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The German in English
The Rockne/Red Rock Connection

(Address to the Texas German Convention, combined GTHS and TGS,
held in Rockne, March 2005)
Donald C. Goertz, Ph.D.

In 1905, Father Joseph Meiser, who had recently arrived from Germany to become pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Rockne, Texas, assured the members of the Society of St. Joseph that all meetings would continue to be conducted in German and that he would do everything in his power to see that only German was spoken both at school and at home. True to his commitment, he faithfully punished any child caught speaking English on the playground or in the classroom. These actions on Fr. Meiser’s part attest not to the durability and survival of the German language but point to the rising ascendancy and coming domination of English.

The slow displacement of German by English, evidenced by Fr. Meisser’s pronouncement, was dramatically hastened by World War I, so that by the time of my birth two decades later, spoken German in the Rockne/Red Rock area of central Texas was just about all gone. What little public life the German language managed to hold onto following the first World War was completely eradicated by the next one. German had not merely lost its acceptance in the region, it was for all practical purposes as good as verboten.

For a number of other communities, the decline of German was much slower and less pronounced. Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, for example, which had larger and more homogeneously German populations, remain somewhat German in character even today. New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, as the County Seats of Comal and of Gillespie Counties respectively, not only enjoyed a certain degree of independence through their governmental autonomy but also through their relatively self-sustaining economies. Rockne, by contrast, was a small and widely scattered farming community, many of whose residents’ economic lives were tied to Red Rock, which, prior to the great fires of the 1918 and 1924, was a large and thriving Anglo-American community. The remainder of the German immigrants and their descendants looked to Bastrop, which was English speaking and which, as the County Seat of Bastrop County, was governmentally and economically dominant over Rockne.

My family moved to New Braunfels the year after WW II ended. I entered second grade that year, and on my first day at school an incident occurred that says a lot about the differences between it and the Rockne/Red Rock communities. During recess, a classmate said to me, “Du bist ein dummer Esel.” I, of course, had no idea what he had said.

Following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939, my father announced there would be no more German spoken in our house. Both he and my mother were born into German speaking households—his mother, in fact, never learned to speak English—and had attended school during Fr. Meiser’s years as pastor, but the rising tide of English and the waning of German after WW I, had left them fully bi-lingual, so that converting solely to English was really no problem for them. My motherís brother, for example, fighting in trenches of France in 1917 regularly wrote to her in English, whereas my father corresponded at the same time with his brother, who was studying for the priesthood in Columbus, Ohio, in German.

I was born not long after my father’s edict banning German went into effect. Naturally, a few words and phrases managed to survive. At bedtime, we always said, for example, “Gute Nacht” and “Schlaf gut” and “Gott segne Dich.” And for the remainder of my father’s life it was not unusual to hear his favorite and strongest expletive issue forth from his gentle mouth: “Verdammt noch’mal,” while my older brother’s less than endearing term for me for decades was “Futzkup.” This, I knew, meant “farthead” but not until many years late when studying German did I discover it was a Texas-German spelling for “Furzkopf”, which, by the way, must have been a Texas-German invention since the expression “Furzkopf”, to the best of my knowledge, does not exist in Germany. “Futzing around”, most likely as a euphemism for “farting around”, was also a common term used by my brother and his New Braunfels friends.

So when Gerald Friesenhahn said “Du bist ein dummer Esel,” I knew it was German, and I could tell from the context and his tone of voice it was not nice, but just where it fell on the scale of badness was a mystery. My mother explained to me what it meant, and I eagerly returned to school the next day where I, in all my 2nd grade righteousness, grandly called Gerald Friesenhahn “ein dummer Esel”.

For my father and mother, German became the language of secrets. Anything we children were not supposed to hear was said in German. Perhaps it was the mysteriousness of this secrecy that fueled my strong desire to learn this cryptic language when I grew up.

As the years went by, the powerful and important impact of German culture on the growth and development of American culture and society became increasingly evident to me. I became aware of the mathematicians and scientists; of the composers and musicians; and of the painters, philosophers, and writers and the formative roles they played both in Germany and here. In due turn, it also became apparent that the German language, far from being dead here in United States, was all around us, often just barely hidden in English; it sometimes just takes a little prying to notice it, so we need a few tools-something sort of like linguistic eyeglasses--to see the German in English.

Words That Are The Same

The first thing we might notice is that a number of words are exactly the same in both languages, for example the nouns: der Wind, der Finger, der Name, der Arm, die Lamp(e); and the verbs: ich find(e), ich sing(e), ich bring(e), ich send(e), ich kan(n).

Words That Are Similar

We can next pick out a whole bunch of words that are remarkably similar, and once we become aware of this we will notice many more: das Boot/boat; der Wein/wine; der Stein/stone; der Arsch/arse; der Fisch/fish; der Hund/hound (dog); der Hut/hat; das Haus/house; das Papier/paper; das Wunder/wonder; das Fleisch/flesh (meat); die Mutter/mother; die Schule/school; die Nadel/needle; die Lippe(n)/lip(s); die Nase/nose.

