The Upper Sorbian Language in Texas

“The Upper Sorbian Language in Texas.” West Slavic Linguistics Section. American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages Convention. New York. 28 Dec. 1976.


In a small area near the Central Texas town of Giddings, some fifty miles east of Austin, there exists a trilingual ethnic group on the rapid verge of extinction: the Sorbs (or to employ the term in use in the area, the Wends). The three languages involved are Upper Sorbian, English, and German. An extremely small number of individuals still speak Upper Sorbian and to the best of my knowledge there are no families today in which Sorbian is the principal language of communication. The Upper Sorbian language in Texas, forced to compete with not one, but two, dominant languages, is on the verge of extinction.

The Sorbian Immigration to Texas.

Although there were various reasons for the Sorbian immigration to Texas, the immediate cause was the desire for greater religious freedom. [i] The main immigration occurred in 1854. A group of some 600 Sorbs, under the leadership of the Reverend Johann Kilian, left Germany in September of 1854 and arrived in Galveston, Texas in December of the same year. The Sorbs settled in Central Texas and Rev Kilian named the community Serbin.

Possible Reasons for the Decline of Sorbian in the Community.

The decline of Upper Sorbian in the Texas community can undoubtedly be attributed partly to the factors responsible for the decline of other secondary languages in the United States (i.e. intermarriage with non-speakers of the secondary language and the idea in our “melting-pot” society that the way to success or even acceptance is aided by the use of English as the primary language, etc.).

There are certain additional factors, however, which have possible relevance to a discussion of the decline of Sorbian in Texas. The following factors may be more relevant to a discussion of the loss of Sorbian among Texas Sorbs than to, say, a discussion of the loss of Spanish among Southwest Chicanos.

1. The fact that Upper Sorbian was in competition with not only the dominant language of our society, English, but with another secondary language, German. [ii]

2. The fact that the use of Sorbian in the community has not been reinforced in the past half-century or so by its use in the schools and churches (e.g., sermons were no longer preached in Sorbian in the Serbin church after 1920). Today there are no Sorbian-language newspapers, radio programs, etc. in the area.

3. There have been no important immigrations of Sorbs to Texas subsequent to the 1854 immigration.

In summation, it is interesting to note that in this day and age of “ethnicity,” there has been an attempt to preserve a sense of linguistic and ethnic identity in the community. Some six years ago a “Wendish Culture Club” was formed. It seems, however, to have had little or no success in either preserving or reviving the use of Sorbian in Texas.

Sketch of a Texas Serbian Ideolect.

Although I have done fieldwork in the Texas Sorbian community over the past twelve years, all the data presented here was collected in December 1976 from one of the few remaining fluent speakers of Sorbian in the area. I wish to emphasize strongly that the material given here represents only a sketch of his ideolect. Although there exist interesting problems concerning the phonological system and lexicon of this ideolect, I will discuss certain syntactic questions. [iii]

The informant is Mr. Carl Mirtschin a farmer 76 years of age who lives with his wife between the small communities of Northrup and Winchester in the Giddings area. He is still physically active and mentally alert. The following is a brief linguistic history of the informant. His parents were born in the United States; his grandparents were born in Germany. His primary language at home was Sorbian, but some German was also spoken. He attended both Sorbian and German church services and was confirmed in German. He became fluent in English after confirmation. When asked to rate his relative fluency (bath now and earlier in the three languages of the area, he stated that earlier the order of fluency was (in descending order) Sorbian, German, English, but that now the order has been reversed (German still occupying the middle position.

The primary language used at home with his wife is English. One way in which his knowledge of Sorbian is reinforced is his daily reading of the Bible in Sorbian.

Preservation of Dual.

The first area of investigation is the preservation in this ideolect of the dual number. Standard Upper Sorbian (SUS) has preserved the Proto­Slavic system of number (singular, dual, and plural).

In this ideolect the dual has been preserved, but it seems to be in free variation with the plural in situations where the dual is called for. The interference relationship of Sorbian to English and German is clear: neither English nor German has overt dual suffixes.

