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The changing fortunes of Low German: from dialect to literary language. What next?

Low German (‘Plattdüütsch’, commonly known as ‘Platt’), comprises a range of dialects spoken in many areas of northern Germany as well as parts of Holland and is one of the oldest members of the West Germanic language group, which also contains German, English, Dutch, Frisian and Yiddish. The history of Low German is one of extremes; in some periods it was as popular and prestigious as any of its closest relatives and in others it seemed that it would disappear altogether. Even today there is sporadic debate as to whether one can even classify Low German as a language of its own rather than as a collection of German dialects. It is beyond the scope of this article to prove either side of this argument, but in this article Low German will be referred to as a language purely for ease of reference. Whatever the ‘true’ status of Low German may be, if indeed there is one, many linguists believe that too much weight is attached to the often unclear and unhelpful distinction between languages and dialects. More important is the fact that this issue is still debated at all, which demonstrates the linguistically and politically unstable state of Low German at the moment. The fascination of this language is in part due to precisely this instability throughout its history, which makes for an interesting comparison with that of its nearest and largest neighbour, High (or Standard) German. This article will attempt to outline the main stages of the development of the language, before providing a brief analysis of the present situation.

The origins of Low German

The earliest known form of Low German is the Old Low German (also known as Old Saxon) spoken by the Saxon tribes a few centuries before the fall of the Western Roman Empire and for several centuries afterwards. Very little is known about the origins of these tribes and it is therefore virtually impossible to determine exactly when the language of these tribes became noticeably different from that of the surrounding tribes. The development of one language from another is of course a gradual process, so it could be argued that any attempt to find a precise date for the origins of Low German is doomed to failure.

Nonetheless, even if it is accepted that there is no need to look for exact dates, this cannot hide the fact that we know comparatively little about the origins of Old Low German and the people who spoke it. Indeed, the origins of the name ‘Saxon’ are themselves unclear, although one theory is that it derives from the name of a type of sword used by the tribes. Much of our knowledge about the early Saxons comes from Roman sources, such as the historian Ptolemy, who wrote around the year 150 A.D. that the Saxons lived in what is now known as Holstein in north Germany, as well as on some islands in the river Elbe. From Ptolemy’s point of view the Saxons were a relatively unimportant tribe outside the borders of the Empire, but over the course of several centuries the Saxons became one of the most influential tribes in central Europe. They expanded beyond the Elbe through military campaigns and alliances, becoming so powerful during the centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire that it took Charlemagne over 30 years (from 772 to 804) to subdue them. At the same time, elements of the Saxons together with the Angles and other tribes migrated westwards to the British Isles, where the names of the English counties of Essex, Middlesex and Sussex betray Saxon origins. The tribes in the British Isles steadily developed their own dialect, which was closely related to but nonetheless distinct from that spoken on the continent.

It is difficult to provide exact dates for the Old Saxon period, due to the relatively small number of textual sources available, but it is generally accepted that the centuries from 800 to 1100 were the highpoint of Old Saxon literary activity. There is a noticeably smaller number of texts from the following century and many linguists accept that 1200 can be seen as roughly marking the turning point from Old Saxon to Middle Low German. In total, only 25 Old Saxon texts have survived to the present day, ranging from non-literary documents and dictionaries to prayers and blessings and even literary texts with biblical themes. The most extensive Old Saxon text is the so-called ‘Heliand’, an incomplete epic of 46,000 words based on the life of Jesus. Researchers have been able to reconstruct a vocabulary of 4,000 different words from these texts. Although this can only give us a very incomplete impression of the dialects spoken in this period, linguistic analysis of these words can help explain both the origins and the later development of Low German.

Unlike Old High German, which was spoken in the highlands of more southerly regions, Old Saxon kept the majority of the consonants used by Germanic tribes in earlier times. This meant, for example, that ‘p’, ‘k’ and ‘t’ sounds in older Germanic dialects were unchanged in Old Saxon words, whereas Old High German and thus modern High German often have ‘pf’, ‘ch’ and ‘s’ respectively. The examples in the table below (example from Möller) give a clearer impression of the differences between modern High and Low German:

High German Low German English
Ich mache Essen und gehe dann schlafen Ik maak Eten un gah denn slapen I (will) make (something) to eat and then go to sleep

 

The linguistic boundary between High and Low German established in this period has stayed relatively stable over the past 1,500 years, extending across Germany from east to west, passing through the area around Berlin across to what is now the industrial heartland of the Rhine region. Even today, apart from certain Low German-speaking communities in North, and South America, Low German is not spoken to any significant extent outside of the region inhabited by the Saxons and related tribes in the ninth century A.D.