The reason for this likeness is that English is a Germanic language: Both it and German are descendants of the same parent language; they are, we could say, cousin languages. However, if it had not been for the events taking place in the Empire of Ancient Rome around 400 years after the birth of Jesus, there would be no English language.

The Romans occupied Britain about ten years after the death of Jesus. They stayed for nearly 400 years until about 407 to 409 when most of the legions were withdrawn to Rome (the Goths under Alaric, remember, sacked Rome in 410). Those left behind invited Saxons from northern Germany to ally with them against the native Celts, who in the absence of the Roman legions, were starting to rebel. The Saxons, who had been raiding the coastal areas of England for over 100 years, were happy to help out. Evidently preferring the gray, gloomy, wet, moderately cold climate of England to the gray, gloomy, wet intensely cold climate of Germany, the Saxons themselves rebelled against their hosts-the remaining Roman remnants-and then invited their cousins, the Angles and Jutes to join them. England was now in the hands of Germanic tribes, whose speech, separated from the German motherland, began to take on different sounds and patterns. About a hundred years or so later, what had started out as Low-German dialects had evolved into something that was slowly turning into what we now realize were the beginnings of English. Over the centuries, the land held by the Angles eventually came to be called “Angla land”, whence England, and their dialect “Anglish”, which gives us the word “English”.

Change is the nature of language. No language stays the same. If there is physical distance, and no contact exists between speakers of the same language, within only a few generations the differences arising between the two groups will be significant, and eventually there will be two languages instead of one—related, of course, but each its own tongue. Despite the expectable, normal and natural evolutionary changes, German and English would have remained even more closely and observably related to each other except for a major historical event.

In the year 1066, the English—the descendants of those Germanic invaders, now intermarried and mixed with the native Celts and leftover Romans--were defeated by the Norman Frenchmen, and their country occupied by them for a few hundred years. During this time, the language of the conquerors, which was French, dominated the educational, religious, and administrative bodies throughout England. However, the French language was itself still evolving from Latin so that by the time the Normans decided to return home, their French/Latin language had brought about significant changes in the emerging English language and had left behind in it countless numbers of Latin based words.

There were a few additional though lesser Latinizing influences, such as the Renaissance, that came along later. The net result is that even though English is a Germanic language, its vocabulary is almost 60% Latin based, while the native Germanic words make up just under 30%. Greek supplies about 10% of English words, and other languages a total of about 1%. This explains why English has a vocabulary vastly greater than any other language, and is an immensely rich and vibrant language. With around one million dictionary entries, English vocabulary can never really be fully mastered by anyone.

This dual heritage of German and Latin also explain why English usually has at least two words that mean the same thing, for example overtake (Germanic) and surpass (French/Latin), or understand (Germanic) and comprehend (Latin). In general, most of the basic words we use in common everyday speech are Germanic in origin—because these are the words the English used in their daily lives during the Norman French occupation, while the more sophisticated sounding words of education, law, literature and so forth mostly come from Latin. The difference can be easily seen 900 years ago in the daily morning routines of the English peasant and the Norman French occupier: Upon arising each day the victorious Frenchman would daintily urinate and defecate while the subjugated Englishman would coarsely pissen and schiten.

Sound Shifts

There are many more German words in English than the ones listed earlier. Because of certain sound shifts they are somewhat less easy to detect. Thanks primarily to German philologists from the 19th century, we know that certain changes among languages follow consistent patterns and, as a result, we can more readily see the parallels between English and German, and more easily recognize the German in English.


d = th
das Bad/bath; das Ding/thing; der Dorn/thorn; der Bruder/brother; die Erde/earth; dank(en)/thank; denk(en)/think; dein/thine; du/thou; dick/thick; duenn/thin
b = v
ich habe/I have; ich gebe/I give; ich lebe/I live; ich liebe/I love; das Silber/silver; das Sieb/sieve; Sieben/seven; das Grab/grave
Wir haben den Hund begraben.
We have buried (begraved!) the dog.
v = f
der Vater/father; das Volk/folks (people); bevor/before; vier/four; ich vergebe/I forgive
z = t
Zunge/tongue; zwoelf/twelve; zehn/ten; zwei/two (twai(n) & twin); zwanzig/twenty; das Herz/heart; zu/to
Ich gehe zu der Schule.
I go to the school.
c = g
acht/eight; die Sicht/sight (Vorsicht! Foresight! (careful); die Macht/might; die Nacht/night; das Licht/light; das Recht/right; Ich lache/I laugh
ch = k
das Buch/book; die Flasche/flask (bottle); Ich mache/I make; Ich suche/I seek
k = c, ch
der Kaiser/Caesar/Tsar/Czar = Emperor; das Kalb/calf; der Kanzler/chancellor; der Keller/cellar; die Kirche/church; die Kaese/cheese; die Kaelte/cold
ss = t
das Wasser/water; der Fuss/foot; ein Bissch(en)/a (little) bit; Ich schoss/I shot; Ich muss/I must; Ich vergess(e)/I forget
s = t
es/it; was/what; aus/out; das/that/the; die/the
t = d
der Gott/God; der Tag/day; der Bart/beard; der Mittag/midday; die Flut/flood; die Seite/side; die Mitte/middle; das Bett/bed; das Brot/bread; die Tuer/door; gut/good; rot/red; blut/blood; alt/old
f = p
tief/deep; die Hilfe/help

