Monday, September 7, 2015

Platt is Back: the Rejuvenation of Low German

by Andrew Schwenk

Andrew Schwenk is a first year graduate student in European Union Studies at the University of Illinois at Urana-Champaign. Andrew is planning on graduating in December 2016 and is interested in heritage management in Europe. He wrote this text in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe.’

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In Thomas Mann’s perpetually popular debut novel from 1901, Buddenbrooks, the German author helps make the Buddenbrook family’s unnamed hometown more real through the language he uses. The novel’s characters use a mixture of Standard German, Low German, Lübeck merchant slang, and French. All of this helps situate the family in their mid-19th century, northern German (Low German), upper-class (French) context (Wolf). If Thomas Mann was born a century later, however, would he still use Low German to give his characters their north German credentials? And what even is Low German anyway?

Low German, known in German as Plattdeutsch, is a German dialect located in the north of Germany. It was very widespread in the Middle Ages, where it was the language of the Hanseatic League—a union of city states that traded along the Baltic coast. Over time, these Baltic trade routes lost their importance and more southerly German dialects became preferred. This trend only increased when Martin Luther published the first German-language Bible in 1534 in High German. Low German’s importance continued to decrease in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the German of Luther’s Bible became the educated standard throughout the German-speaking lands. As a result, use of Low German became associated with the uneducated (Young Germany).

Since 1999 Plattdeutsch has been protected under the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages and has been recognized as a regional language in Schleswig Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Schleswig-Holstein). This recognition has resulted in Low German being included as a topic in northern German schools and universities (Finetext). This is a very important change that will bolster Low German’s chances of survival, if even by a little bit. The Charter has helped the language in other ways as well.

According to Article 1 of the Charter, “regional or minority languages” means languages that are different from the official language(s) of the State (ECRML).” This would seem to suggest that Low German, since it is protected by the charter, is considered more a separate language than merely a dialect of High German. Does this seeming recognition of Low German as its own separate language mean that it can overcome its previous reputation as a language of the uneducated and gain a new legitimate status?

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Today, there are approximately 700,000 speakers of Plattdeutsch in the northern German states of Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Lower Saxony (Young Germany). As many as 10 million people across these northern states can at least understand it (of approximately 16 million inhabitants in this region) (Ethnologue). Among those with some ability in Low German, it is often the older generations and those who live in more rural locations who have more knowledge of the language (Schleswig-Holstein).  If Low German is to survive and remain healthy, it has to overcome this demographic challenge by appealing to youth culture.

There have been some attempts in the last few years to do just that. The Institut für Niederdeutsche Sprache and the Plattdüütsch Stiftung Neddersassen have launched one such program called “Plattsounds.” With the motto “Platt is cool,” this program lets musicians of 15-30 of age living in Lower Saxony enter an original song in any language to be translated in Plattdeutsch into the contest. The contest’s prize is 1000 Euros (Young Germany). The success of Platt-singing bands such as Tüdelband and the hip-hop act Fettes Brot point to the allure of such a contest (Goethe Institut).

While Plattdeutsch’s reach has shrunken since its medieval heyday and faces some modern demographic challenges, there is hope for this regional language. With the support of the ECRML, the German school system, and the Institut für Niederdeutsche Sprache and the Plattdüütsch Stiftung Neddersassen, among other institutions, Low German is making a comeback. Maybe when the next great German novelist decides to represent her life in northern Germany, she does it in Plattdeutsch.

Works Cited

"Das Plattdeutsche." Schleswig-HOlstein. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Die Tüdelband - Sommerkinner (Official Video). Perf. Die Tüdelband. Youtube. N.p., 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 
       27 Mar. 2015.

"European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages." Council of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Finetext." The Changing Fortunes of Low German: From Dialect to Literary Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 
       Mar. 2015.

"German Dialects: The Sound of Plattdeutsch." Young Germany. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Platt Ist Modern – Ein Paar Einblicke." Goethe Institut. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Saxon, Low." Ethnologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Wolf, Ernest M. "Scheidung Und Mischung: Sprache Und Gesellschaft in Thomas Manns Buddenbrooks." 
       Orbis Litterarum. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.


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