The following are examples of the preservation of the dual number in this ideolect:

Those two boys are speaking Wendish. Tej dwaj holcaj pojedatej serse. [iv]

Those two men were here yesterday. Tej dwaj mužaj stej joł čera bołoj.

My wife and I speak Wendish. Ja a moja žona pojedamoj serse.

My father and I are here. Mój nan a ja smój joł.

My wife and I were here yesterday. Ja a moja žona smój joł bołoj čera. [v]

I have two brothers. Ja mam dwaj bratraj.

These examples can be contrasted with examples where the plural number is used:

My wife and I speak Wendish. Moja žona a ja serse pojedamo.

My brother and I speak Wendish. Mój brat a ja pojedamo serse.

Those two men will be here tomorrow. Tej dwaj mužej budźeja jeł jutci.

I have to sisters. Ja mam dwej sotri.

In one interesting pair of utterances, the informant gave for –

My wife and I feel good. Moja žona a ja so dobri čujemoj.

But when immediately asked to repeat the utterance, gave: Moja žona a ja so dobri čujemo.

Preservation of Case.

The second area of investigation is the preservation of the case system. SUS has preserved the Proto-Slavic system of seven cases. In this ideolect the case system has been preserved, but there are examples of the “incorrect” use of cases. As with the question of the dual, the interference relationship of Sorbian to English and German is clear: The German and English (especially the English) case systems are much less complex.

The following are examples of the preservation of the case system in this ideolect:

Accusative: I’m drinking water. Ja wodu pijem. [vi]

(masculine animate): I see the horse. Ja widzim toho konja.

Instrumental: I’m here with my father. Ja sĕm joł zez mojim nanom.

Dative: I’m helping my father. Ja mojem nanej pomham.

These examples can be contrasted with examples of the “incorrect” use of cases (it is the nominal ending which are of primary concern):

Substitution of nominarive for accusative: I have two brothers. Ja mam dwaj bratraj.

Substitution of instrumental for dative: I’m helping my brother. Ja pomham mojim bratrami.

Substitution of vocative for accusative: I see a horse. Ja widźim jeno konjo.

Substitution of vocative for genitive: I’m here without my father. Ja sĕm joł bjez mojeho nano.

Preservation of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) Word Order.

The third area of investigation is the preservation of the SUS word order SOV in declarative sentences.

The “unmarked” (i.e., where there is no emphasis on the object) word order of Upper Sorbian simple declarative sentences is SOV.

(subject – object – verb), e.g.: [vii]

Ja mjato kupuju. I’m buying meat. SOV

The “marked” order, however, is SVO, e.g.:

Ja kupuja mjaso. I’m buying meat (not something else). SVO

The surface word order of simple declarative sentences in both English and German is SVO, e.g.:

I see the house. Ich sehe das Haus.

In investigating the surface word order of this ideolect, a weakness of my approach was that I was eliciting Serbian utterances by giving the informant English sentences and having him give Sorbian equivalent. This may have influenced the word order of some of his utterances.

The following are examples of the “correct” use of SUS word order:

I’m drinking water. Ja wodu pijem. SOV

I’m buying meat. Ja mjaso kupujem. SOV

The following is an example of “marked” order, i.e ., where the emphasis is on the object. The informant “correctly” gave SVO order:

I’m not buying meat. I’m buying milk. Ja nje kupujem mjaso. Ja kupujem mloko. SVO. SVO.

These examples can be contrasted, however, with examples of “unmarked” SVO word order:

I have a sister. Ja mam jenu sotru. SVO

I see the horse. Ja widźim toho konja. SVO

The following are examples of word order involving the dative case:

I’m helping my father. Ja mojem nane pomham. SOV

When asked immediately afterwards to give “I’m helping my brother,” the informant gave:

Ja pomham mojim bratrami. SVO

possibly indicating that he was emphasizing the object.

Other Items of Interest.

