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Low German or Low Saxon (Plattdüütsch, Nedderdüütsch, Nedersaksisch; Standard German Plattdeutsch, Niederdeutsch; Dutch Nedersaksisch — see Nomenclature) is any of the regional language varieties of the West Germanic languages spoken mainly in northern Germany and the eastern part of the Netherlands. The historical sprachraum also includes contemporary northern Poland, the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia and a part of southern Lithuania.

Geographical extent

The Low German (or Low Saxon) language area is shown in yellow.

Low German in Europe

Dialects of Low German are widely spoken in the northeastern area of the Netherlands (Dutch Low Saxon) and are written there with Dutch orthography.

Variants of Low German were widely (and are still to a far lesser extent) spoken in most parts of Northern Germany, for instance in the states of Lower Saxonymarker, North Rhine-Westphaliamarker, Hamburgmarker, Bremenmarker, Schleswig-Holsteinmarker, Mecklenburg-Vorpommernmarker, Saxony-Anhaltmarker and Brandenburgmarker. Small portions of northern Hessemarker and northern Thuringiamarker are traditionally Low Saxon speaking too. Historically, Low German was also spoken in formerly German parts of Polandmarker as well as in East Prussia and the Baltic States of Estoniamarker and Latviamarker. The language was also formerly spoken in the outer areas of what is now the city state of Berlinmarker but in the course of urbanisation and national centralisation in that city the language vanished. (The Berlin dialect itself is a northern outpost of High German and typologically a Missingsch variety, although rarely recognized as the latter).

Today, there are still speakers outside of Germany and The Netherlands to be found in the coastal areas of present Polandmarker (minority of ethnic German Pommersch speakers who were not expelled from Pomeraniamarker, as well as the regions around Braunsbergmarker) . In the Southern Jutland region of Denmark there may still be some Low German speakers in some German minority communities, but the Low German and North Frisian dialects of Denmarkmarker can be considered moribund at this time.

Low German outside Europe and the Mennonites

There are also immigrant communities in several places of the world, such as Canadamarker, the United Statesmarker, Mexicomarker, South Africa, Central Asia, Boliviamarker, Argentinamarker, Brazilmarker, Paraguaymarker and Uruguaymarker, where Low German is spoken. In some of these countries, the language is part of the Mennonite religion and culture . There are Mennonite communities in Ontario, Saskatchewanmarker, Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitobamarker, Canadamarker which use Low German in their religious services and communities; the people are largely ethnic Germans whose ancestors had moved to newly acquired Russianmarker territories in Ukrainemarker before emigrating to the Americas in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The type of Low German spoken in these communities and in the Midwest region of the United Statesmarker has diverged since emigration. The survival of the language is tenuous in many places and has died out in some places where assimilation has occurred. Mennonite colonies in Paraguaymarker, South America and Chihuahuamarker, Mexicomarker are said to have made Low German a "co-official language" of the community, in addition to the countries' official language, Spanish.

Nomenclature

Low German is called Plattdüütsch or Nedderdüütsch by its native speakers in the specific German area, and Nedersaksisch or Nederduuts by most of its native speakers in the Netherlands.

Officially, Low German is called Niederdeutsch (Nether/Low German) by the German authorities. In The Netherlands, the Dutch authorities call it Nedersaksisch (Nether/Low Saxon). Plattdeutsch/Niederdeutsch and Platduits/Nedersaksisch are seen in linguistic texts from the German and Dutch linguistic communities respectively.

In Danish it is called Plattysk, Nedertysk or, rarely, Lavtysk.

“Low” refers to the flat plains and coastal area of the northern European lowlands, contrasted with the mountainous areas of central and southern Germany, Switzerlandmarker, and Austriamarker, where High German is spoken.

The ISO 639-2 language code for Low German (Low Saxon) has been nds (nedersaksisch) since May 2000.

Disambiguation

There are three different uses of the term “Low German”:

  1. A specific name of any West Germanic varieties that have neither taken part in the High German consonant shift nor classify as Low Franconian or Anglo-Frisian; this is the scope discussed in this article.
  2. A broader term for the closely-related, continental West Germanic language family unaffected by the High German consonant shift, nor classifying as Anglo-Frisian, and thus including Low Franconian varieties such as Dutch.


The colloquial term "Platt" denotes both Low German dialects and any non-standard variety of German; this use is chiefly found in northern and western Germany and is considered not to be linguistically correct.

