German as a minority language

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German-speaking minorities (Ethnic Germans) live in many countries and on all six inhabited continents: the countries of the former Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Belgium, Italy, the United States, Latin America, Namibia, South Africa, Israel, and Australia. These German minorities, through their ethno-cultural vitality, exhibit an exceptional level of heterogeneity: variations concerning their demographics, their status within the majority community, the support they receive from institutions helping them to support their identity as a minority.

Amongst them are small groups (such as those in Namibia) and many very large groups (such as the almost 1 million non-evacuated Germans in Russia and Kazakhstan or the near 500,000 Germans in Brazil), groups that have been greatly "folklorised" and almost completely linguistically assimilated (such as most people of German descent in the USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil), and others, such as the true linguistic minorities (like the still German-speaking minorities in the USA, Argentina and Brazil, in western Siberia or in Romania and Hungary); other groups, which are classified as religio-cultural groups rather than ethnic minorities, (such as the Eastern-Low German speaking Mennonites in Paraguay, Mexico, Belize or in the Altay region of Siberia) and the groups who maintain their status thanks to strong identification with their ethnicity and their religious sentiment (such as the groups in Upper Silesia, Poland or in South Jutland inDenmark).

The status of the language around the world

German is an official language in the following regions/countries in Europe

  • Austria (sole official national language)
  • Belgium (one of three official national languages, sole official and majority language in German-speaking Belgium)
  • Germany (sole official national language)
  • Liechtenstein (sole official national language)
  • Luxembourg (one of three official national languages)
  • Northern Schleswig in Denmark (minority language)
  • Switzerland (majority language, one of four official national languages)
  • Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (Province of Bolzano-Bozen) in Italy (one of three official regional languages, majority language)
  • Opole Voivodeship in Poland (official minority language)
  • Krahule in Slovakia (official minority language)

German has a presence in the following regions/countries in Europe

  • Alsace in France
  • Galicia in Ukraine
  • Lorraine in France
  • Upper Silesia in Poland
  • Parts of Transylvania and Banat in Romania

German has a presence in following countries in Africa

  • Namibia
  • Tanzania
  • Togo

German has a presence in following countries in The Americas

  • USA & Canada
    • Amish (USA and Canada)
  • German speaking South America
    • in Brazil
    • in Argentina
    • in Chile
    • in Paraguay
    • in Colombia
    • in Venezuela
    • in Uruguay

German has a presence in following countries in Oceania

  • Australia

Latin America

At least one million German speakers live in Latin America. There are German speaking minorities in almost every Latin American country, including Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguayand Venezuela.

In the eighteenth century only isolated or small groups of German emigrants left for Latin America. However this pattern was reversed at the start of the last century as a tidal wave of German emigration began. German emigration to the Americas totalled 200,000 people during the eighteenth century. During the 1880s, during the wave of mass emigration, this figure was reached annually. The Handbuch des Deutschtums im Ausland (The Germans Abroad Handbook) from 1906 puts a figure of 11 million people in North and South America with a knowledge of the German language, of which 9 million were in the USA. Although the USA was the focal point for emigration in the 19th century, emigration to Latin America was also significant for differing economic and political reasons.

90% of German Latin American emigrants in the 19th century went to the three Cono Sur countries: Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. In the last third of the century emigration to Argentina increased after the "Heydtschen Reskript" (1859) made emigration to Brazil harder. In the 1880s and 1890s German emigration to Latin America grew and in some years was the destination of up to 30% of German emigrants. During the Nazi period - until the ban on emigration came into effect in 1941 - some 100,000 Jews from Central Europe, the vast majority of which were German speaking, moved to South America with 90% of these moving to the Cono Sur. From the start of the 20th century until 1946 80% of Jews lived in Europe but by the end of World War II this was reduced to 25%, however after the war over 50% of Jews now lived in the Americas. This change was aided by Jewish emigration groups such as the Hilfsverein deutschsprechender Juden (later to becomeAsociación Filantrópica Israelita) which was based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The majority of German minorities in Latin America - as well as elsewhere around the world - experienced a decline in the use of the German language. The main cause of this decrease is the integration of communities, often originally sheltered, into the dominant society, and then modernisation after assimilation into society which confronts all immigrant groups.

Specific reasons for language change from German to the national language usually derive from the desire of many Germans to belong to their new communities after the end of World War II. This is a common feature amongst the German minorities in Latin America and those inCentral and Eastern Europe: the majority of countries where German minorities lived had fought against the Germans during the war. With this change in situation the members of the German minorities, previously communities of status and prestige, were turned into undesirable minorities (though there were widespread elements of sympathy for Germany in many South American countries as well).

For many German minorities WWII thus represented the breaking point in the development of their language. In some South American countries the war period and immediately afterwards was a time of massive assimilation to the local culture (for example during the Getúlio Vargas period in Brazil).

