Miller, Moeller, and Mueller were all pronounced the same when I was a child in the 1940s and 1950s. The name Tangeman began with the sound of tang and Luedeke started with the sound of “Lee.” Topp and Poppe sounded like “Tupp” and “Puppy” and Bruns sounded like “Broons.” These names as well as other names in New Bremen have changed the way they sound and I wonder why.
The change in pronunciation of names in New Bremen seems to have started in the 1970s and may be an attempt of Americanization. Typically, when German names have been Americanized, the spelling has changed to retain the sound of the name. An example of this might be Kohl to Cole or Braun to Brown. The opposite has happened in New Bremen. The spelling of the German name has been retained and the pronunciation has changed! That is why we now have Millers and Moellers and Muellers with each vowel taking the English sound.
This pattern of Americanization loses the sound of the name. The German language has specific rules of pronunciation resulting in German words sounding different from English words. There are special rules to pronounce the various letter combinations in German such as the diphthongs ai, au, ei, eu and double vowels aa, ee, oo. In German there is also the umlaut that modifies certain vowels and produces a sound that is impossible to spell in English. The umlaut refers to the two little dots over the vowel that is being modified. Originally the umlaut was an “e” written sideways over the vowel and represented a change to the sound of the letter. The modified vowels can be a, o, and u. To pronounce these vowels with umlauts it is necessary to get your lips, tongue, and teeth in the position to the sound “ah”, “oh”, or “oo”, but in that position say “ee” instead. There are no sounds like this in English and this may represent some of the change in pronunciation. Names like Luedeke, Ruedebusch, and Mueller had an umlaut over the “u” and required the German pronunciation. English script and typewriters do not have umlauts and thus the “u” was followed by an “e” and eventually the way we say the name has changed.
The Americanization of the names may also be due to the absence of the spoken German language over the past three to four decades. German was not taught in the public school in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Most of our grandparents spoke German and it was quite common that German was the first language in the home in the early part of the century. My mother learned to speak German when she married my father and moved to the family farm with his parents in the 1930s. Even the family dog “Pete” only responded to German commands. Paul Lietz often told the story about his first grade experience in the 1920s and his inability to speak English. His teacher pretended not to understand his pleas in German to go home, thus he spent many hours looking out of the schoolhouse window and crying.
I remember hearing German spoken at family gatherings. The family often switched to German when they did not want the children to understand what they were saying. My cousin, Edythe (Conradi) Henschen, often served as translator because she had learned German from her grandmother. I also remember many people in the 1950s greeting Marge (Scheer) Howell at the IGA in German.
But the 1950s also brought a decline in the interest of a second language in New Bremen. There was an increase in jobs, prosperity, births after the war and an increase in the Americanization of the children. We read books about Dick, Jane, and Sally and there was no hint of ethnic heritage. It was not until the racial unrest of the sixties and the emerging black pride that led to a re-examination of cultural heritage and our German pride. The New Bremen Historic Association, Bremenfest, and Octoberfest in Minster are examples of this.
We still have many German names in this area in spite of how we say them. There are some deeper qualities, though, that I admire. The well manicured lawns and fields, everything neatly in its place, pride in a job well done and help to those who need it. These characteristics will outlast the superficiality of names. Oh, by the way, my name is "Con-rah-dee", what’s yours?