Trilingualism in Texas: Sorbian, German, and English

University of Priština


In a small area near the Central Texas town of Giddings, some sixty miles east of Austin, there exists a trilingual ethnic group on the rapid verge of extinction: the Sorbs. The three languages involved are Upper Sorbian, German and English. 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 Languages

The Slavic languages form a group of the Indo-European language family and are in turn divided into three sub-groups: the eastern sub-group (Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian) , the southern sub-group (Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian) and the western subgroup (Czech, Slovak, Polish, Kashubian, Upper Sorbian, and Lower Sorbian).

The two Sorbian languages are spoken today in the southeastern corner of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).[1] Upper and Lower Serbian are accorded the status of separate languages; they are not merely considered dialects of one language. The language in Texas is Upper Serbian.

In English the term “Wendish” is frequently used.[2] Although the Sorbs of Texas refer to the language as “Wendish,” the preferred term among Slavists is Sorbian.

The Sorbian Immigration to Texas

The reason for the Sorbian immigration to Texas in the 19th century was the feeling that in the United States there would be greater political, economic, and religious freedom, the immediate cause of the immigration being a desire for greater religious freedom.[3]

Although a small group of Sorbs immigrated to Texas in 1853, 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 in December of the same year. They settled near the present-day town of Giddings. Upon the opening of a post office in 1860; Rev. Kilian named the community Serbin.

Sketch of a Texas Serbian Ideolect

The informant was Mr. Carl Mirtschin a farmer 75 years of age. He lives with his wife between Northrup and Winchester. He is one of the few remaining speakers of Sorbian in the area. His linguistic background is the following: His grandparents immigrated to Texas in the 19th century. He was reared in a bilingual home (Sorbian and German), then began to study English in school. He speaks German and English with his wife.

The following data represents merely a sketch of his idiolect. Possible causes of divergences from Standard Upper Sorbian (SUS) are mentioned.[4]

Sorbian data is given in SUS orthography:

(English approximation)

ě = I, ‘i’ as in ‘bit’

ó = U, ‘u’ as in ‘pull’

j = y, ‘y’ as in ‘yes’

ł = w[5], ‘w’ as in ‘win’

č = ch, ‘ch’ as in ‘church’

= dž, ‘j’ as in ‘judge’

š = sh, ‘sh’as in ‘ship’)

ž = zh, ‘as in ‘azure’)

c = ts, ‘ts’ as in ‘cats’)

ń = palatalized ‘n'[6]

Items of interest in the idiolect:

1. Inconsistent use of the dual number. SUS has a three-way number system: singular, dual, and plural. German and English do not.

Some examples elicited: (items of interest are underlined):

Taj dwaj holcaj pojedatej sersce. ‘Those two boys are speaking Wendish.’

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

Ja a moja žona jěmoj. ‘My wife and I are eating.’

Contrasted with:

Moja žona a ja sersce pojedamo. ‘My wife and I are speaking Wendish.’ SUS 1 dual suffix = – oj[7]

Tej dwaj mužej budźeja joł jutci. ‘Those two men will be here tomorrow.’ SUS 3 dual suffix = – tej

2. Inconsistent use of the case system. SUS has a seven-way case system: nominative, accusative, vocative, dative, genitive, locative, instrumental. The German and English case system, is much less complex

Some examples elicited:

Ja pi jem wodu. (accusative) ‘I’m drinking water.’

Ja sěm joł bjez mojeho nana. (genitive} ‘I’m here without my father.’

Ja sěm joł ze mojim nanom. (instrumental) ‘I’m here with my father.’

Contrasted with:

Ja mam dwaj bratraj. ‘I have two brothers.’

SUS = dweju bratrow

Ja widzim to holca. ‘I see the boy.’

SUS = toho

3. Preservation of the imperfective-perfective distinction. SUS has a system of aspect (completed versus non-completed action).

Some examples elicited:

Čera sěm ja piwo pił. ‘I drank beer yesterday.’

Ja sěm te piwo wópił. ‘I drank up the beer.’

Ja do Serbina póńdu. ‘I’ll go to Serbin.’

4. Word order. Variation between Subject – Verb – Object, and Subject – Object – Verb word orders.

Some examples elicited:

Ja pijem wodu. ‘I’m drinking water.’

S     V      O

Ja widźim to holca. ‘I see the boy.’

S      V     \    O   /

Contrasted with:

Ja mjaso kupujem. ‘I’m buying meat.’

S     O         V

Ja mojem nanej pomham. ‘I’m helping my father.’

S  \      O        /     V

Ja tebe widźim. ‘I see you.’

S     O      V


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

Wowčerk, P. Kurzgefasste Obersorbische Grammatik. 3rd ed. Berlin: Volk und Wissen Ludowy Nakład, 1955.


[1] The cultural centers of the Upper and Lower Sorbs are Bautzen and Cottbus respectively. All speakers of Serbian in Germany are bilingual with German as their second language.

[2] The term ‘Lusatian’ is also sometimes used.

[3] Source for the history of the Serbian immigration to Texas: Blasig (1954).

[4] The fact that an informant uses a non-SUS form is not proof of German/English interference. It may merely mean that he speaks a non-SUS dialect.

[5] The post-vocalic phonetic value of ‘ł‘ depends on the preceding vowel. Following ‘u‘ and ‘o‘ it has the value of a back glide ‘w’. Following ‘i’, it has the value of ‘u’. Following ‘i’, ‘e’, and ‘a‘, it has the value of ‘ɔ’.

[6] Palatalization is distinctive in SUS. Examples of distinctive palatalization in this idiolect:


ń  = ‘horse’

wor = ‘plow’ (participle)

rjana = ‘beautiful’

[7] Source for SUS data: Wowčerk (1955)


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