Historical development and current language situation of German minorities

Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay show some clear demographic differences that effect the minority situation of the German language: Brazil and Argentina are massive countries and offers large amounts of land for immigrants to settle. The population density of the Cono Sur countries is relatively small (Brazil has 17 inhabitants/km², Chile has 15/km², Argentina and Paraguay both have 10/km², data from 1993), but there are major differences in the areas settled by Germans: Buenos Aires Province, which was settled by Germans, has a far higher population density that that of the Chaco in northern Paraguay (with 1 inhabitants/km²). Argentina and Chile have a far greater proportion of city dwellers (86% and 84% respectively), while Brazil is 82% urbanised, and Paraguay is just 47% urbanised. In relation to the population of Argentina, it can be called a "white country" (95% of the population is European, with a large number of Italians). Brazil is a multi-ethnic country and the statistics show this to be true. According to Baranow (1988: 1266) 120 languages are spoken there. With 53% of the population white and 38% mulattoes and mestizos, it differs fundamentally from the other states dealt with here, although this is less true in the South of Brazil. In Chile and Paraguay the percentage of Mestizos is 52% (and 40% white) and 91% respectively, while the indigenous element is important throughout the country in Paraguay, and indeed Guaraní is the second official language.

German in Argentina

There are about 500,000 German speakers and around 3.2 million Volga-Germans alone, of which 200,000 hold German citizenship. This makes Argentina one of the countries with the largest number of German speakers and is second only in Latin America to Brazil. In the 1930s there were about 700,000 people of German descent[1]. Regional concentrations can be found in the provinces of Entre Ríos andBuenos Aires (with around 500,000 - 600,000) as well as Misiones and in the general area of the Chaco and the Pampas.

However most German-descended Argentinians do not speak German with native fluency (that role has been taken by Spanish). The 300,000 German speakers are estimated to be immigrants and not actually born in Argentina, and because of this they still speak their home language while their descendants who were born in Argentina speak only Spanish.

German in Australia

Australia has an estimated population of around 75,600 German speakers. Australians of German ancestry constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in Australia, numbering around 811,540. German immigrants played a significant role in settling the states of South Australiaand Queensland. Barossa German, a dialect of German, was once common in and around the German-settled Barossa Valley in South Australia. However, the German language was actively suppressed by Australian governments during World War I and World War II, resulting in a sharp decline in the use of German in Australia. German Australians are today overwhelmingly English speaking, with the German language as a home language in heavy decline.

German in Brazil

The main variety of German in Brazil is Riograndenser Hunsrückisch which is to be found in the south of the country. The version of German there has changed over 180 years of contact with Portuguese as well as the languages of other immigrant communities. This contact has led to a new dialect of German concentrated in the German colonies in the southern province of Rio Grande do Sul. Although Riograndenser Hunsrückisch has long been the most widely spoken German dialect in southern Brazil, like all other minority languages in the region, it is experiencing very strong decline - especially in the last three or four decades. In all the vast majority of German descended Brazilians speaks Portuguese as their mother tongue today, and German is known only as a second or third language, if at all, to the point of initiatives to "save it" having been started recently in areas with strong German-descended presence. This is especially and almost universally true for younger German-Brazilians.

A strong stigma has been forming around the public use of this language. Today it is spoken mostly in private, in family circles and by the elder members of the community and in rural areas. It is very common for people not to admit that they know it and speak it in their most private environs, although there are cities where you can hear German in public[2].

German in Chile

Chile (with a population of 15 million) has an estimated 60,000 German speakers and around 600.000 ethnic Germans (from an estimated 30.000 German immigrants[3]). The vast majority of these arrived after 1846 from several regions of Germany, initially from Hesse andBrandenburg, then from Württemberg and later from Silesia, Westphalia and lastly from Bohemia. During the first wave of German immigration (between 1846 and 1875) German colonies were primarily set up in the "Frontera" region. The second wave of immigration occurred between 1882 and 1914 and consisted mainly of industrial and agricultural workers, mainly from eastern Germany; the third wave (after 1918) settled mainly in the cities. As in Argentina and Brazil, these populations are today overwhelmingly Spanish speaking, and German as a home language is in heavy decline.

German in Colombia

Colombia has a population of about 40 million people. Of the 40 million only 5,000 people of German descent speak the language. Many of these people settled in Antioquia, and el Eje Cafetero. Most of the immigration occurred during World War I until the end of the Cold War. Many of these ethnic Germans now speak primarily Spanish at home.

Examples of German language in Namibia's everyday life.

German in Namibia

The German speaking minority in Namibia stems from the short lived German colonial period when thousands of German settlers and the Schutztruppe arrived. Today the language is used by 30% of white Namibians. The majority language of the white community is Afrikaans. The major German-language newspaper in Namibia is the Allgemeine Zeitung. It is the only German daily newspaper of Africa.

German in the United States

German was a very significant minority language in the USA until the First World War. It is estimated that up to 6% of the American schoolchildren were educated in German until 1918, and a larger percentage may have spoken it at home. However, the anti-German tendency after the outbreak of the War changed everything, and German-speaking Americans were regarded suspiciously as possible traitors, which led to an attempt to dissimulate German ancestry and thus a decay in the language use. This tendency was greatly accentuated in the time of theSecond World War, resulting in its replacement by English in most families.

Today about 1.5 million Americans of largely German ancestry claim to speak German as a native or foreign language. Small communities of Amish and Hutterites speak it as a home language up to the present day.


  1. Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod


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