|Native to Germany
(Primarily North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein)
(Primarily Southern Denmark)
(Primarily Overijssel, Drenthe, Groningen)|
Ethnicity Today the Dutch and Germans; Historically Saxons (Germanic people and modern regional subgroup of Germans)
Native speakers Unknown number of native speakers; up to 10 million second-language speakers (1996)
Language family Indo-European Germanic West Germanic Ingvaeonic Low German
Early forms Old Saxon Middle Low German Low German
Dialects West Low German East Low German
Low German or Low Saxon (Low German: Plattdüütsch, Nedderdüütsch, Platduuts, Nedderduuts; German: Plattdeutsch, Niederdeutsche Dialekte; Dutch: Nedersaksisch, or Nederduits in the wider sense) is a West Germanic language spoken mainly in northern Germany and the eastern part of the Netherlands. It is descended from Old Saxon in its earliest form.
- Inside Europe
- Outside Europe and the Mennonites
- Dialect of German or Dutch or separate language
- Legal status
- Classification and related languages
- In Germany
- In the Netherlands
- Old Saxon
- Middle Low German
- Sound change
- Dative dendn
- Personal Pronouns
- Writing system
- Notable Low German Writers
As an Ingvaeonic language, Low German is quite distinct from the Irminonic (High German) languages like Standard German. It is closely related to Anglo-Frisian group of languages and more distantly to Dutch and Afrikaans. This difference resulted from the High German consonant shift, with the Uerdingen and Benrath lines being two notable linguistic borders.
Dialects of Low German are widely spoken in the northeastern area of the Netherlands (Dutch Low Saxon) and are written there with an orthography based on Standard Dutch orthography.
Variants of Low German are spoken in most parts of Northern Germany, for instance in the states of Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hamburg, Bremen, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony-Anhalt, and Brandenburg. Small portions of northern Hesse and northern Thuringia are traditionally Low Saxon-speaking too. Historically, Low German was also spoken in formerly German parts of Poland as well as in East Prussia and the Baltic States of Estonia and Latvia.
The language was also formerly spoken in the outer areas of what is now the city-state of Berlin, but in the course of urbanisation and national centralisation in that city, the language has vanished (the Berlin dialect itself is a northern outpost of High German). Under the name Low Saxon, there are speakers in the Dutch north-eastern provinces of Groningen, Drenthe, Stellingwerf (part of Friesland), Overijssel, and Gelderland, in several dialect groups per province.
The historical Sprachraum of Low German also included contemporary northern Poland, East Prussia (the modern Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia), a part of western Lithuania, and the German communities in the Baltic states, most notably the Hanseatic cities of modern Latvia and Estonia. German speakers in this area fled the Red Army or were forcibly expelled after the border changes at the end of World War II.
Today, there are still speakers outside Germany and the Netherlands to be found in the coastal areas of present-day Poland (minority of ethnic German Pommersch speakers who were not expelled from Pomerania, as well as the regions around Braniewo). 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 Denmark can be considered moribund at this time.
Outside Europe and the Mennonites
There are also immigrant communities where Low German is spoken in the Western hemisphere, including Canada, the United States, Mexico, Belize, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. In some of these countries, the language is part of the Mennonite religion and culture. There are Mennonite communities in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Minnesota which use Low German in their religious services and communities. These Mennonites are descended from primarily Dutch settlers that had initially settled in the Vistula delta region of Prussia in the 16th and 17th centuries before moving to newly acquired Russian territories in Ukraine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and then 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 States has diverged since emigration. The survival of the language is tenuous in many places and has died out in many places where assimilation has occurred. Members and friends of the Historical Society of North German Settlements in Western New York (Bergholz, NY), a community of Lutherans who trace their immigration from Pomerania in the 1840s, hold quarterly "Plattdeutsch lunch" events, where remnant speakers of the language gather to share and preserve the dialect. Mennonite colonies in Paraguay, Belize, and Chihuahua, Mexico have made Low German a "co-official language" of the community.
Pommersch is also spoken in parts of Southern and Southeastern Brazil, in the latter especially in the state of Espírito Santo, being official in five municipalities, and spoken among its ethnically European migrants elsewhere, primarily in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Rondônia. Pommersch-speaking regions of Southern Brazil are often assimilated into the general German Brazilian population and culture, for example celebrating the Oktoberfest, and there can even be a language shift from it to Riograndenser Hunsrückisch in some areas. In Espírito Santo, nevertheless, Pomeranian Brazilians are more often proud of their language, and particular religious traditions and culture, and not rarely inheriting the nationalism of their ancestors, being more likely to accept marriages of its members with Brazilians of origins other than a Germanic Central European one than to assimilate with Brazilians of Swiss, Austrian, Czech, and non-Pommersch-speaking German and Prussian heritage – that were much more numerous immigrants to both Brazilian regions (and whose language almost faded out in the latter, due to assimilation and internal migration), by themselves less numerous than the Italian ones (with only Venetian communities in areas of highly Venetian presence conserving Talian, and other Italian languages and dialects fading out elsewhere).
In Germany, native speakers of Low German call it Platt, Plattdüütsch or Nedderdüütsch. In the Netherlands, native speakers refer to their language as dialect, plat, nedersaksies, or the name of their village, town or district.
Officially, Low German is called Niederdeutsch (Nether/Low German) by the German authorities and Nedersaksisch (Nether/Low Saxon) by the Dutch authorities. 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.
Mennonite Low German is called Plautdietsch.
"Low" refers to the flat plains and coastal area of the northern European lowlands, contrasted with the mountainous areas of central and southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, where High German (Highland German) is spoken.
The colloquial term Platt denotes both Low German dialects and any non-standard Western variety of German; this use is chiefly found in northern and Western Germany and is not considered to be linguistically correct. Etymologically "Platt" meant "clear" in the sense of a language the simple people could understand. In Dutch, the word Plat can also mean improper, or rude, which is why the term isn't popular in the Netherlands.
The ISO 639-2 language code for Low German (Low Saxon) has been nds (nedersaksisch or neddersassisch) since May 2000.
There are different uses of the term "Low German":
- A specific name of any West Germanic varieties that neither have taken part in the High German consonant shift nor classify as Low Franconian or Anglo-Frisian; this is the scope discussed in this article.
- A broader term for the closely related, continental West Germanic languages unaffected by the High German consonant shift, nor classifying as Anglo-Frisian, and thus including Low Franconian varieties spoken in Germany such as Kleverlandish, but not those in the Netherlands, thus excluding Dutch.
Dialect of German or Dutch, or separate language?
The question of whether Low German should be considered a separate language, rather than a dialect of German or Dutch, has been a point of contention. Linguistics offers no simple, generally accepted criterion to decide this question.
Scholarly arguments have been put forward in favour of classifying Low German as a German dialect. As said, these arguments are not linguistic but rather socio-political and build mainly around the fact that Low German has no official standard form or use in sophisticated media. The situation of Low German may thus be considered a pseudo-dialectized abstand language.
In contrast, Old Saxon and Middle Low German are generally considered separate languages in their own rights. Since Low German has undergone a strong decline since the 18th century, the perceived similarities with High German or Dutch may often be direct High German/Dutch adaptations due to the growing incapability of speakers to speak correctly what was once Low German proper.
At the request of Schleswig-Holstein, the German government has declared Low German as a regional language.
German offices in Schleswig-Holstein are obliged to accept and handle applications in Low German on the same footing as Standard High German applications. The Bundesgerichtshof ruled in a case that this was even to be done at the patent office in Munich, in a non–Low German region, when the applicant then had to pay the charge for a translator, because applications in Low German are considered "nicht in deutscher Sprache abgefasst" (not written in the German language).
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 is a part of the continental West Germanic dialect continuum.
To the West, it blends into the Low Franconian languages, including Dutch. A distinguishing feature between the Southern Low Franconian varieties and Low German varieties is the plural of the verbs. Low German varieties have a common verbal plural ending, whereas Southern Low Franconian varieties have a different form for the second person plural. Northern Low Franconian varieties, including standard Dutch, have also developed a common verbal plural ending.
To the South, Low German 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 the Polish part of 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. Saterland Frisian 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 influences from Frisian substrates.
Some classify the northern dialects of Low German together with English and Frisian as the North Sea 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).
In the Netherlands
The Dutch Low Saxon varieties, which are also defined as Dutch dialects, consist of:
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 Denmark 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 1600. The neighbouring 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 Sea and the Baltic Sea. It had a significant influence on the Scandinavian languages. Based on the language of Lübeck, a standardized written language was developing, though it was never codified.
There is a distinction between the German and the Dutch Low Saxon/Low German situation.
After mass education in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, the slow decline which Low German had been experiencing since the end of the Hanseatic League turned into a free fall. The decision to exclude Low German in formal education was not without controversy, however. On one hand, proponents of Low German advocated that since it had a strong cultural and historical value and was the native language of students in northern Germany, it had a place in the classroom. On the other hand, High German was considered the language of education, science, and national unity, and since schools promoted these values, High German was seen as the best candidate for the language of instruction.
Initially, regional languages and dialects were thought to limit the intellectual ability of their speakers. Because of Low German’s archaic features and constructions, historical linguists considered it “backwards.” It wasn’t until the efforts of proponents such as Klaus Groth that this impression changed. Groth’s publications demonstrated that Low German was a valuable language in its own right, and he was able to convince others that Low German was suitable for literary arts and was a national treasure worth keeping.
Through the works of advocates like Groth, both proponents and opponents of Low German in formal education saw the language’s innate value as the cultural and historical language of northern Germany. Nevertheless, the opponents claimed that it should simply remain a spoken and informal language to be used on the street and in the home, but not in formal schooling. According to them, it simply did not match the nationally unifying power of High German. As a result, while Low German literature was deemed worthy of being taught in school, High German was chosen as the language of scholarly instruction. With High German the language of education and Low German the language of the home and daily life, a stable diglossia developed in Northern Germany.
In the early 20th century, scholars in the Netherlands argued that speaking dialects hindered language acquisition, and it was therefore strongly discouraged. Many parents, however, continued to speak Low Saxon with their children, since they could not speak anything else, nor did they need to; many of the Eastern Dutch towns and villages were largely self-reliant, and located far from the economic heart of the country.
As education improved, and mass communication became more widespread, the Low Saxon dialects declined, but never disappeared. People in the Netherlands born up to the 1980s often have one of the Low Saxon dialects as one of their first languages, although decline has been greater in urban centres of the Low Saxon regions. When in 1975 dialect folk and rock bands such as Normaal and Boh Foi Toch became successful with their overt disapproval of what they experienced as "misplaced Dutch snobbery" and the Western Dutch contempt for (speakers of) Low Saxon dialects, they quickly gained an enormous following among the more rurally oriented inhabitants of the Netherlands, launching Low Saxon as a vibrant sub-culture, which has been very lively right up to the present day. They inspired many contemporary dialect artists and rock bands, such as Daniël Lohues, Mooi Wark, Jovink en de Voederbietels, Hádiejan and many other less successful artists.
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. In the Netherlands, Low Saxon is still spoken more widely than in Northern Germany. A 2005 study showed that in the Tweante region 62% of the inhabitants used Low Saxon daily, and up to 75% regularly.
The KDE project supports Low German (nds) as a language for its computer desktop environment, as does the GNOME Desktop Project. Open source software has been translated into Low German; this used to be coordinated via a page on Sourceforge, but as of 2015, the most active project is that of KDE.
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 /ð/ 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 in the Yorkshire dialect, where there is a process known as Yorkshire assimilation.
For instance: water [wɒtɜ, ˈwatɜ, ˈwætɜ], later [ˈlɒːtɜ, ˈlaːtɜ, ˈlæːtɜ], bit [bɪt], dish [dis, diʃ], ship [ʃɪp, skɪp, sxɪp], pull [pʊl], good [ɡou̯t, ɣɑu̯t, ɣuːt], clock [klɔk], sail [sɑi̯l], he [hɛi̯, hɑi̯, hi(j)], storm [stoːrm], wind [vɪˑnt], grass [ɡras, ɣras], hold [hoˑʊl(t)], old [oˑʊl(t)].
The table below shows the relationship between Low German consonants which were unaffected by this chain shift and their equivalents in other West Germanic languages; Swedish (a North Germanic language) is also shown for comparison.
