Wednesday Seminar: Visibilizing historical multilingualism: Feature variation in Standard German personal letters from the 19th century

Samantha M. Litty (Europa-Universität Flensburg / FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg) will discuss multilingualism in 19th Century German immigrant letters 

Picture of Samantha M. Litty wearing glasses

Samantha M. Litty

This event is open to the public. Please contact organizers for meeting link.


This talk uses personal letters from two collections of German immigrants to the American Midwest to introduce several dialectal and non-standard linguistic features found in the otherwise Standard German letters of 19th century letter writers. Langer (2011, 2012) has shown that multilingualism was the norm in 19th century northern Germany, with Low German as the customary day-to-day language and High German as the formal, distanced language, explaining that “all schooling, all books, and all newspapers, in short, everything done on paper, was done in Standard German”. The linguistic situation in the 19th century is, of course, tied to the political upheaval experienced throughout Schleswig-Holstein’s history which adds to the multilingual complexity with three languages that are virtually never written but the mother tongue of the vast majority of the population (South Jutish, Low German, Frisian) and two languages which are only used in formal and written discourse (Standard German, Standard Danish). As regional and dialectal features have been shown to appear in the otherwise Standard German personal letters of Northern Germans in the 19th century (Langer 2013; Litty 2020) and given this societal norm where Standard German was the language of writing, but dialects were the mode of communication for most people, I use these letters to visibilize previously ‘invisible’ languages and language practices (Langer & Havinga 2015). 

The majority of the data for this talk come from the letters of three women from Lower Saxony, Germany. Their letters were found in a personal collection held by a local historian and genealogist in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. All of which are addressed to Katharina Müller, who immigrated from Lower Saxony to Wisconsin in 1881. For each of the three writers considered here, analysis of their High German writings is indicative of their social backgrounds.

For this talk, I have identified four categories of non-standard or vernacular features: ‘oral features’, ‘Northern German’, ‘Low German, general’, and ‘Eastphalian Low German, specific’. By identifying these features my intent is to show that these forms were exhibited, often by more than one author, suggesting that specific features may be used to identify where a writer was from or was writing from. To contrast, I supplement these by the letter collection of Phillipp Schneider (Litty 2019), a German-American Civil War soldier and resident of Wisconsin since the age of 9, who wrote 45 letters form March 1864 to August 1865, totaling ca. 22,5000 words. Schneider was born in Baden and exhibits characteristics of this region in his writing.

By comparing the writings from northern and southern German writers broadly, I show how distinctions between the dialect regions are made and how they are potential springboards for deeper analysis in the future.  


Havinga, Anna, & Nils Langer (eds.). 2015. Invisible languages in the nineteenth century. Peter Lang.

Langer, Nils. 2011. Historical Sociolinguistics in Nineteenth‐Century Schleswig‐Holstein. German Life and Letters, 64.2. 169-187

Langer, Nils. 2012. Finding non-dominant languages in the nineteenth century–problems and potentials from historical sociolinguistics. In Rudolf Muhr (ed.), Non-dominant varieties of pluricentric languages: Getting the picture. Peter Lang.

Langer, Nils. 2013. Norddeutsches in holsteinischen Soldatenbriefen von 1848–50. Niederdeutsches Jahrbuch. 136. 73-95.

Litty, Samantha M. 2019. Letters home: German-American Civil War soldiers’ letters 1864-1865. In Joshua R. Brown (ed.), Heritage language ego-documents: From home, from away, and from below. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics. 5(2). Article 3, 1-34.

Litty, Samantha M. 2020. Historical Sociolinguistic Contexts: Documenting Networks of German-American Letter Collections. Eleventh Annual Workshop on Immigrant Languages in the Americas (WILA11). University of North Carolina – Ashville.


Samantha M. Litty is an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Europa-Universität Flensburg and the FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg (2019-2021). She holds a PhD in Germanic Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research focuses on language variation and change in the 19th century in the American Midwest and the German-Danish border region of the Southern Jutland Peninsula. She is the author of Letters home: German-American Civil War soldiers’ letters 1864-1865 (2019, Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics) and A turn of the century courtship: Obstruent variation in personal letters in the Upper Midwest (2017, Sociolinguistica). Other research interests include: heritage languages, historical sociolinguistics, and historical multilingualism.



David Albert Natvig and Seyed Hadi Mirvahedi
Published Mar. 23, 2021 12:55 PM - Last modified June 3, 2022 1:41 PM