The SUS aspect system seems to have been preserved in this idiolect, although additional fieldwork would be necessary before any definite conclusions could be drawn. The informant contrasted sĕm pił with sĕm wópił in the Sorbian equivalents of the English utterances “I drank beer yesterday” and “I drank up the beer.” [viii] The informant gave ja poeźem do Serbina for “I’ll drive to Serbin”, but when immediately afterwards asked to give the Sorbian equivalent of “I’ll drive to Giddings,” gave ja dźem do Gĕdingza jĕc [ix] (possibly due to the influence of the English future construction of auxiliary + infinitive).

Finally, SUS has no definite article, yet the informant contrasted in accusative constructions’ jenu karu (“a car”) with tu karu (“the car”). This may have been due to the influence of the English definite article or it may be the case that his dialect of Serbian contains a definite article. [x]


[i] For a history of the Texas Sorbs, see Blasig (1954).

[ii] See, for example, Engerrand’s discussion (pp. 144-48) of the “Germanization of the Texas Wend.”

[iii] One question for which additional research is needed is the extent to which palatalization has been preserved as a distinctive feature. Examples in this ideolect of distinctive palatalization are nan (father) vs. kóń (horse) and worał (plow – participle) vs. rjana (“beautiful” – singular feminine). Examples of obvious loanwords in this ideolect are kara for SUS awto and tawzant for SUS tysac.

[iv] Data is given in SUS orthography. The English approximations for ĕ and ó are I and U respectively (e.g., the vowels in “bit” and “pull”). ń = palatalized n; is the voiced counterpart of č. Ł has various values, depending on the adjoining segment (at least in this idiolect of Sorbian). Pre-vocalically it has the value of “w”. Post-vocalically its value depends on the preceding vowel. After i and u, it has the value of “u.” After ĕ it has the value of “u.” After a and e, it has the value of open “o”, “ɔ” as in bought, caught, taught, etc. After o it has the value of “w.”

[v] Note bołoj for SUS byłoj and below the 1 plural present suffix o for SUS y (e.g., pojedamo). Šewc (1968: 33) remarks: “W hs. narĕčach přechadźa y po labialach do ó, o abo u.” The informant once gave bołoj.

[vi] Note the 1 singular present suffix m. The informant has m in place of SUS u. Once, however, he gave widźu for widzim. The informant once made an interesting “slip-of-the-tongue” type mistake, giving sim for widźim. It seems he was attaching the Serbian suffix m to the English lexical item “see.”

[vii] Prof. H. Šewc: personal communication.

[viii] Note that in transcribing my informant’s utterances, I have given sem for SUS sym. In SUS y is a positional variant of the phoneme i. My informant seems to have an I-type vowel in the SUS lexical item sym and I have assigned it to the phoneme I (SUS orthography = ĕ). The informant has y in the lexical item ty and sy (“you” sg. and “be” 2 singular present). Whether y has acquired phonemic status in his ideolect is a question for further research.

[ix] ć is merely an alternate grapheme for č.

[x] In discussing language interference, Weinreich (1968: 11) remarks: “When a speaker of language X uses a form of foreign origin not as an on­-the-spot borrowing from language Y, but because he has heard it used by others in X-utterances, then this borrowed element can be considered, from the descriptive viewpoint, to have become a part of language X.” Concerning the Sorbian demonstrative pronoun, Šewc (1968: 124) notes: “W hs. ludowej rĕči wuziwa so forma demonstratiwneho pronomena tón, ta, to pod wliwom nĕmskeje rĕče druhdy jako artikel.”


Blasig, Anne. The Wends of Texas. San Antonio: Naylor, 1954.

Engerrand, George C. The So Called Wends of Germany and Their Colonies in Texas and in Australia. Austin: Bureau of Research in the Social Sciences, 1934.

Šewc, Hine. Gramatika Hornjoserbskeje Rĕče. Budyžin: Ludowe Nakładnistwo Domowina, 1968.

Weinreich, Uriel. Languages in Contact. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.

Leave a Comment

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