Notes:* German Kerl is a loanword from Low German ** The series Wief–wijf, etc. are cognates, not semantic equivalents. The meanings of some of these words have shifted over time. For example, the correct equivalent term for "wife" in modern Dutch, German and Swedish is vrouw, Frau and fru respectively; using wijf, Weib or viv for a human is considered archaic in Swedish and nowadays derogatory in Dutch and German, comparable to "wicked girl". No cognate to Frau / vrouw / fru has survived in English (compare Old English frōwe "lady"; the English word frow "woman, lady" rather being a borrowing of the Middle Dutch word). *** Pronounced shepp since the 17th century
Generally speaking, Low German grammar shows similarities with the grammars of Dutch, Frisian, English, and Scots, but the dialects of Northern Germany share some features (especially lexical and syntactic features) with German dialects.
Low German declension has only two morphologically marked noun cases, where accusative and dative together constitute an oblique case, and the genitive case has been lost.
In most modern dialects, the nominative and oblique 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 den/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 in German.
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.
Unlike Dutch, German, and southern Low German, the northern dialects form the participle without the prefix ge-, like the Scandinavian languages, Frisian and English. Compare to the German past participle geschlafen. This past participle is formed with the auxiliary verbs hebben "to have" and wesen/sien "to be". It should be noted that e- is used instead of ge- in most Southern (below Groningen in the Netherlands) 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. The -t ending is however more often encountered, even in areas where -en endings were prominent due to the fact that these -t endings are seen as kennzeichnend Niederdeutsch, that is to say a well-known feature of Low German.
There are 26 verb affixes.
There is also a progressive form of verbs in present, corresponding to the same in the Dutch language. It is formed with wesen (to be), the preposition an (at) and "dat" (the/it).1 Instead of 'to wesen, sien (to be) Saxon uses doon (to do) to make to present continuous. 2 Many see the 'n as an old dative ending of dat which only occurs when being shortened after prepositions. This is actually the most frequently-used form in colloquial Low German. 3 This form is archaic and mostly unknown to Low German speakers. It is the same pattern as in the English example "I am making." The present participle has the same form as the infinitive: maken is either "to make" or "making".
The forms of Low German’s adjectives are distinct from other closely related languages such as German and English. These forms fall somewhere in between these two languages. Unlike German, Low German does not have a distinction for strong and weak forms of adjectives. However, its adjectives still do have endings, whereas English adjectives do not. The adjectives in Low German make a distinction between singular and plural to agree with the nouns that it modifies. To express the difference between the singular and plural, Low German uses the following adjective endings:
Like German, Low German maintains the historical Germanic distinction between the second person singular and second person plural. In English and German, this distinction would translate to “thou” and “du” referring to one person, and “ye” and “ihr” referring to more than one person. The second person pronouns for each case are given below to further illustrate this distinction.
In the genitive (possessive) case, the pronoun functions in the same way as an adjective and so it may take an ending if needed to match the singular or plural status of the noun it is modifying. So, for example, if “you” possess multiple books, then [dinen] would be used to express that the singular second person possesses multiple objects: the books. If several people in the second person (“you all”) possessed multiple books, then [jug’] would be used instead.
Since there is no standard Low German, there is no standard Low German consonant system. However, one trait present in the whole Low German speaking area, is the retraction of /s z/ to [s̠ z̠]. However, there are speakers with non-retracted [s z].
The table shows the consonant system of North Saxon, a West Low Saxon dialect.
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 Netherlands mostly based on Dutch orthography, and those in Germany mostly based on German orthography. To the latter group belongs the standard orthography devised by Johannes Sass. It is mostly used by modern official publications and internet sites, especially the Low German Wikipedia. This diversity, a 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, but trying to conserve many etymological spellings. Furthermore, many writers follow guidelines only roughly. This adds numerous idiosyncratic and often inconsistent ways of spelling to the already existing great orthographic diversity.
In 2011, writers of the Dutch Low Saxon Wikipedia developed a spelling that would be suitable and applicable to all varieties of Low Saxon in the Netherlands, although the semi-official dialect institutes have not picked up on this, or indicated that they believed that yet another writing system will only further confuse dialect writers rather than suit them. The new spelling was introduced to the Dutch Low Saxon Wikipedia to unify the spelling of categories, templates and comparable source code writings.