Strange and Unusual Languages (of the United States)

Languages image by Tumisu

A few days ago, I saw this headline from BBC News about a pre-school in the Swedish town of Alvdalen that was going to teach only in Elfdalian, an endangered language that is only spoken in that town and nowhere else. The residents of the town hope that by teaching their language to their children, they can preserve it. Reading this story reminded me about the global movement to preserve many rare and endangered languages around the world; languages with only a handful of speakers left as social, cultural, economic, and sometimes even political pressures encourage the use of more widely-spoken languages.

We’re so used to thinking about the United States as an English-speaking country that we sometimes forget that there are plenty of rare, strange and unusual languages with only a handful of speakers right here at home. Today, we’re going to look at a few of the more bizarre and interesting examples.

Texas German

Texas German Society logo from Communicating Across Cultures

In the Texas Hill Country around New Braunfels, you will find a small but proud community of about 1,000 or so people who speak a dialect of German that exists nowhere else on Earth. Texas German traces its roots to a group of German settlers fleeing persecution after the failed Revolution of 1848 (hence their nickname, the “Forty-Eighters”).

This was before German unification and the introduction of a standardized German dialect, so Texas German ended up being a blend of the various 19th-century dialects brought to Texas by the settlers, with a smattering of English words mixed in as well. The language flourished in central Texas for decades, but then World War I and World War II happened. Across the nation, German-Americans were suspected of possibly supporting the enemy, and the only way to escape these fears was to rapidly assimilate to the ways of their English-speaking neighbors. Texas German speakers stopped passing the dialect on to their children, and instead taught them to speak English in public.

Today, almost all Texas German speakers are over 60 years old. However, there are groups that are trying to preserve the dialect by building an archive of recordings for future linguists to study.

A sample Texas German sentence: Die Kuh is über die fence gejumpt. (The cow jumped over the fence.)


Tsimishian drummer image by Okologix

There are hundreds of Native American languages indigenous to the United States, and many of them are endangered. Many more have already gone extinct; Hazel Sampson, the last living speaker of Klallam, died in 2014.

So why did I choose to cover Sm’álgyax, the language of the Coast Tsimshian tribe with only about 70 speakers in Alaska? What makes it so much more interesting than the others?

Technically, it isn’t native to the United States. It’s an immigrant language.

Allow me to explain. The Coast Tsimshian originally come from the area along the Skeena River in British Columbia, Canada. Then, in the 1850s, an Anglican missionary named William Duncan moved in to preach to the tribe. Duncan’s missionary work tore the Indians’ community in two, as those who insisted on maintaining their old ways came into conflict with Duncan’s converts. At one point, the chief even held a gun on Duncan and threatened to kill him for ringing churchbells during an important ceremony.

Eventually, Duncan’s followers left with him to found a new community, Metlakatla, on Annette Island in Alaska. Duncan convinced the U.S. government to grant the island to his followers as an Indian reservation. Even though 14.8% of Alaskans identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the Tsimshian reservation on Annette Island remains the only Indian reservation in Alaska.

A sample Sm’álgyax sentence: Yagwat niisda ts’uu’tsa laalt. (The bird sees the worm.)

Hoi Toider

Tangier Island image by Elaine Meil

On Tangier Island, an unassuming little marshy patch of land off the coast of Virginia, lies a small town with 727 residents. The town is home to three bed-and-breakfasts, one ATM, and a small history museum that has the island’s only public restroom. Not only does the island have no traffic lights, but it has no bridge connecting it with the mainland; the only connection with the outside world (apart from cable TV) is a ferry service.

That isolation has had a very unusual side-effect: Tangier island and a few islands around it along the Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina coasts are the only places left on Earth where you can hear people speaking in much the same way William Shakespeare did! Over the centuries, these small, isolated island communities have preserved the English dialect spoken by the early English colonists in the New World. Their dialect is called “High Tider” or “Hoi Toider”, the latter being a phonetic spelling of the name the way you would pronounce those words with this accent. Naturally, these islands have become magnets for linguists seeking to study the history and roots of the English language.

Frankly, I’m glad those linguists are there studying this dialect rather than me, as I can’t understand a word of it:

Still, I’m told the dialect retains many characteristics and words of Elizabethan speech, including words that have long since gone extinct in modern English, such as “yethy” (for something that smells bad) and “nicket” (for a small amount of something used in cooking, like a pinch).

A sample High Tider sentence: I’m not even gonna attempt this one.

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