Thursday, January 16, 2020

Transylvania Saxon: Will it Survive?

by Ioana Pintescu

Ioana Pintescu is a junior in MCB and French at the University of Illinois.  Ioana's future plans include attending medical school.  Ioana wrote this blog post in the 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' course in Spring 2019.

Transylvania: the land of vampires and Vlad the Impaler, right? Well not quite, though it is the land where a small dialect of German remains intact. The historical region of Transylvania is located within present-day Romania and is known for its German settlement and influence. Beginning in the 12th century, colonies of ethnic Germans, as well as Flemish and Walloons, resettled within this area at the request of King Geza II of Hungary for the original reason of defending the land from invaders coming from theEast [1]; the land was then ruled under the Kingdom of Hungary at the time. Colonists continued to resettle up to the 19th century. In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon was signed, ending World War I and consequently forcing Hungary to lose the region of Transylvania to Romania. Despite the transition, the settlers remained in the region. And though they brought the German language with them, they also brought a dialect with them that continued to develop in this new land. This dialect is known as Transylvanian Saxon.

Transylvanian Saxon dialect: Areas where Transylvanian Saxon was spoken in 1918 (but with Swabian in the West)
Image Credit: Andreas Nacu, via Wikimedia Commons.  License available here.
Transylvanian Saxon belongs to the West Central dialect group of German. It most closely resembles Luxembourgish as they are grouped together as Moselle Franconian dialects [1]. It is currently spoken by around 200,000 people as a native language, though only around 15,000 of the speakers remain in Transylvania. This is due primarily to the fall of Romanian Communism in 1989 with the overthrow of dictator Ceausescu’s government. As a result of this, the majority of Transylvanian Saxons have relocated either back to Germany or to other countries like Canada and the United States [2]. This statistic puts the status of the Transylvanian Saxon dialect into question. Is it endangered? What does the future entail for this dialect?

Unfortunately, the Transylvanian Saxon dialect has an unknown future. Unlike German, it has no status as an official minority language within Romania. In Transylvania, the dialect is most commonly spoken inside small villages or between small groups of people. The native speakers of Transylvanian Saxon inside Romania also speak German and tend to use the latter for more proper interactions. It is rare to hear the dialect spoken within larger cities like Sibiu (German: Hermannstadt, Transylvanian Saxon: Härmeschtat) and Brasov (German: Kronstadt, Transylvanian Saxon: Kruhnen). Inside cities like these, it is more common to hear standard German being spoken amongst the Saxon people. Even so, the possibility of hearing German is slim. While visiting Transylvania, one will hear the Romanian and Hungarian language before German. And despite the region thriving off its German architecture and style, the Saxon population is greatly outnumbered: one Saxon for every one hundred Romanians. Though it should be noted that these percentages rise when looking at villages. Within villages the population can consist entirely of Transylvanian Saxon people, though these numbers will be relatively low.

Despite not having official status, there are visual representations of the dialect that can be found throughout the region. Signs containing Romanian, German, and Transylvanian Saxon can be found in major cities and towns, as well as signs that omit the dialect translation and unfortunately contain only Romanian and German, Restaurant menus are also known to have had Transylvanian Saxon translations included alongside Romanian, German, and Hungarian. Shown below is a comparison of Transylvanian Saxon script of “Our Father” (left) to the German translation (right).

Image Credit: Public Domain.

One fun fact about the Transylvanian Saxon dialect is that it is the first language of current Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic Transylvanian Saxon. His story is unique in that his family left Romania following communism to return back to their original roots in Germany. Germans in Romania were allowed to move to Germany and receive citizenship right away, which thus prompted a large emigration of Germans from Transylvania. Klaus was the only member of his family to remain in Romania after marrying his wife, an ethnic Romanian, and beginning a life in politics under Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania party. Although being raised with the Transylvanian Saxon dialect, he will speak either Romanian, English, or German in governmental settings. This is a trend followed not only by him, but by the entirety of Transylvanian Saxon speakers. One could say that the dialect is a ‘home language’ that is used only privately between family and friends.

One thing that is promising for the future of the dialect is that it has persisted for centuries while standing in this lower position. Thus, many linguists believe Transylvanian Saxon has the potential to persevere despite its recent status of having been highly dispersed throughout the world within the past three decades. While Transylvanian Saxon continues to ‘live’ with a low social status amongst languages like English, French, and Romanian, the dialect is now recognized as a part of Transylvanian culture in Romania and abroad.


[1] Cristian Cercel, « Transylvanian Saxon Symbolic Geographies », Civilisations [En ligne], 60-2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 30 août 2015, consulté le 18 avril 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/civilisations.3019

[2] Koranyi, James, and Ruth Wittlinger. “From Diaspora to Diaspora: The Case of Transylvanian Saxons in Romania and Germany.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol. 17, no. 1, 2011, pp. 96–115., doi:10.1080/13537113.2011.550248.


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