Ich trinke Wasser. Der Mann ist (be)trunk(en). Ich bitte (bid/ask for) um Hilfe. Ich verbiete es. Es ist verboten. Ich schoss den Dieb.

Pitfalls and False Friends

In the late 1950s, a young student who would later become my friend, arrived from Berlin as a Fulbright Exchange Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. In an effort to help the foreign students feel at home and get to know some American students on the campus, the university hosted a dance. Hans, my friend, spotted a particularly good-looking young woman and invited her onto the floor. While swirling around to the music, his hand pressed against the back of her waist, which is how people danced in those days, Hans said to her, “I really like the girdle you are wearing”. And that was how his evening by himself began.

Hans had studied some English in school, he was very aware of the many similarities to German, and of the sound shifts. So he never had bothered to check the meaning of the English word “girdle”; he just naturally assumed it was the same as German “Guertel”, which actually means “belt”. Words like these are called false friends, or faux amis. They are little verbal minefields that remind how hard it can be to master another language and teach us that no matter how much we know, we may never know it all. This is true, of course, not just between English and German but of any foreign language.

It is customary, for example, when the president of the United States visits a foreign country, to say a little something in the language of that country, even though in all likelihood he has no knowledge of it at all. So when Jimmy Carter visited Poland, he wanted to tell the many thousands gathered at the airport to greet him how much he loved the Polish people, but announced instead how much he would like to make love to all of them—only the expression he used was considerably stronger than “make love”.

“Ich bin ein Berliner”—“I am a breakfast cake”--John Kennedy boldly proclaimed in May of 1963 to the 200,000 Berliners assembled at Rathaus (City Hall) Schoeneberg. I was there that morning, and all of us in the crowd realized right away that Kennedy meant to say, “I am a Berliner”--“Ich bin Berliner”. The mistake he made is about the same as saying in English “I am a Danish”, which is a sweet roll eaten at breakfast, instead of “I am Danish”.

Clairol, an American company, decided a number of years ago to introduce a new curling iron into its German market. They called it the “Mist Stick”. In English, mist is a thin vapor of water in the air, but in Germany it is the deposit barnyard animals make after a good meal. It is little wonder that Clairol’s “manure stick” found few buyers in Germany.

Any girl named “Misty” who is planning to study in Germany might want to think about using a different name until she gets back home.

Sometimes just one letter out of place or a word mispronounced is the difference between day and night, between sense and nonsense, or between making a joke and being a joke. “Bekommen” looks like it ought to mean “become”, whereas it actually means to “get”. Bruno Walter, the famous conductor, once said in an interview during his earlier years in the United States, “I became my first job...”

The young American wife of a German friend got an unintentional laugh at a New Year’s eve party one time. When asked if she wanted some more champagne, she replied, “Giess mich ein”—“pour me in”! She meant to say “Giess mir ein”—“pour me some in”.

And then there is the story of the G.I. stationed in Germany who went into the post office with a small package to mail. He meant to say to the clerk, “Do you have a scale, I’d like to weigh something”? (Haben Sie eine Waage, ich moechte etwas wiegen?) He said instead, “Haben Sie eine Wiege, ich moechte etwas wagen”—“Do you have a cradle, I’d like to take a risk”.

I walked into a music store in Munich many years ago. I was looking for a particular folk song, “I am a Steir boy”, from the Steir region of Austria. When the old man behind the counter said, “What do want”, I answered, “I am a Stier boy”. To which he replied, “Maybe a doctor can help you”. “Stier” is the same as English “steer”. Basically, I had told him I was castrated.

Whether German, French, Spanish—or even within our own language—it is remarkably easy to slip up, especially if it involves an expression taken from another language. Unless we know the language or have heard the expression out loud, we may not know how to pronounce it correctly. For example, faux amis—the false friends mentioned above—is a French term which we have borrowed in English, and it does not look at all the way it is spoken. A long time ago, when I was a university student, I heard about the girl whose boy friend sent her a letter—back in those days people used to communicate by writing letters—telling her about the new car he had bought. Pontiac had a new model on the market that year, one that was named after a famous French auto race that was not all that well known at the time in West Texas, which is where the proper young lady was from. She burst excitedly into a gathering of girls at her boarding house and proudly announced, “My boy friend has one of them grand prix and he canít wait to show it to me”. P-r-i-x is not pronounced in English the way it looks.

