Doris Stolberg – University of Copenhagen

Small steps in language shift: Language choice in private documents

Doris Stolberg (The Institute for German Language, Mannheim)

Being able to speak several languages is considered desirable from a political perspective, and it is often the goal of individual speakers as well. In modern migration settings, various resources are often provided to support the immigrants‘ acquisition of the new majority language but also to help them preserve their language of origin. Nevertheless, what is observed frequently is a language shift within three generations, from a monolingual command of the language of origin via bilingualism to monolingualism in the new majority language. This process, then, seems to depend at least in part on individual preferences and not only on infrastructural and societal conditions.

The current paper focuses on the role of precisely these individual language preferences in a historical immigration setting in order to achieve a better understanding of the process of language shift over several generations.

The geographical focus is on the region of Kitchener/Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, an area offering a continuous history of German-speaking immigration over the past 200 years. With this constant stream of immigration, German is still present in the cultural and language mosaic of the area. Historically as well as currently, the German-origin community falls into two major groups that have preserved German to diverging extents. One group, mainly consisting of conservative Mennonites, continues using varieties of German up until today. Their presence in the area dates back to early 19th-century immigration from Pennsylvania, preceded by 17th- and early 18th-century immigration from German-speaking areas in Europe to Pennsylvania. Among this group, German is still in use with many speakers.

Non-Mennonite speakers of German, on the other hand, began immigrating into the region around the mid-19th century. Several German-origin families played an important role in the economic and political public life of Waterloo County and, in particular, in the town of Berlin (renamed Kitchener in 1916). Archival materials show that German was preserved by this group of immigrants as well. It was not only a family language but also important in business and in schools where it was, in several cases, the language of instruction. In this community, the language shift to English occurred in the early 20th century when it was sped up, although not triggered, by the political climate around WW I.

The extended use of German in Berlin, Ontario, is evidenced by written documents from the 19th and early 20th century. The archive of the University of Waterloo hosts a large amount of private as well as official papers from some the most influential families of the region several of which used German in diaries and family communication for a number of decades after immigrating to Canada. Among these families is the Breithaupt family who arrived in North America from Hesse, Germany, in 1843 and started business dealings in Berlin (now Kitchener) in the 1850s. The family moved to Berlin, Ontario, in 1861; from then on, it was an influential player in the business and political matters of the town. The current paper focuses on one member of the Breithaupt family in particular, Louis Jacob (1855 – 1939), who kept a diary for most of his life, beginning at the age of 12. In order to gain insight into the process of shift from German to English, this study investigates L. J. Breithaupt’s language choices over a period of almost 70 years, using textual analysis and language coding. While his business correspondence seems to be in English throughout, some of his private letters are in German, some are in English, and a number of them contains both languages. Since Breithaupt’s language preference in the letters appears to depend on the addressee(s), an analysis of his private network is carried out, including his correspondence with his parents, siblings, wife, and children. His language choice in the diaries changes repeatedly, in part depending on changes in his personal circumstances (e.g., a shift to English occurs when he moves to Toronto to start college).

L. J. Breithaupt is one representative of the German community of Berlin/Waterloo at the turn to the 20th century. He was a member of an influential family; therefore, his language choice certainly did not go unnoticed and may have influenced others. At the same time, it reflected a pattern of language use that was not exceptional, as can be gathered from historical reports. At the end of Breithaupt’s life time, Kitchener/Waterloo was English speaking, at least in public. What this paper investigates are the small - and not always straightforward or unidirectional - steps of individual choice that in sum contribute to language shift drawn out over more than half a century.