High german/low german

I have what might seem to be a pretty basic question, but I thought this would be a pretty good place to start with it.

What is the difference/significance of knowing that someone was high or low German? My aunt told me the other day she knew that one of my gg-grandmothers was "low German" and my gg-grandfather was "high German". Now, I have no idea where in Germany the grandmother was from. The grandfather was from Saxony. I have the town names in my FTM but don't have that available to me right now.

Would knowing anything about the high or low give me ANY kinds of clues as to location, etc?

Danielle Nauman

Yes, but not tremendous clues. Basicly low German was spoken in the lower
elevation areas in Northern Germany, closer to the North Sea and Baltic
coasts, but there are some exceptions. Someone else will probably be able
to give you a firmer idea of which areas spoke which. Low German is
actualy linguisticaly closer to Dutch than to High German.

Incidentaly, there was a similar story in my family, where one grandparent
spoke low German and the other high.


Principally right said, Heather, but this topic is very complex. Also many
Germans don't know very much about the linguistic background of our
languages here in Germany.

Language*s*? Not only one? Yes, right, there are five languages in Germany:

1. High German, a West German language together with Dutch and English, and
its dialects. High German has its roots first in the central and later also
in the southern German dialects. "High" doesn't mean "better" or "more
educated" but geographically "from the upper country" (whereas "Low German"
means the language of the lowlands). High German was formed out in the 16th
century when Martin Luther translated the Holy Bible from Latin to German,
means to his (Upper) Saxonian (not: Saxon!) -Thuringian dialect. This
Saxonian-Thuringian area got the leadership in the big "Holy Roman Empire of
German Nation" then, because of the Reformation, of its leading universities
and sciences, its important trade and its arts, etc. So this regional
dialect had an important influence and in this time the period of the New
High German began. Over the centuries, High German was formed out to be a
"bridge of understanding" between its upper German dialects in particular
and the Low German language, too. You have to know, our dialects here are so
highly different that generally speakers of one dialect over longer
distances really can't understand the speaker of another dialect! There are
major dialect groups, as there are the Rhine-Frankish-Hessian group (western
Central Germany to and over the western borders in Luxemburg and eastern
Belgium), the Thuringian-Upper Saxonian (in the Thuringia and Saxony area),
the (Upper) Franconian (in Franconia between Wuerzburg, Bayreuth and
Nuernberg), the Bavarian (in south-eastern Germany and Austria), the
Swabish-Alemannian group (in south-western Germany, western Austria, in
Switzerland and eastern France = Alsace). After WW II, many eastern
dialects, like the Silesian, the East Prussian, the Pommeranian, the Sudeten
German and many more were extinct by the ethnic cleansings forced by the
Soviets, the Polish and the Czechs and other communist regimes.

2. Low German which is *not* (!) a northern dialect but a language, close to
Dutch and English. Indeed, it derives from the same root as the Anglian and
Saxon, for these former tribes came from northern Germany and the Schleswig
area in Schleswig-Holstein, close to Denmark. Being formerly a part of this
Low German (linguistically: Middle Low Frankish, one dialect of the old
Franks), the Dutch formed out to a language as of the late high middleages.

3. Frisian (West Frisian in the northern Netherlands, East Frisian in far
north-eastern Germany and North Frisian along the North Sea in
Schleswig-Holstein. It's the old, still exisiting dialect (which became a
language over the centuries by being kept apart of the German influence) of
the Frisian tribe along the North Sea.

These three are closely related having the same roots being the idioms of
the former West Germanic and North Sea Germanic tribes.

4. Danish, a Northern Germanic language and closely related to Swedish and
Norwegian. Spoken by a minority (German citizens of Danish nationality) in
northern Schleswig-Holstein south of German-Danish borderline, whereas in
southern Denmark there are many Danish citizens of German nationality.

5. Sorbian, a West Slavish language, related to Polish and Czech languages.
Spoken by a minority in the Lausitz (Sorbian: Luzyca) area south-east of
Berlin. This area is officially bilingual, and the Sorbs have own programs
on Eastern German TV channels.

If you're interested in more info on German language(s), you may want to
search the web for "German language", "German dialects", for "Low German",
"High German", for "Germanic tribes", for "Angles", "Saxons", "Jutes", or
other tribes' names, etc..

Here's one example site for a first start:
http://www.webgerman.com/german/dialects/ . Be careful, many sites (also
this one) mix up and confuse not only the terms dialects and languages, but
also the closer relations between them and the dialects themselves!

Hope I could explain this a little bit understandable ...

Viele Gr��e,



I must say I was really disappointed during my visit to Mecklenburg this
summer when I experienced that, even out in the smaller villages, low
German in Mecklenburg is almost extinct (except from in Reuterstadt
Ravenshagen of course, but that is almost a museum....). I had expected
that Platt would be the daily language of all people, and that they
would switch to high German only when speaking to "foreigners" (like in
parts of Schleswig and Holstein), put it seemed like only old people
were able to speak Platt at all, and it was very little in use. Some
said that the disappearence had mostly been caused by the large influx
of refugees from the former eastern Germany (Schlesien, Hinterpommern,
Ostpreussen, the baltics etc. after/near the en of WW2 [but at least
Hinterpommern and Ostpreussen were low German speaking]).
Old gravestones (16th and 17th century of nobles at least) I found in
Mecklenburg churches were written in low German. Sad to see that the
language of our ancestors is quickly disappearing!

By the way, low German had an enormous influence on the Scandinavian
languages in the period ca. 1300 - 1500, because of the large number of
low German Hansa merchant who stayed in Scandinavia. During that period
e.g., Norwegian underwent an enormous change making it impossible for
non-scholars to understand pre-1400 Norwegian at all. And most of the
changes were built on low German roots. To a Scandinavian, low German
(at least written) looks and sounds like a mixture of (high) German and
Scandinavian with some sprinkling of English.