Many people in northern Germanymarker are unaware that the use of Low German does not abruptly stop at the German-Dutch border, but in fact continues on into the eastern Netherlandsmarker. Among those who are aware of it, a measure of estrangement (especially Dutch versus German influences and Dutch versus German based spelling), besides alleged sensitivities remaining from the German occupation in World War II, is often used as an argument in favor of ignoring the dialects of the Netherlandsmarker. The general attitude among Low German speakers in the Netherlandsmarker, however, is that the Dutch Low Saxon varieties belong to a continuum with the Low German varieties of Northern Germanymarker. Many Low German speakers in the Netherlandsmarker are willing and happy to participate in activities organized on the German side of the border, and Dutch people have won prizes in Low German literature contests in Germanymarker.

Relation to German and Dutch

Low German dialects (including Dutch)


The question of whether Low German should be considered a separate language, as opposed to a dialect of German or Dutch, has been a point of contention. Linguistics offers no simple, generally accepted criteria to decide this question, as it is of little academic interest . However, scholarly arguments have been put forward in favour of classifying Low German as a German dialect.

Some such arguments are
  • Low German lacks any meaningful standard form regarding grammar, orthography, or other aspects, that would bridge the immense regional differences within Low German and form an equivalent to the standard forms of German, French, or other generally accepted independent languages (although Northern Low Saxon serves as a common intelligible language in TV and radio programmes);
  • Low German is not used widely anywhere, and especially not outside of colloquial oral communication. It is spoken on a daily basis by a small minority in Northern Germany. Use in the media is limited to small columns or segments that typically are specifically intended to foster and promote the language;
  • Written Low German is used almost exclusively for belletristic literature, but not for technical documents, administrative or legal texts, etc.


In contrast, Old Saxon and Middle Low German may have met enough of these criteria to be considered separate languages in their own rights.

Claims to the contrary have also been made, ascribing to Low German the status of an independent language on par with German, Dutch, Danish, etc. They are often motivated by efforts to paint an uplifting, positive picture to combat the perceived image of Low German as a dying and irrelevant idiom, and focus on different points such as

  • The great differences between High and Low German; these are examined as absolutes and not compared to the differences between High German and other extreme, but established dialects (such as Swiss German), or between Low German and Dutch.
  • The ostensible successes of very recent efforts (in the 1980s and 1990s) to revive Low German in the media, the schools, and in language societies.


Low German has been recognised by the Netherlands and by Germany (since 1999) as a regional language according to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Within the official terminology defined in the charter, this status would not be available to a dialect of an official language (as per article 1 (a)), and hence not to Low German in Germany if it were considered a dialect of German. Advocates of the promotion of Low German have expressed considerable hope that this political development will at once lend legitimacy to their claim that Low German is a separate language and help mitigate the functional limits of the language that may still be cited as objective criteria for a mere dialect (such as the virtually complete absence from legal and administrative contexts, schools, the media, etc.).

Classification and related languages

Low German language filled with pink.
1880
Low German is a part of the continental West Germanic dialect continuum.

To the West, it blends into the Low Franconian languages which distinguish two plural verbal endings, as opposed to a common verbal plural ending in Low German.

To the South, it blends into the High German dialects of Central German that have been affected by the High German consonant shift. The division is usually drawn at the Benrath line that traces the maken – machen isogloss.

To the East, it abuts the Kashubian language (the only remnant of the Pomeranian language) and, since the expulsion of nearly all Germans from Pomerania following the Second World War, also by the Polish language. The Low German dialects of Pomerania are included in the Pommersch group.

To the North and Northwest, it abuts the Danish and the Frisian languages. Note that in Germany, Low German has replaced the Frisian languages in many regions. The Saterland Frisianmarker is the only remnant of East Frisian language and is surrounded by Low German, as are the few remaining North Frisian varieties, and the Low German dialects of those regions have Frisian influences from Frisian substrates.

Some classify the northern dialects of Low German together with English, Scots, and Frisian as the North Seamarker Germanic or Ingvaeonic languages. However, most exclude Low German from that group often called Anglo-Frisian languages because some distinctive features of that group of languages are only partially observed in Low German, for instance the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law (some dialects have us, os for ‘us’ whereas others have uns, ons), and because other distinctive features do not occur in Low German at all, for instance the palatalization of /k/ (compare palatalized forms such as English cheese, Frisian tsiis to non-palatalized forms such as Low German Kees or Kaise, Dutch kaas, German Käse).

Varieties of Low German

In Germany



In the Netherlands

The Dutch Low Saxon varieties, which are also defined as Dutch dialects, consist of:

History

Old Saxon

Old Saxon, also known as Old Low German, is a West Germanic language. It is documented from the 9th century until the 12th century, when it evolved into Middle Low German. It was spoken on the north-west coast of Germany and in Denmarkmarker by Saxon peoples. It is closely related to Old Anglo-Frisian (Old Frisian, Old English), partially participating in the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law.