The Middle Ages: Middle Low German as a lingua franca

The main historical events affecting the development of Middle Low German, which was spoken from around 1200 until the 16th or 17th century, were the rise and fall of the Hanseatic League. At the beginning of this period, Low German was spoken by almost all people living in northern Germany and in most cases was not restricted to certain social classes or situations. It was not common at this time to speak or understand both High and Low German and documents record that towards the end of the Middle Low German period interpreters were often needed in dealings between cities or individuals from different areas of the Holy Roman Empire. Nonetheless, there are some records of complaints even from this early period of Low German that some writers were deliberately rejecting their native dialect in favour of High German. One of the most important developments during this period was the expansion of Low German-speaking regions. Over the course of three centuries, Low German spread eastwards as both a result of the expansion of the Hanseatic League throughout the Baltic region and due to the more general widespread eastward population movement among German-speaking tribes into what is now Poland and the Baltic states.

The Middle Low German period and arguably the Low German language as a whole were at their peaks for roughly 200 years from around 1350 until 1550. During this time the Hanseatic League, which was based in Lübeck in north Germany, not only made many of its members extremely wealthy by the standards of the time, but also increased the prestige and political power of these cities. Due to the geographical location of the majority of the Hanseatic cities, Low German was the natural language of the League and unlike today, it was used both in everyday life and in international trade and diplomacy, as well as being for written legal documents and contracts. The high status accorded to this language can be seen from the fact that Low German was for a while even adopted as an administrative language at the Danish and Swedish royal courts.

The decline of Middle Low German can be traced back to the Reformation and the downfall of the Hanseatic League. Having profited from the rise of the Hanseatic cities and their merchant classes, Low German began to lose its social status as the landed aristocracy became increasingly powerful and the courtly culture of southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire spread northwards. The wealthy merchant classes were among the first to turn their backs on Low German in favour of the High German spoken by the newly dominant aristocracy and they were soon followed by large sections of the population.

The invention of the printing press meant that the circulation of books written in both High and Low German increased. Although one might think that this would have increased Low German literacy and helped preserve the language, it was nonetheless primarily books and religious texts written in High German dialects, such as Luther’s translation of the Bible, which spread throughout north German areas. Indeed, very few other books were available – only ten percent of the 3,000 books printed by 1500 were written in Low German. The strong influence of religious texts during the period of the Reformation meant that Low German was soon seen as inappropriate for religious worship. One of the few famous works of secular Low German literature from this period is Reynke de Vos, a version of the Reynard legends about an anthopomorphised fox who tricks his enemy the wolf and gains power at the court of the king, the lion. This type of tale about cunning foxes was found throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages, one of the best known to English-speaking audiences being Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

Modern Low German: language, literature and culture

Having lost virtually all importance as a language of written communication and trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, Low German also lost its significance as the main spoken language in northern Germany over the course of the next few hundred years. The few popular Low German texts could not prevent and the growing feeling that it was a language of the common people, to be spoken, if at all, only with close friends and family. This attitude was particularly prevalent in towns and in general Low German survived much better in rural regions than in an urban setting, where High German spread much more quickly. The last two centuries of the Middle Low German period had witnessed a change from a majority monolingual, Low-German speaking, population to one which was mainly bilingual and this shift in language preference continued over the next several hundred years.

Importantly the advance of High German, in part resulting from the increasing urbanisation of the times did not mean that Low German disappeared entirely. In fact, the 19th century, a period of extremely rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, witnessed the rise of a new sense of local pride, leading to the reinvention of spoken dialects as a literary language. Admittedly this meant acknowledging that Low German was now a regional language that could not compete with High German throughout the former Holy Roman Empire, but in practice this was already well known and had already been the case for many hundred years.

