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Guten Tag: German is ND's second-most-spoken language

WISHEK, N.D. - George Just will give you a hearty "Guten Tag!" at Stan's Supervalu in Wishek. Beyond that, the 77-year-old won't promise you but a handful of other German words. The guy behind the meat counter only guarantees good German sausage....

Old German hymnals at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Wishek, N.D.
St. Luke Lutheran Church in Wishek, N.D., has old German hymnals and Bibles in its library. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

WISHEK, N.D. – George Just will give you a hearty “Guten Tag!” at Stan’s Supervalu in Wishek.

Beyond that, the 77-year-old won’t promise you but a handful of other German words.

The guy behind the meat counter only guarantees good German sausage.

On an average day, Just adds the spice mix to 650 to 1,000 pounds of ground meat. On holidays, he and his co-workers may grind out 1,700 pounds of smoked ring bologna and other sausages.

The sausage is a cultural touchstone for the area’s descendants of Germans from Russia.


Just says if you catch the locals in the right setting, at the town’s annual Sauerkraut Day fest or perhaps over a meal with some of that sausage, they’ll give you an earful of German.

“Not as much anymore, but (German is) still out there,” Just said.

It’s “out there” enough to make German the No. 2 most-spoken language in North Dakota.

In fact, North Dakota is the only state in the union where German is No. 2, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Can we get a “Jawohl!” for that, people?

The 2010-12 American Community Survey shows that 641,743 North Dakotans speak only English, followed by 8,959 North Dakotans who speak a German language, and 8,201 who speak Spanish.

In Minnesota and South Dakota, Spanish is the No. 2 most-spoken language, as it is throughout much of the rest of the country.

In Minnesota, 195,117 people speak Spanish, while 16,253 do so in South Dakota.


German is No. 3 in South Dakota with 7,424 speakers, while in Minnesota, Asian/Pacific Island and a mix of Indo-European languages put German into the No. 5 position, with 27,602 speakers.

A wave of Germans from Russia came to North Dakota in the early 1900s, many of them getting off at the end of the rail line in Eureka, S.D., and heading north to farm. There, they built towns like Wishek, Strasburg, Lehr, Kulm and Zeeland.

Rose Kaseman, secretary for St. Luke Lutheran Church, helps preserve some of Wishek’s ties to the past.

In the church library, copies of old German Bibles, a hymnal and children’s Bible stories – pages yellowing and the bindings cracked or brittle – hold honored spots.

On July 12, 1914, when the first St. Luke church was dedicated, it held two services in German and one in English, a church photo says.

Services in German were still held at the church until about 20 years ago, Kaseman said.

Some of the area’s seniors speak the German dialect of their forebears well enough to converse.

“I had to be taught English when I went to school. My parents spoke all German,” said Magdalena Lautt, who lives at Wishek Living Center.


“I like talking German, better than English. I can express my thoughts better,” said Mavis Schnabel.

Glenn Meidinger of Wasilla, Alaska, was visiting the living center Thursday. He grew up on a farm near Zeeland. He said German was spoken almost exclusively at his home growing up.

“The longer I spend in Wishek,” the more of it comes back, Meidinger said. “Including the accent.”

But the dialects spoken by the Germans from Russia are fading fast.

“The old ones that used to speak it” are dying off, “and the young ones aren’t learning,” said Rachel Schmidt, office manager for the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck.

Stephanie Grollman, who teaches German at North Dakota State University, said that is the fate of many languages in the U.S. as young people work to fit in and succeed in a world where English dominates.

But Grollman said enrollment in her classes has been stable for a decade, and her beginning German classes are full.

She attributes some of that to students’ interest in their cultural heritage.


Also bolstering the language in North Dakota is an influx of German speakers in academia and professional occupations, thanks to a more global job market, she said.

German is a language of the future, she said. After all, the country is the economic leader of the European Union.

“If somebody looks at languages from a more pragmatic or utilitarian viewpoint, I definitely think that German should be considered,” Grollman said.

In Fargo, Aaron Gingrich teaches German at North High School and Ben Franklin Middle School, while Katie Wangstad teaches it at South High and Carl Ben Eielson Middle School.

German class enrollments are stable or on a mild upswing, they said.

Some of Gingrich’s students want to communicate better with fellow online gamers who speak German. Others may want to understand the lyrics of favorite heavy metal bands, such as Ramstein.

Wangstad said many of her students are drawn to German by their heritage.

“Some might have a grandma or grandpa still alive that speak German,” Wangstad said.


North has an exchange program with a school in Chemnitz, Germany, and South with a school in Itzehoe.

Students can also letter for their work in German Club, Wangstad said.

“(German is) part of the fabric of the state. I hope people continue to see the value of it,” Gingrich said. “It’s an inherited language, and a very vibrant, modern language.”


George Just watches Willis Caldwell grind meat
George Just watches Willis Caldwell grind meat for sausage at Stan’s Supervalu in Wishek, N.D. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling 701-241-5583.
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