Only a few texts survive, predominantly in baptismal vows the Saxons were required to perform at the behest of Charlemagne. The only literary texts preserved are Heliand and the Old Saxon Genesis.

Middle Low German

The Middle Low German language is an ancestor of modern Low German. It was spoken from about 1100 to 1500. The neighbour languages within the dialect continuum of the West Germanic languages were Middle Dutch in the West and Middle High German in the South, later substituted by Early New High German. Middle Low German was the lingua franca of the Hanseatic League, spoken all around the North Seamarker and the Baltic Seamarker. Based on the language of Lübeckmarker, a standardized written language was developing, though it was never codified.

Contemporary

After mass education in Germanymarker in the 19th and 20th centuries the slow decline which Low German was experiencing since the end of the Hanseatic league turned into a free fall. Today efforts are made in Germany and in the Netherlands to protect Low German as a regional language. Various Low German dialects are understood by 10 million people, and native to about 3 million people all around northern Germany. Most of these speakers are located in rural villages and are often elderly. However, the KDE project supports Low German (nds) as a language for its computer desktop environment.

Sound change

As with the Anglo-Frisian languages and the North Germanic languages, Low German has not been influenced by the High German consonant shift except for old having shifted to /d/. Therefore a lot of Low German words sound similar to their English counterparts. One feature that does distinguish Low German from English generally is final devoicing of obstruents, as exemplified by the words 'good' and 'wind' below. This is a characteristic of Dutch and German as well and involves positional neutralization of voicing contrast in the coda position for obstruents (i.e. t = d at the end of a syllable.) This is not used in English except for in the English county of Yorkshire, where there is a process known as Yorkshire assimilation.

For instance: water , later , bit , dish , ship , pull , good , clock , sail , he , storm , wind , grass , hold , old .

Low German is a West Germanic language of the lowlands and as such did not experience the High German consonant shift. The table below shows the relationship between English and Low German consonants which were unaffected by this chain shift and gives the modern German counterparts, which were affected by the sound shift.

Proto-Germanic High German Low German Dutch English German Frisian
k ch maken, moaken, maaken maken make machen meitsje
k kch Karl, Korl Karel Carl, Ceorl, Churl Karl Kirl, Tsjirl
d t Dag, Dach dag day Tag Dei
t ss eten, äten eten eat essen ite
t z (/ts/) teihn, tian tien ten zehn tsien
t tz, z (/ts/) sitten zitten sit sitzen sitte
p f, ff Schipp, Schepp schip ship, skiff Schiff skip
p pf Peper, Päpa peper pepper Pfeffer peper
β b Wief, Wiewer wijf, wijven * wife, wives Weib, Weiber * wyf, wyven


Note: The words shown are phonetic cognates. The semantic values of some of these words have shifted over time. For example, the correct equivalent term for "wife" in modern Dutch and German is vrouw and Frau respectively; using wijf or Weib for a human is considered archaic in German and derogatory in Dutch, comparable to "bitch". There is no surviving phonetic equivalent to Frau/vrouw in English (cf. Old English frōwe "lady").

Grammar

Generally speaking, Low German grammar shows similarities with the grammars of Dutch, Frisian, English, and Scots, but the dialects of Northern Germanymarker share some features (especially lexical and syntactic features) with German dialects.

Nouns

Low German declension has only three morphologically marked noun cases, where accusative and dative together constitute an objective case.

Example case marking: Boom (tree), Bloom (flower), Land (land)
  Masculine Feminine Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative een Boom, de Boom Bööm, de Bööm een Bloom, de Bloom Blomen, de Blomen een Land, dat Land Lannen, de Lannen
Objective een Boom, den Boom Bööm, de Bööm een Bloom, de Bloom Blomen, de Blomen een Land, dat Land Lannen, de Lannen

Dative dän

In most modern dialects, the nominative and the objective cases are primarily distinguished only in the singular of masculine nouns. In some Low German dialects, the genitive case is distinguished as well (e.g. varieties of Mennonite Low German.) It is marked in the masculine gender by changing the masculine definite determiner 'de' from de to dän. By contrast, German distinguishes four cases; nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative. So, for example, the definite article of the masculine singular has the forms: der (nom), den (acc), des (gen), and dem (dat.) Thus case marking in Low German is simpler than German's.

Verbs

In Low German verbs are conjugated for person, number, and tense. Verb conjugation for person is only differentiated in the singular. There are five tenses in Low German: present tense, preterite, perfect, and pluperfect, and in Mennonite Low German the present perfect which signifies a remaining effect from a past finished action. For example "Ekj sie jekomen", "I am come", means that the speaker came and he is still at the place to which he came as a result of his completed action.

Example verb conjugation: slapen, "to sleep"
  Present Preterite Perfect
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
1st Person ik slaap wi slaapt/slapen ik sleep wi slepen ik hebb slapen wi hebbt/hebben slapen
2nd Person du slöppst ji slaapt/slapen du sleepst ji slepen du hest slapen ji hebbt/hebben slapen
3rd Person he, se, dat slöppt se slaapt/slapen he, se, dat sleep se slepen he, se, dat hett slapen se hebbt/hebben slapen


Unlike Dutch, German, and southern Low German, the northern dialects form the participle without the prefix ge-, like the Scandinavian languages and English. Compare to the German past participle geschlafen. This past participle is formed with the auxiliary verb hebben "to have". It should be noted that e- is used instead of ge- in most Southern (below Groningenmarker in the Netherlandsmarker) dialects, though often not when the past participle ends with -en or in a few oft-used words like west (been).

The reason for the two conjugations shown in the plural is regional: dialects in the central area use -t while the dialects in East Frisia and the dialects in Mecklenburg and further east use -en. The -en suffix is of Dutch influence.

In Mennonite Low German, some verbs inflect into two moods: indicative and imperative. For the verb jäwen, for example, the imperative form is jefs.

There are 26 verb affixes.

Phonology

Vowels

Description word
monophthongs
Close front unrounded vowel h a
Near-close near-front unrounded vowel Kj nt
Open-mid front unrounded vowel m t
Near-open front unrounded vowel Kjo kj
Open back rounded vowel G tt
Near-close near-back rounded vowel B ck
Close front rounded vowel H s
Open-mid back unrounded vowel, Near-open central vowel L st
Open-mid central unrounded vowel f häa
Schwa schmäar
Close front unrounded vowel T n


Consonants

Since there is no standard Low German, there is no standard Low German consonant system. The table shows the consonant system of North Saxon, a West Low Saxon dialect. R.E. Keller, German Dialects. Phonology and Morphology, Manchester 1960

  Labial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal-Velar Glottal
Plosive             
Fricative         
Nasal    
Approximant      


Writing system

Low German is written using the Latin alphabet. There is no true standard orthography, only several locally more or less accepted orthographic guidelines, those in the Netherlandsmarker mostly based on Dutch orthography, and those in Germanymarker mostly based on German orthography. This diversity—being the result of centuries of official neglect and suppression—has a very fragmenting and thus weakening effect on the language as a whole, since it has created barriers that do not exist on the spoken level. Interregional and international communication is severely hampered by this. Most of these systems aim at representing the phonetic (allophonic) output rather than underlying (phonemic) representations. Furthermore, many writers follow guidelines only roughly. This adds numerous idiosyncratic and often inconsistent ways of spelling to the already existing great orthographic diversity.

See also



Resources

There is a lot of information about Low German to be found online. A selection of these links can be found on this page, which will provide a good framework to understand the history, current situation and features of the language.

Information:

Organizations:

If your organisation isn't listed here, feel free to add it.

Writers:

Musicians:
  • 3molPlaut (Ken Sawatzky, Vern and Christina Neufeld - Manitoba, Canada)
  • Skik (Drents/Dutch - Drenthe, the Netherlands)
  • Jan Cornelius (East Frisian - Ostfriesland, Germany)
  • Törf (Gronings - Groningen, the Netherlands)
  • Eltje Doddema (Veenkoloniaals - Groningen, the Netherlands)
  • Boh foi toch (Achterhoeks - Gelderland, the Netherlands)
  • Helmut Debus (Lower Saxony - Niedersachsen, Germany)
Unorganized links:
  • http://www.plattmaster.de/
  • http://www.platt-online.de/
  • http://www.zfn-ratzeburg.de/
  • http://www.radiobremen.de/nachrichten/platt/
  • http://www.deutsch-plattdeutsch.de/


References

  1. See the definition of high in the Oxford English Dictionary (Concise Edition): “. . . situated far above ground, sea level, etc; upper, inland, as . . . High German”.
  2. Atlas zur deutschen Umgangssprache
  3. Sanders, W: "Sachsensprache — Hansesprache — Plattdeutsch. Sprachgeschichtliche Grundzüge des Niederdeutschen, Göttingen 1982
  4. J. Goossens: Niederdeutsche Sprache. Versuch einer Defintion, in: J. Goossens (ed.), Niederdeutsch. Sprache und Literatur, I, Neumünster 1973
  5. Examples here (in English) or here (German)
  6. Institut für niederdeutsche Sprache - Zeitschriften
  7. http://l10n.kde.org/stats/gui/trunk-kde4/nds/
  8. See John Wells, Accents of English, pages 366-7, Cambridge University Press, 1981



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