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KU News Release

Feb. 10, 2005
Contact: William Keel or Scott Seeger, Germanic languages and literatures, (785) 864-4803.

KU Ph.D. student's study of Low German dialect inspires community project

LAWRENCE -- More than 85 people from Washington and Marshall counties have signed up for a community-based project to preserve the Low German dialect once spoken commonly in the area, according to Scott Seeger, a University of Kansas Ph.D. student whose research has helped inspire the project.

Seeger, a graduate teaching assistant in KU's Germanic languages and literatures department, will meet again with the Washington and Marshall county residents at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21, in Hanover's Kloppenberg Center.

Dan Thalman, editor of the Washington County News, and Joyce Kracht of Bremen organized the first meeting on Jan. 17 to determine interest in the "plattduutsch," or Low German project.

A total of 99 people attended the January meeting, and more called the organizers saying they couldn't attend but were interested in the project. The Low German project attracted not only residents of Marshall and Washington counties but also several people from Nebraska in nearby Beatrice and Blue Springs.

In the first meeting, Seeger explained that he is examining reasons that languages disappear within communities, in this case Low German in northeast and central Kansas. He noted that all the speakers of Low German he had interviewed for his study all were age 60 or older. In nearly every interview, Seeger heard the same comment: "It's really too bad that we didn't pass this on to our children."

Those sentiments struck a chord with Thalman, whose own father had spoken Low German as a child until he entered kindergarten in Minnesota. Dan Thalman would like to learn to speak Low German, and two of the Thalmans' four children asked to have a special class for children.

After moving to Kansas from Minnesota, Thalman earned a bachelor's degree in history at KU in 2000 and developed an interest in the history of Washington County. When Thalman met Seeger last fall, Thalman asked to sit in as Seeger interviewed Washington residents. Thalman wrote and published a story describing the impact the language had had in the community.

Reader responses about Seeger's research prompted the January meeting. Seeger agreed to speak about his research and asked William "Bill" Keel, chair of Germanic languages and literatures at KU, and Mike Putnam, also a graduate student in German, to join him.

Keel talked about KU's German Dialect Project, which collects, preserves and analyzes German-American dialects in the Midwestern United States. Putnam talked about the Linguistic Atlas of Kansas German Dialects project at KU -- also part of the German Dialect Project. KU has worked with communities throughout Kansas including Ellis, Johnson, McPherson, Marion, Nemaha, Reno, Russell, Rush, Trego and Logan counties.

More work is being completed in Barton, Butler, Douglas, Franklin, Gove, Graham, Harvey, Haskell, Montgomery, Scott, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wichita counties.

Seeger has been making the four- to five-hour round-trip drive from Lawrence to Washington and Marysville since last summer. When Seeger, Keel and Putnam returned to Lawrence on Jan. 17, the 140-mile drive seemed to take minutes, not hours.

" We were euphoric," Seeger said. "We had expected a good turnout if 25 people showed up.

" I think this reawakens the idea of people's heritage. The best-case scenario is that this would be a project that takes hold and continues through their initiative."

This spring Seeger plans to volunteer working with residents of Washington and Marshall counties to facilitate setting up classes that will allow the older residents to teach younger residents the language of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Seeger will graduate in fall 2005 and plans to teach German and continue his research at the university level. He received a bachelor's degree in German from the University of Colorado at Denver and a master's degree in modern languages and literatures from Colorado State University.

Read more about KU's German Dialect Project at www.ku.edu/~germanic/gdrhomepage/main.htm and www.ku.edu/~germanic/lakgdhomepage/main.htm.

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