Language History #1: The Muhlenberg legend and the history of German in the US

By | February 25, 2023
Hamburgers, a melange of German and American culture.
Hamburgers, a melange of German and American culture. Image: Valeria Boltneva

As a German-based translation service provider, Lengua Translations is passionate about languages and their rich history. In our article series “language history”, we delve into the fascinating origins and evolution of various languages. With a special focus on German, we explore its intricate history, its significant influence on other languages, and its relevance in modern times. Join us on a journey through time and discover the hidden stories behind the language we speak today.

The Muhlenberg legend is a popular story that recounts an episode in the early history of the United States. The story goes that in the early days of the United States, a vote was held in the Continental Congress to decide whether English or German would be the official language of the newly formed country. According to the legend, the vote was tied until a Pennsylvania representative named Peter Muhlenberg cast the deciding vote in favor of English, stating that “the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.” While the story is widely recounted, there is no historical evidence to support it. In the year 1830, only 9% of the population spoke German, in Pennsylvania a third did. Although English is widely spoken and considered the de facto official language of the United States, there is no official language at the federal level, and there has never been a vote on the matter. The origin of the Muhlenberg legend might have stemmed from the proceedings of a vote in the US House of Representatives in 1794 when a group of German immigrants requested the translation of certain laws into German. Despite the House of Representatives’ discussion of the petition, no action was taken on it. A motion to adjourn and reconsider the matter later was turned down by a close vote of 42 to 41.

However, there is no denying the role that German has played in the history of the United States. German-speaking immigrants have been coming to the United States since the colonial period, and by the mid-19th century, German was the most commonly spoken non-English language in the country. German language newspapers, books, and schools were common in many parts of the country, particularly in the Midwest.

The First World War marked a turning point in the history of German in the United States. Anti-German sentiment was widespread, and many German-Americans were accused of disloyalty to the United States. German language newspapers were shut down, and German language instruction was banned in many schools. The Second World War brought even greater changes. German-Americans were once again suspected of disloyalty, and German language instruction was banned in many schools. The use of German in public life declined rapidly, and by the end of the war, the language had lost much of its cultural and social significance in the United States.

Today, German is still used in the United States, but its significance is not comparable to what it used to be. German language instruction is still offered in many schools, particularly at the college level, but the number of German speakers in the country has declined significantly over the past century. Despite this, German continues to be an important language in many fields, including science, technology, and the arts. German remains one of the most widely spoken languages in the country, with over a million speakers. German is the largest ancestry group in the state of Pennsylvania, and cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Cincinnati, Ohio, have strong German-American communities.

The United States is home to many cities and towns with German-inspired names, reflecting the country’s history of immigration and cultural influence. From New Ulm, Minnesota, to Fredericksburg, Texas, these names pay tribute to the German settlers who once lived in these areas and left their mark on American culture.

German immigrants have had a significant impact on the cultural, social, and political landscape of the United States. Many notable figures in American history were of German descent, including John Jacob Astor, the first American multimillionaire; Levi Strauss, the founder of the iconic Levi’s brand; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. German immigrants have also made important contributions to science, such as Albert Einstein and Wernher von Braun, who were instrumental in the development of modern physics and rocket technology, respectively. In the arts, German immigrants have produced influential writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Mann. German-Americans have also made significant contributions to American cuisine, including the creation of hot dogs and hamburgers. Overall, German immigrants have played a crucial role in shaping American society and culture.

While the Muhlenberg legend may be nothing more than a myth, the role of German in the history of the United States cannot be denied. From the early colonial period to the present day, German has been an important language in the country, and its influence can still be felt in many aspects of American culture and society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *