Providing resources and trai­ning in the practices and tools of the digital humanities

The Linguistic Atlas of Kansas German Dialects: An Interview with Bill Keel and Chris Johnson

Interviewed by Katie Sparks, April 2013


KS: Bill, what is your research field?

BK: My research field is German-American settlement dialects in the Midwest, particularly in Kansas and Missouri, and that involves determining where there are remaining groups of individuals who speak a German dialect resulting from the original settlements in the 19th century, going out to those settlement areas and conducting linguistic fieldwork, interviewing speakers, recording the data, analyzing the data, and then making it available for the academic audience as well as, in the case of our digital dialect atlas, a general audience as well. It also involves encouraging graduate students in German to pursue research projects that lead to either Masters’ theses or dissertations involving these populations.

KS: What is the name of the Digital Humanities project we are talking about today?

BK: It is the Linguistic Atlas of Kansas German Dialects. We originally envisioned a printed atlas with maps and diagrams, as you might find historically for projects of this type, but as we went on, we were making recordings and it dawned on us that the best way to present the material, and also the most cost-effective was to do that in an online presence, in a website that would enable people to visit the site, hear the actual recordings of the people we were studying, and be able to compare sentences from dialect to dialect, or even within a particular locality, where the people speak more or less the same variety of German. Luckily, in German dialectology, there was a group of people in Marburg, Germany, who put together a questionnaire of forty sentences called the Wenker Sentences, named after Georg Wenker, who created them in the 1870s. Later on, Chris Johnson came along; he was the first doctoral candidate to do this type of research in Kansas. Would you like Chris to say a few words about his dissertation?

KS: I would love it. Chris, what do you have to add?

CJ: My dissertation was on Schoenchen, Kansas, a little town south of Hays. I interviewed some people from that town, who grew up there. Their everyday language was English, but as children, they all spoke German in the home, and some of them were pretty good speakers still. Some of them were very old, and it was very interesting doing the interviews with them. Also I was able to re-record some of the speakers that we had from a previous student’s recordings, to see if anything changed in their answers to some of the interviews. I interviewed people in all of the other towns for comparative purposes, at least in Ellis County, and a couple in Rush County. It was all Volga German, with a little bit of Catholic and Lutheran subgrouping in there for variation. And then, the really interesting part is that these speakers emigrated from the Volga region in Russia. We were able to look at some dialect research that was gathered in the 1920s in Russia using speakers who were roughly, generationally, the same age group of the older people we had been looking at here in Kansas. We could then do some comparisons with the Russian data and Kansas data, and we have some maps showing how the Russian German, i.e. Volga-German, linguists categorized the dialects from the source villages along the Volga that fed into the Kansas communities, so we could draw some tiebacks to the dialect regions in the German homeland from where the Volga-Germans originated. The nice thing about getting this out on the Linguistic Atlas is that we can take digitized maps, and try to connect our KS German dialects to the Russian map and other German dialect maps from other German homeland sources to see where a possible German homeland might be for a KS German dialect. We have every dialect grouping from Germany represented here in Kansas, and I don’t know that that’s true in any other state with a lot of German immigration, but we document that here. On an online atlas, you can color code, and do things that tie in information across the whole website. It’s a blessing and a curse to be online. It’s a blessing because if you have learned something new, or something is wrong or needs to be updated, you can go out and fix or update the website. And if you rethink approaches you can go back and adapt it and change it. The curse is, if your information is online, and people go there, they expect it to be current and accurate and updated, so there’s a responsibility there.

BK: One of the nice features that Chris has built into the atlas online is these Wenker sentences. You can pick a sentence, and then go immediately to the database, to all of the different recordings that we’ve made, and compare that one sentence in dialect after dialect, or if there are multiple speakers for a given village, you can say ‘Well, how did this person say that certain sentence? Did they have the adverb in the same location; did they pronounce it precisely the same way?’

CJ: These [German speaking] people are museum pieces to the Europeans. They represent something that left there 150 years ago, they left in the 18th century, if you really think about it, some of them, and they spent a hundred years in Russia before they even came here. For [the Europeans], they can’t get that anymore, they have to come out to these speech islands to find what it might have been like, because there are small changes over time, but that vocabulary might still exist. It might be considered archaic in Germany.

A map of selected languages spoken in Kansas.

KS: Bill, you had mentioned to me that Chris did a lot of the technical work on this, so let’s talk about how collaborations have made this project possible, and how other collaborators have added to this work.

BK: Well, the data that’s come in has been from a group of students, a couple of Master’s theses, and several dissertations, there are maybe 10-12 people who have contributed. . .

CJ: Of the field workers, yes. They are the investigators who go out there and do the field work. Then we take their recordings, and since this has been done since the eighties, they’re on different media, and EGARC has been a great help in getting those digitized for us. They have been a great help, they’ve done a lot of the bulk stuff. We then use software to segment the sentences, because these are long strings of interviews, and we have to cut out all of our prodding. . .

