Aaahhh … the German language. We all know that Mark Twain had problems with “That Awful German Language”. Why, his “philological studies” satisfied him that “a gifted person ought to learn … German in thirty years” (excerpt from The Tramp Abroad). And here you are. You took German in college and you mastered it in only 4 years. You are fluent. What am I saying? You learned German in a 10 day crash course. What was his problem?
And now you find yourself among the locals in a small town on the German North Sea coast and you understand … exactly nothing. Well, not much anyway. You can make out some words here and there, words that sound very English. What are they speaking?, you ask yourself.
You, of course, learned Hochdeutsch (High German, or Standard German), and those locals are likely speaking Plattdeutsch, or Low German, a language spoken alongside High German all over Northern Germany that has many different variations in as many regions and can even differ from town to town. Niedersächisches Platt (Lower Saxon) sounds different than Hamburger Platt, sounds different than Märkisch-Brandenburgisches Platt (Mark Brandenburgish), different than Mecklenburgisches Platt (Mecklenburgish), different than Pommersches Platt (Pomeranian), different than Münsterländer Platt (Munsterlandish). And why did you detect similarities with English in there? The oldest recorded form of Low German is the so-called Old Saxon, or Altniederdeutsch, the language of the Germanic tribe of the Saxons. When the Saxons, Angles and Jutes conquered the British Isles in the 5th century, they brought with them their dialects. Low German still shows similarities with today’s English which indicate the common origin.
Language or Dialect? German is spoken in dialects in different geographical areas. Bavarian, Swabian, Hessian, Rhinelandish, Saxon, etc. are dialects that may sound endearing, charming, unintelligible, awkward, or however else you would describe them. But ever since accepted into the European Charta of Regional and Minority Languages at the end of the 20th century, Plattdeutsch is officially recognized as a language rather than a dialect.
Ina Müller, German singer, cabaret star and author with her own, very successful, TV show, grew up speaking Plattdeutsch and performs in Platt. Here is a listening sample from one of her shows. Hör mal ‘n beten to:
The closer you come to the Danish border, the greater the Danish influence on the German language. As a child I was convinced my paternal grandmother did not know how to speak proper German, coming from the German-Danish border region. Family lives on both sides of the border. When she didn’t speak Danish, or potato-Danish as she called it, she spoke this peculiar German spiked with Danish words which I later learned was the way people speak in that area, and not due to poor German language skills on her part.
In the city of Flensburg, you encounter yet another variable called Petuhtantendeutsch. What kind of deutsch? Don’t bother trying to make sense of it. I guarantee you, you won’t. It’s a mix of High German and Low German, High Danish and Low (potato) Danish, made-up words, and the sentence structure defies logic. Ohauehaueha, wat’n Aggewars! This smorgasbord could have only come about because the region was at times Danish and at times German. No wonder people got confused and came up with their own unique language. But don’t you worry. High German is spoken.
If it weren’t complicated enough, we have Friesisch. Friesisch (Frisian) distinguishes itself from Plattdeutsch. Alongside Plattdeutsch, High German and Dutch, it belongs to the West Germanic language group, and it is divided in 3 separate branches: Nordfriesisch (North Frisian), Westfriesisch (West Frisian) and Ostfriesisch (East Frisian). Each branch comes in a variety of dialects. When speaking in their tongue, a North Frisian can hardly understand a West Frisian. And I understand neither.
This is what Nordfriesisch sounds like, when spoken by Marie Tångeberg:
Today, Nordfriesisch (North Frisian) is spoken by about 10,000 people in Nordfriesland (North Frisia) and is listed as seriously endangered in the Endangered Languages Of Europe Report. Ostfriesisch has become extinct in the heart of Ostfriesland (East Frisia). It survives as Saterfriesisch in the Oldenburg area and is spoken by about 2,000 people there. Ostfriesisch Platt has largely replaced the Ostfriesisch language. Westfriesisch is spoken in the Netherland province of Friesland.
Both Friesisch and Plattdeutsch are a valuable part of Germany’s cultural heritage and it is a goal of the European Charta of Regional And Minority Languages to preserve and to foster them. While schools have been integrating the use of these languages in classroom teachings at their discretion, a “High Responsibility towards this Cultural Heritage” is now in evidence. Awareness has been raised.
More language classes, books, CDs, talk shows, news programs, chat rooms, church services, are available in Low German than ever. A growing number of Northern German artists perform in Platt (Platt is short for Plattdeutsch). See also my article on De Fofftig Penns. Whether blues, country, hip hop, folk – solo artists and groups such as De Fofftig Penns, Godewind, Ina Müller, Helmut Debus, Fettes Brot or Die Tüdelband do much to help preserve the language. Once the valid written language of the North German Hanseatic League (1350 – 1550), Platt was largely replaced by High German beginning with the 16th century and for long periods of time dismissed as North German old country folk talk. Today, Platt is experiencing a revival. Platt is “in”.
Platt is cool!
Maybe Mark Twain was not so far off when he suggested that it ought to take 30 years to learn German?