The rise of modern Low German literature can be traced back to the poet Klaus Groth (1819 – 1899) and the novelist Fritz Reuter (1810 – 1874) in the early 19th century. They were and are the best-known writers who set out to create a Renaissance of the Lower German language. Their aim was to prove that even if Lower German was mainly used in familiar situations among close family and friends, it nonetheless had the linguistic richness necessary to develop a literary tradition. Many other authors followed their example, perhaps the most famous of whom was the poet and novelist Theodor Storm. Storm wrote the majority of his works in standard High German and is best known in both the German and the English-speaking worlds for his short stories Immensee and The Dykemaster (Der Schimmereiter), but he also composed a few poems in the Low German he knew from growing up and spending much of his life in what is now Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost German state. This sudden explosion of literary activity is particularly impressive given the gloomy prospects apparently facing Low German only 100 years earlier. It is nonetheless important to avoid the temptation to romanticise this period. Much of the Low German literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries appealed to the bourgeois nostalgic longing for an idealised version of pre-industrial village life. Despite its claims to be a continuation of oral traditions in written form, the emergence of this broadly conservative literature was largely dependent on negative reactions to the process of modernisation taking place throughout Europe at the time.

The feeling that Low German has an inherent value as part of local culture continued to exist into the 20th century. While local pride is itself perhaps to be welcomed, in the case of Low German it developed a highly problematic manner due to the attempts by the Nazi regime to appropriate the Low German movement for its own ends. In many cases this was greeted and at the very least barely resisted by those who claimed to represent the Low German-speaking community. This involvement with the ideology and movement of the Third Reich is a dark period in the history of the language requiring further serious investigation and documentation. It is equally important for the survival of the language that lessons are learnt from the mistakes of the past. In particular, the Low German-speaking community needs to come up with convincing ideas as to how the language can be preserved and promoted without falling into the twin traps of exclusionist nationalist rhetoric and romanticised nostalgia. The situation in north Germany at present demonstrates a pressing need for a modern concept of regional languages and dialects which can attract young people, who currently often feel little or no attachment to the language. This must be one of the most important fields in the academic study of Low German language and literature at present.

The Low German literary community experienced a slow revival in the first few decades after the Second World War, which has gathered steam since the mid-1970s. This can be traced to the increasing pace of globalisation, which, as in the 19th century, has led to an increased interest in preserving local customs, dialects and languages. The traditional literary genres of poetry and novels are represented by small number of poets and novelists writing in Low German and the print media have also demonstrated some interest in Low German texts. A few local High German newspapers occasionally carry small humorous columns written in Low German and there are also currently several magazines and newsletters published in the language, most notably perhaps Quickborn and Diesel - dat oostfreeske Bladdje, as well as a few academic journals dedicated to the language and to individual Low German authors. However, the majority of the non-academic Low German publications have the stated aim of preserving and promoting the language and in general have a relatively low circulation. The main topic of these magazines is therefore the language itself and until people feel able to write in Low German about other topics and indeed interest others enough to read their texts, the impression will remain that the language has not yet achieved a stable position in north German society.

There are currently three professional Low German theatres – the Ohnsorg-Theater in Hamburg, the Waldau-Theater in Bremen and the Fritz-Reuter-Bühne in Schwerin – which, together with the many amateur Low German theatre groups, have up to 100,000 visitors per year. Even if the plays produced are sometimes of questionable literary quality, the three professional theatres mentioned above play a significant role in maintaining the profile and public awareness of Low German culture. In addition, Low German is also used by several local church groups throughout north Germany both for occasional worship and for other community activities.

Finally, local radio stations are the other main propagator of Low German literary culture. The range of Low German programmes is admittedly limited, often consisting of one short news summary per day at non-prime time slots. However, the fact that there are broadcasts in (a standardised version of) Low German shows that the media feel a sense of responsibility for promoting the language. In addition, there are many local bands who perform partly or exclusively in Low German. A notable instance of Low German in the mainstream German music world is the song ‘Nordisch by nature’ by the hip-hop band Fettes Brot, which did relatively well in the German single charts in the mid 1990s.