BK: Or a cuckoo clock in the background.

CJ: Or a lawnmower, or dogs barking or anything. So the clean-up is there. There are challenges involved in cleaning up these recordings, because they’re never being done in pristine environments. For most of these people, we go to where they’re comfortable being interviewed. And we’ve been lucky enough to have a few interviews in quiet places. Oftentimes they feel more comfortable in groups, so there’s banter, and we have to sort out these sentences. But that’s the fun part of field work, field work is a blast. We’ve had collaboration with EGARC on other content presentation, they’ve had ideas about how to present our website, but mainly they help in some of the technical aspects of getting some of these old recordings digitized, and being able to do it in a quick, bulk way, that’s been a wonderful help. We try to get high school teachers involved, to see how the website can be helpful to them in their teaching as well. In addition, we reproduce some content on the Atlas with permission from the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) and other sources.

BK: We’ve just become part of this international group involving German in contact with other languages, called Deutsch im Kontaktwhich is the way a lot of dialectology is going nowadays, toward interconnectedness.

The field team in Cimarron, KS, 2003.

KS: This next question is probably mostly directed at Chris. What skills or tools did you have to learn to do your work?

CJ: What makes it possible are people who created the software that we can use. So, somebody created the text editor that let me write the HTML with. And HTML has evolved over time to have different standards as it has improved and added functionality, so you try to look at each new version of HTML and see what new features are being written into that code that we can incorporate into our website. We’re using HTML 5 now, which has a lot of features that we can use to make sound files available for people to click on, rather than having a link that people can click on, hoping that they have a player on their computer that can play that particular kind of file, with most of the browsers now, you can embed a player. You always look for a common denominator when you design a computer, because you don’t know how old someone’s computer is going to be, and part of our [mission] is to provide access to the general public, and they could still be using Windows 95 for all we know. So, you have to find the middle ground of people having the best and fastest and newest, versus people being able to use the older technology to get to the content. Over the years there has been software; freeware, shareware and regular purchased products, that can take your long, digitized segment of sound and break it into segments, extract those, paste them into their own little files, run clean-up tools for noise reduction to some extent. You have to know how to use that software, but usually the programs are pretty intuitive, and they all operate the same way. The Atlas does have an underlying MySQL database. So, a person needs to know how to build, change and maintain a database and to write the necessary scripts using PERL, PHP, SQL, or whatever to query that table and return and display results.

KS: What internal or external funding does the project have?

BK: The only external funding we specifically received for the dialect project was from Diamler-Benz.

CJ: We also received some support early on from the Kansas Humanities Council and the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies, and that’s one of the reasons we make it accessible to high school teachers, or a library in a small community. The LAKGD (the Atlas) is a product of volunteer work. The support we received was used for research and data analysis. We appreciate KU hosting the website for us.

BK: And otherwise, the Germanic Languages department provides funding through the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies here at KU. And recently, there’s been a TransCoop grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, to fund research collaboration with people in Regensburg, Germany on German Bohemian dialects. And back in the nineties, we had similar funding to research the dialects of the Bukovina Germans, Germans from Austria-Hungary hat settled in Western Kansas.

KS: How did digital humanities advance your work?

CJ: We were doing Digital Humanities before the term existed!

BK: I think you found us! We had been doing the research, and doing the analysis, and we knew we wanted to present it to the public in some way, and I think, by the late 1990s, this just became a way to do it.

CJ: When I would go to conferences, and give my interpretation of what a speaker says using phonetic transcriptions, people might disagree, but the nice thing about [recordings] is that people hear the actual speakers. When studying a dialect, a lot of people expect to hear certain things, and when you don’t hear it you think ‘the speaker was wrong,’ or the file is corrupt, but sometimes the speaker does something that’s not wrong, and it may be just how something was said 200 years ago. Getting to where we can record, and people can hear [dialects] and come to their own conclusions is a wonderful thing.

If I put these recordings up on KU ScholarWorks, I don’t ever have to worry about them again, as long as I get them cleaned up. At least they’re out there, protected and safe, and the Libraries will take ownership of them. I really welcome the open access to publications. Sometimes you may not have anything to say, and you just want to put the information out there and let other people have it, maybe they’ll find something to say that you can’t think of.

KS: Is there anything about your work and the digital humanities that you would like to share with our readers?

CJ: There is a lot more content to add from more recent interviews in Kansas done in the last 5 years. Also, some of the German immigrant communities in Kansas were settled from Missouri. We have also done interviews in Missouri and would like to present that data online at some point in the future.

BK: Not to promote my own stuff, but Johnson County did a Kansas Languages Symposium in November, and I gave the keynote address, and I also gave a talk on the German dialects in Kansas. [Check out the YouTube video here.]

Picturesque Schoenchen, KS (photo taken in 1993).


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