How German Immigrants Influenced American Culture And Language

Even if you’ve never studied German, you probably know a decent amount of vocabulary.

Culture in the United States has been heavily influenced by Germany for centuries now. Did you think Christmas trees and Easter bunnies were traditions that originated in the United States? Sorry to crush your dreams here, they actually originated in Germany. Between 1820 and WWI, there were nearly six million Germans who immigrated to the United States, settling all over the country. There’s a reason there are places called “Germantown” in multiple states! And with them also came a lot of traditions that nowadays are already so integrated in American culture that you might not even realize they’re originally German anymore.

That’s not the only German influence in the United States, though. Have you used the words “kindergarten” or “doppelgänger” before? Have you said “gesundheit” after someone sneezed? Well, how German of you!

Let me show you how much German you already know and how much German culture you’re probably already celebrating.

Cultural Habits

  • Last Names — The German influence on American culture can already be seen by looking at some common last names like Müller, Schneider, Wagner — those are all German-originated names and you can even translate them to miller, tailor and wagon-marker. Fun fact: Most family names in Germany are derived from professions.
  • Christmas — Talking about families, one of the biggest festivities in the United States to share with your family might be Christmas, right? And what would it be without a Christmas tree, Christmas carols like “Silent Night” or “O Christmas Tree,” advent calendars and gingerbread houses? Probably not the same. All of these traditions were brought over by German immigrants.
  • Easter — But that’s not the only festivity with German influence. Let’s look at Easter: Thanks to German immigrants especially the little ones can enjoy Easter to the fullest now waiting for the Easter bunny. And why an easter bunny? Great question that actually no one really knows the answer to. Even one of the Brother Grimm — the two brothers who wrote fairy tales about witches and animals that talk — found it really confusing!

German Words

  • Kindergarten — This German word literally means “children’s garden.” When the word was introduced the thought was actually that the children should be taken care of, just like plants in a garden.
  • Wunderkind — This word is used when children have a special talent, literally it means a “wonder child.”
  • Poltergeist — A rather spooky situation that describes a “rumbling ghost.”
  • Doppelgänger — Someone who looks like you, a literal “double-walker.”

German Expressions

  • Gesundheit — The word “Gesundheit” is often used after someone sneezes, just like “bless you,” and is a German expression that is literally translated to “health.” You’re basically wishing the other person stays healthy despite showing a sign of illness.
  • Kaputt — English speakers dropped a “T” and began using it to refer to something broken or destroyed, and that’s exactly what it translates to: “Broken.”
  • Über — It literally means “above,” but in English you use it more like “over the top” or “super.”

Food And Drinks

  • Hamburger — Hamburgers got their name from a city in Northern Germany called Hamburg. Sailors brought back the idea of raw shredded beef from there which was then used for hamburgers.
  • Strudel, Sauerkraut, Pretzel, Bratwurst — All of these items were brought to the United States by German and Austrian immigrants. Nowadays, they can be found in any store in the United States.

So, just to review: you eat German food, use German words and expressions, and have adopted cultural habits originated in Germany. Maybe you’re more German than you thought!

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