There is a growing public perception that promoting the Low German language is not purely a matter for cultural organisations. Almost all the minority languages around the world which have been revitalised received support from the state or other major organisations. Many the north German states are beginning to take some level of political responsibility for this in the case of Low German and have indeed altered their constitutions to make explicit mention of Low German in an attempt to foster regional identity. Hamburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have even had their state constitutions translated to demonstrate the importance of the language to the states’ identities. Furthermore parliamentary debates on matters affecting the language are occasionally held in Low German. On a European level, the 1999 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages classified Low German as a regional language. The decision to include Low German as a regional language was made using political as well as purely linguistics criteria and it has brought significant benefits for Low German-speakers. One of the most important aspects of the charter is the requirement for Low German to be taught or at least discussed within the state education system. The level of Low German teaching and extra-curricular activities on offer varies from state to state and this provision is restricted to the north German states where Low German is most common, but this is nonetheless a significant improvement on the situation before the introduction of the charter.

The Institute for Low German Language based in Bremen, a centre which both promotes and studies the language, has reported that a comprehensive survey was published in 2008. According to this survey, approximately 2.5 million people across 8 states in northern Germany have a good to very good active knowledge of Low German with a further 7.5 million who understand the language well or very well. Compared to the data from the previous survey, which was carried out in pre-reunification West Germany, this represents a decline in the number of speakers of about 50 %. Some of these numbers are made up of speakers of Plautdietsch, a dialect of Low German which developed among the Mennonite communities who emigrated to Russia and the Ukraine during the 16th to 18th centuries. Since fall of the communist bloc in Europe, many members of these communities have moved to Germany, where they make up a significant part of the Low German-speaking community.

It is well known that many speakers, regardless of which dialect they speak, are not literate in Low German, a problem compounded by the lack of a binding orthography outside of the media world. As Low German consists of a range of widely differing and only partly mutually comprehensible dialects, even those who can read and write their own dialect may experience difficulties when faced with texts from outside their own region. The multitude of dialects poses as great a problem for oral as for written comprehension. Furthermore, it is believed that many of those who have assessed themselves as knowing Low German have only a passive knowledge of the language – they can understand the majority of what they hear but are unable to speak much Low German themselves. In response to the danger of language loss present in this situation, several institutions have dedicated themselves to promoting Low German literacy and language competence. Many of the major north German universities have sub-faculties or departments specialising in Low German and the Institute for the Low German Language at the University of Bremen maintains a website providing information about the Low German language, its literature and culture. The Low German community, like the speakers of many regional and minority languages, is beginning to appreciate the possibility of language learning over the Internet and a network of Low German websites is slowly appearing. However, ensuring the long-term popularity of these websites is likely to be a hard task.

Despite the problems outlined above, one need not to take too negative a view of the current situation facing Low German. Over the course of the past millennium, the language has experienced periods of great influence as well as times of declining popularity. With a relatively large number of speakers in comparison to many other regional languages, Low German as a whole is highly unlikely to become extinct any time soon, even if some individual dialects do not face such a rosy future. The considerable effort that is currently being put into preserving and passing on knowledge of the language to younger generations through initiatives such as Low German reading competitions at schools and including Low German literature on school curricula appear to be bearing some fruit. The recognition of Low German as a regional language by the European Union provides increased security for the language, as Germany and the Netherlands, which both proposed this status for the language, are consequently showing greater interest in the language and the culture associated with it. The increased resources resulting from such political intervention in local affairs can only benefit the Low German-speaking community. A great effort will undoubtedly be needed if Low German is to avoid becoming a language with only elderly speakers, but it seems that the political will is present. This must now be transferred to the public and the speakers themselves. Over the next few years and decades speakers, politicians and academics will have a fascinating opportunity to witness, document and participate in the literary and linguistic development of Low German as a regional language in the Internet age.

Bibliography

- ‘Die Geschichte der plattdeutschen Sprache - auf Hochdeutsch’
http://www1.ndr.de/kultur/plattdeutsch/geschichte/plattdeutsch6.html, quoted from Möller, F. ‘Plattdeutsch - Eine Sprache stellt sich vor’, Institut für niederdeutsche Sprache (Institute for Low German Language), Bremen, http://www.ins-bremen.de/
- Schuppenhauer, C. 'Eine Literaturgeschichte des Niederdeutschen.’ http://www.ins-bremen.de/
- Lesle, U.-T. ‘Niederdeutsche Literaturwissenschaft: Bilanz und Perspektive’ http://www.ins-bremen.de/
- Goltz, R., Lesle, U.-T. and Möller, F., Jahresbericht 2008 des Instituts für niederdeutsche Sprache (Institute for Low German Language), Bremen, http://www.ins-bremen.de/