Albert Pfefferkorn was a prisoner of war at Camp Swift just outside Bastrop from 1943 to 1945. To this day he delights in telling of his first night in the Camp. At dusk, the commandant, a colonel, gave a long welcome speech in English to the newly arrived prisoners, none of whom spoke English. At the end of his speech, the colonel yelled in military style “Good Night!”, to which he was clearly awaiting a reply from the Germans assembled on the parade ground in front of his office. And so it was on a very hot August night in 1943, that 300 Germans yelled back at the tops of their lungs the words they had heard: “Es schneit”—“Itís snowing”! Every night for the next two years until the war’s end, the colonel was thrilled by the enthusiastic response of the prisoners at the conclusion of his long and incomprehensible English speech as they shouted out, “Es schneit”.

I recall a young student just beginning to learn German, who knew that “Himmel” meant “sky” or “heaven”, and so, when he came across the word “Himmelfahrt”, he automatically assumed it meant “thunder”.

There are too many words like these to mention all of them. Here are just a few more of these fake friends, which can either give us a bellyache or a belly laugh, depending on the situation.

“Sekt” (champagne) is a drink, not a religious group; if you give a German a “Rat” (advice), it will not bite him and it may even benefit him, but “Gift” (poison), on the other hand, might kill him. In German, “Bad” (bath) is always good—at least two or three times a week. No one fears a “Gang” (corridor), and “Anger” (meadow) brings us peace and tranquility. And you might want to think twice about “Made in Germany”—“die Made” = maggot!

One last minefield is the area of idioms. No matter what these may look like or sound like, it is difficult--if not impossible—to understand what they mean. In English, for example, “to have a monkey on one’s back” means “to be a drug addict” or “to be obsessed by something”. If you say in German, “Ich habe einen Affe auf den Ruecken”, it means exactly that, you have a monkey clinging to your back.

In English we say, “Don’t cross the bridge before you come to it”. The same idiom in German says, “Don’t worry about eggs that havenít been laid”—“Kuemmre dich nicht um ungelegte Eier”.

Much more obscure is the expression “das Ei des Kolumbus”, which literally translates as “the egg of Columbus”, but the meaning of which is “the obvious solution”. For example, “Seine Erfindung war das Ei des Kolumbus” means “His invention was the obvious solution”.

A long, long time age, if a family in Germany had a pig, that family was fortunate indeed. Having a pig meant there was going to be bacon and a goodly number of sausage and pork loin and ham hock dinners for days to come, not to mention a couple of pairs of shoes and a bag or two. This was such a lucky situation to be in that “Schwein haben”--“to have pig”—eventually came to mean “to be lucky”. “Ich habe Schwein gehabt” means “I was lucky”, but if a newly arrived German immigrant said to his English speaking neighbors, “I had pig yesterday”, they would think he ate pork for dinner, not that he was lucky.

At the end of WWII, it was customary in Germany, following the establishment of US military bases around the country, for local officials and base officials to work together to promote good relations between the townspeople and the American military personnel. The mayor of one particular town had a young daughter he was eager for the newly arrived base commander to meet, so he invited the young man to join him, his wife, and daughter for dinner and dancing afterwards. This was one of those rare American soldiers who really wanted to learn German. In fact, he had just learned a new expression that day and was eager to use it, so he happily accepted the invitation. When they got to the dance, the mayor and his wife immediately danced several sets. When they returned to the table where their daughter and the soldier were sitting, the mayor asked the young man: “Have you had a chance to dance with my daughter yet”? To which he proudly replied, “Nein, das Schwein habe ich noch nicht gehabt”—“That pig I have not yet had”.

And so with that, I say to you on this warm March day, “Es schneit”. My wish for all of you is that “Sie werden Schwein haben”. Auf Wiedersehen.

(Donald C. Goertz was born in Red Rock, Texas in 1939, and attended first grade at Sacred Heart School in Rockne, before moving to New Braunfels, Texas in 1946. Although he spent just a little over six years in the Rockne/Red Rock area, he is keenly interested in its history, as evidenced by his translation from German into English of Rockne Region Germans: Immigrants from Wuerges, 1846-1883, which was published in 2005. Dr. Goertz received his Ph.D. in Classics [Ancient Greek and Latin] from university of Texas in 1972 and was Professor of Classics for twenty years before becoming Head of Scholl at Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas. He began studying German while in college, did a year of his graduate studies in Berlin in the early 1960s, and has had a passionate love affair with the German language and German culture ever since.)