The German Mothertongue

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The German Mothertongue
by Carl Schurz
A response to a toast at a banquet in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of a choral society, the Deutscher Liederkranz, of New York City, January 9, 1897. Translated by Agathe Schurz, daughter of Carl Schurz. The text is from Frederic Bancroft, ed., Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, Volume V, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1913, pp. 334-338. Notes are from Rudolf Tombo, Sr., and Rudolf Tombo, Jr., eds., Deutsche Reden: Speeches by Bebel, Bennigsen, Bismarck, Blum, Bülow, Dahlmann, Moltke, Richter, Schurz, William II, Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1905, pp. 281-282, which contains the German version of this speech, Die deutsche Muttersprache, on pp. 209-214. A translation has been provided for a poem by Heine which originally appeared without translation in the notes.


THE GERMAN MOTHERTONGUE


My Friends: — The toast to the German mothertongue ought to be responded to in music. This the Liederkranz[1] has done so often and with so much feeling — and again only the other day — that it might be better were the chorus now to stand in my place, for to-day we celebrate more especially the German mothertongue as it speaks to us in song. There may indeed be other languages which on account of the resonance of their vowels and the softness of their consonants are better adapted to singing, but in no other language do people sing as much as in German and no other nation has given us so great a treasure of melodies that the people sing, songs of such deep feeling and of such virile force. Together with the mothertongue, the German Lied sprang from the German heart and it has made its way around the world. Whatever may resist German intellect and German enterprise — nothing can withstand German song.

We must be forgiven if, when speaking of our German mothertongue, we become a little sentimental, for that is not a sign of weakness. You may remember Heine's lines about the "sentimental oaks."[2] The German mothertongue is a treasure for every thoughtful person who possesses it, the value of which is to him much more than a mere matter of sentiment. We Germans like to hear honesty spoken of as one of the prominent traits of the German national character; and I, for my part, am particularly pleased when the better elements of the American people rely upon the support of German-Americans when questions about honest government and honest money[3] arise. Pardon me for referring to such questions here; I do so only because honesty is also one of the principal characteristics of the German mothertongue.

Other languages, particularly the Romance, are distinguished for the refined and graceful elegance of their melodious diction. In these languages it is easy to say things that sound very pretty and that mean very little. In German that is more difficult. I would not imply that I consider it admirable, where a sign announces "German spoken here," for one to be as rude as one pleases — I mean rather that an insincere or stupid thought expressed in German really sounds so. And if you say anything clever or graceful in German, you cannot make it sound any more clever than it really is. In other words, the German mothertongue is not the language of vain display. Moreover, like a great organ it commands the whole range of musical expression, of force, of grandeur, of lofty enthusiasm, of passion, of delicate feeling. What is there in any other language that can excel the vigor of the German Bible, the powerful, sonorous sublimity of Schiller's dramas, the captivating word-music of Heine's lyrics?

It would be superfluous here to speak of the literature which has grown up in the German language and includes every field of intellectual activity, for its imposing scope has been recognized by the whole civilized world. But it is not only German literature which the mothertongue has to give us.

There is no language in the world which offers so many difficulties to the translator as the German, and none in which all the idioms and poetic meters of other languages can be so exactly rendered and which has so rich and complete a collection of translations. Homer, Dante, Hafiz, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Bacon, Thucydides, Tacitus, Macaulay, Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Tolstoy — the poetry, philosophy, science, history, fiction of all times and of all nations have naturally found a home in the German language, through the translations which are worthy of the originals by their fidelity, their strength and beauty. Indeed, the German language opens up to us more than any other the wealth of the literature of the whole world.

We possess, in truth, a treasure which we cannot prize highly enough, especially we who have made a new home in a new world speaking another language. It is sometimes expected of our compatriots in America that they shall not only learn English, but that they shall entirely cast aside the old mothertongue. That is very unwise advice. Nobody will dispute that the German-American must learn English. He owes it to his new country and he owes it to himself. But it is more than folly to say that he ought, therefore, to give up the German language. As American citizens we must become Americanized; that is absolutely necessary. I have always been in favor of a sensible Americanization, but this need not mean a complete abandonment of all that is German. It means that we should adopt the best traits of American character and join them to the best traits of German character. By so doing we shall make the most valuable contribution to the American nation, to American civilization. As Americans we ought to acquire the language of the country, but we must not lose our German mothertongue.

The idea that the preservation of the German language together with the English may hinder the development of our American patriotism is as silly as it would be to say that it makes us less patriotic to be able to sing Hail, Columbia in two languages. There are thousands of Americans who study German without becoming less patriotic; it only makes them more cultured and more accomplished. They learn German with laborious effort, for German is very difficult. We German-Americans have brought this treasure over the ocean with us. We need not study German — we need only not to forget it. Our children will have without trouble what others can acquire only with great difficulty, if we are but sensible and conscientious enough to cultivate and to foster it in our families. That may not suffice to give our children as thorough a knowledge of the language as is desirable, but it will immensely facilitate the acquisition of what is lacking.

I am not preaching as one of whom it might be said: "Follow his words but not his deeds." I flatter myself that I am as dutiful an American as any one, and I have tried to learn English[4] and so have my children. But in my family circle only German is spoken, much German is read and our family correspondence is carried on only in German. I may therefore be permitted to express myself strongly on this point. And so I say to you when I see how German-American parents neglect to secure for their children the possession of the mothertongue, often from mere indolence, how they wantonly cast aside the precious gift — then my German heart and my American commonsense rise up in indignant protest. Parents who neglect to give their children an opportunity to learn the German language without effort are sinning against their sacred obligation to preserve the mothertongue. All the more do I honor a German-American society in which the German language is valued and cherished as it is here; it is doing an incalculable service to our contemporaries as well as to coming generations.

May the Liederkranz, in the unnumbered years that we all hope are still in store for it, remain as faithful to this noble duty as it has been in the half-century just elapsed for the mothertongue is the bond which holds and binds its members together. The German mothertongue, the dear, strong, noble, tender, sacred mothertongue may it live everlastingly here and all the world over!


  1. One of the leading German singing societies in the city of New York.
  2. Speaking of the Westphalians, Heine says in the tenth chapter of his poem, Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen (1844):
    Sie fechten gut, sie trinken gut,
    Und wenn sie die Hand dir reichen
    Zum Freundschaftsbündnis, dann weinen sie;
    Sind sentimentale Eichen.
     
    [" They fight well, they drink well,
    And when they give you their hand
    In friendship, then they cry;
    They are sentimental oaks."]

    Heine was a member of the Landsmannschaft (student society) Westfalia at the University of Göttingen.

  3. When Schurz made this speech, the presidential campaign of 1897 had just closed. It turned principally on the democratic demand for the free coinage of silver at the ratio of 16:1. The election of the republican (sound money) candidate William McKinley, was largely due to the German vote.
  4. He succeeded so well in his attempt, that he is recognized as one of the most eloquent orators, and one of the ablest writers in the English language. His biography of Henry Clay and his essay on Abraham Lincoln are regarded as models of English style.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).


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