Per B. Lilje

Oslo, Norway

P.S. We had a great time, spending first a few days in Vorpommern
(Stralsund, Ruegen), then 10 days in Mecklenburg this July. There was
previously (from the middle ages at least up to 1800 or so) quite a lot
of emigration from Mecklenburg to Scandinavia, merchants, artisans
(especially glass blowers), army officers, government officials.

I have a typed letter dated 1976 to Herrn. Klaus Ritzel. I do not know
this man but the letter contains information about my family (Deterding,
Löloff, Wilken).

This is the letter head - can someone please tell me who the letter is

Freie Und Hansestadt Hamburg

Behörde Für Inneres




Hi Per,

yes, I can follow your thoughts and feelings very well. It's sad to watch a
relative language die. But I have found that in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern as
well as in Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein a lot of people, even
younger ones, still are able to communicate in Plattdeutsch. And their
number increases, but very slowly. Speaking Plattdeutsch as well as central
and southern German dialects is coming up more and more since many years.
Also many singers and bands, also the younger ones, and many pretty famous
ones among them, in Germany went back to the roots and compose songs in
their local dialect and in Platt, respectively. Also it is fact, that many
things are expressed better, faster, more precise and easier in dialect or
in Platt!

But as you mentioned correctly, people switch to High German when talking to
a "foreigner" (means someone who apparently or supposedly seems to be able
to speak Platt, too). But this is a common mechanism we unconsciously use
here in Germany.

For example me: I usually am speaking High German to all people, especially
to those who are using pure High German or who at the first impression dont
indicate in the least if they would be able to speak in south Hessian
dialect, too. But surely my High German has the special Hessian touch, some
sounds who tell other people in closer or distant regions: this man is from
the greater Frankfurt area, from southern Hesse. People from other regions
let hear their special sounds, too, so that I can say: this guy is from
Cologne, that one from Munich, the third one from the Ruhr area or another
one comes from the Palatinate or from Baden or Wuerttemberg, from Saxony or
from Berlin.

When I am speaking to someone who at once or later lets hear some sounds
which tell me he/she is from the same region and will understand me, I
switch to dialect.

Also we Germans can hear in our closer dialect area if some talking dialect
is from this village or from that one. Special words or pronunciation
indicate this. Dialects have no borders, except the major dialect groups
have certain borders. They are changing a little bit from kilometer to
kilometer, changing word by word and/or sound by sound, expression by
expression. So knowing your point, your status of dialect, you are able to
recognize where someone else is from.

I for one can still read Plattdeutsch pretty good and can understand the
most when spoken (but also Plattdeutsch has some regional versions). I (50,
born near Frankfurt/Main) never lived in northern Germany nor could I learn
this language by any environment or by my parents. Sure, my mother is from
the Prignitz area in north-western Brandenburg, but as well as my father who
was from the Halle/Saale area she only can speak High German. Only my
grandma from could speak Prignitz Platt, and my grandpa from Schwerin,
Mecklenburg, spoke a little Mecklenburg Platt. But how often were they with
us? My grandparents lived in Hamburg and they could visit us two or three
time a year. But when I was a child and could read, I had (and still have!)
some books of German fairy tales (Grimm's M�rchen and others) which either
contained many Plattdeutsch versions of High German fairy tales in the same
book or they were written in Plattdeutsch completely. So I am able to read
Platt pretty well and understand it roughly.

In fact, I'm familiar with many languages and it makes fun: High German and
my local dialect, Low German, English, Spanish, some Portuguese, some
French, some Italian. Also some idioms in Croatian and in Turkish ...

And yes, your're right, Per, the Scandinavian languages adopted a lot of
Low German words by the influence of the Hansa. So when people say, they can
read at least some Danish, Norwegian or Swedish, they usually don't know
they found and understand some Plattdeutsch at this point. The rest of these
languages is pretty different from our language, besides some common and
understandable Germanic basics. Your last sentence gives a good description
of this situation.

Greetings / Viele Gr��e,


Linguistics draws a line in Germany - the so called Benrather Linie (named
after a place Benrath near Dusseldorf) - north of this line low german was
(is) spoken, south of it high. However, this line is rather a broad strip
running from west to east, according to which linguistic characterstics is
choosen to differentiate between both languages. - Since there was a strong
tendency since the 19th century to favorise high german as the one language
in germany, the use of low german was more and more neglected. Especially
due to the lack of an own literature in low german (Fritz Reuter from
Mecklenburg in early 19th century is probably the last well known writer in
low german), this language lost its importance. Today, there is a weak
tendency to reanimate this language. At least the broadcasting corporation
NDR has a few activities in low german. But as long as in school only high
german is taught there is no real chance to recover this old german
language. To my knowledge there does not exist a newspaper in low german

Historically it might be interesting that the distribution of low german
language covers nearly the same area as the distribution of cities belonging
to the Hanse (a trade connection between cities in the old Reich) in 13th
to 15th century. At that time parts of later Belgium and the Netherlands
still belonged to the Reich. This explains the similarity between low german
and the language spoken in Flanderen or Brabant or the Netherlands. - In old
churches in many places in this region stretching from the Brugge area in
the west to Greifswald in the east you can find old tomb stones with low
german inscriptions. Naturally there are local variations of the language as
there are local variations in the high german spoken f.i. in Dresden on one
hand and in Stuttgart on the other. So, dialects can be observed in high
german as well as in low german.

Yours, Wolfgang Donner

Urspr�ngliche Nachricht-----