heine’s verse about the ‘sentimental oak’. Every thinking person that masters the German language will concede, it is a great treasure, whose value goes far beyond mere sentiment.

We Germans like to hear that honesty is regarded as one of our salient national traits. I, for my part, like to hear that the better part of the American public always counts on German-Americans when such things as honest government and honest money are considered. Please excuse me when I refer to such things. I have done so only because I wish to emphasize that honesty is also characteristic of our German mother tongue.

The expressive power of the German Language

Other forms of speech, especially the Romance languages, are noted for their pliable elegance and melodious idioms. With those languages it is easy to say something that sounds beautiful, but is actually nothing.

In German that’s hardly possible. I don’t mean to say that I find it admirable that when one says “German spoken here”, that this alludes to coarseness of speech. What I do mean is that when one says something stupid in German, it sounds utterly stupid.

On the other hand when something intelligent or elegant is said in German, it can not be said more intelligently or elegantly in any other language. In other words, German is not the language of ethereal daintiness. Instead, it possesses all the more every organ register of the power, the majesty, spirited verve, and open-heartedness of emotion.

In its expressionism German surpasses the literature of other cultures as manifested in the German translation of the Bible, the exalted sublimity of a Schiller drama, or the bewitching word music of the poems of Heine.

The entire literature of the world in the German Language

It would be superfluous to speak here of the all-embracing literature that originated in the German language, and whose towering greatness civilized humanity has recognized. But it is not only German literature which our mother tongue offers us; it is the literature of the entire world.

There is no other language in the world whose unique forms of expression are harder to translate into other languages than German. And, on the other hand, there is no other language in the world into which foreign forms of speech can be translated into with such fidelity as the German language.

Take for instance the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Bacon, Macauley, Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Tolstoy – poetry, philosophy, science, history and novels. (It is said that to fully appreciate the works of Shakespeare, one must read them in the German translation. Transl. note)

All these, from all times, from many countries, found a fitting haven in the German language. These translations are worthy of the original in their fidelity, power and beauty. The German language offers, like no other, the entire treasury of the world’s literature.

Americanization certainly but no de-Germanization

We possess, in fact a treasure we can not value high enough. That applies especially to those who have found a new home in America, a country where a language other than their mother tongue is spoken. Our compatriots in America have been urged not only to learn English, but also to cease using their mother tongue. I do not agree with the judgment of those who urge us to do that.

No one will deny the fact that German-Americans should learn English. They owe that to their new homeland, and they owe that to themselves. But for German-Americans to reject their heritage language is utter foolishness.

As American citizens we should Americanize ourselves. Certainly we want that. I have always supported reasonable Americanization. But that has never meant total de-Germanization.

It means that we adopt the best characteristics of America and blend them with the best of Germany. By adopting the English language without loosing our own, we will make an important contribution to the national character of America and American civilization.

The advantage of speaking two languages

The idea that keeping the German language would hinder our integration into American society and make us less patriotic, is as simple minded as saying we may be less patriotic because we can sing “Hail Columbia” in two languages.

There are thousands of native Americans who are learning German. That does not make them less patriotic – but it proves that they are better educated and smarter. They are learning German because they are convinced of its value.

And, they learn German with great difficulty, because German is a difficult language. We German-Americans do not need to learn German – we only need not forget it. Our children have a language for nothing, which others are trying so hard to learn, if only we would make the commitment to teach and use it in the family.

It may not be sufficient to instill as comprehensive knowledge of our language in our children as we would wish, but it will ease their education considerably.

My German heart and my American conscience are indignant

I am not preaching here as someone who says “Heed my words and not my deeds”. I am convinced that I am as loyal an American as anyone. I, as well as my children, have had to learn English. But in my family circle only German is spoken – and read. We correspond only in German. I may therefore express myself strongly on this point. And, I tell you when I see how German-American parents neglect to teach their native language, and how this invaluable treasure is carelessly discarded, it embitters my German heart and infuriates my American conscience.


Translated by Frank Schmidt

Reprinted with permission of the author

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