Low Saxon has entered the age of electronic communication. It is now
used in the media (here by North German Broadcasting) and has noticeable
Low Saxon is a language that descended primarily from Old Saxon, which
is also one of the primary ancestors of English. It began as one of the
Germanic languages but later spread eastward and came to dominate the
Baltic Sea region.
Ideally, the modern language
would be called “(Modern) Saxon.” However, a few centuries back the names
“Saxony” (Sachsen) and “Saxon” (Sachse, sächsisch) were transferred to a predominantly Thuringian- and Central-Frankish-speaking
non-Saxon area in what is now Eastern Germany. For this reason more and
more people refer to the language as “Low Saxon,” certainly with regard
dialects used in the Eastern Netherlands. Equivalents of “Low German”
or “Lowlands German” (Plattdeutsch or Niederdeutsch, or just Platt) are still the standard
on the German side of the border.
This is confusing in that “Low German”
is also used to refer to the language group to which Low Saxon and Low
Franconian varieties (thus also Dutch and Afrikaans) belong. Some people
consider the Saxon-derived dialects used in the Netherlands a different
language, justifying this with the argument that those dialects are Dutch-influenced
while those east of the border are German-influenced.
Some Germans are confused by the name “Low Saxon” (Niedersächsisch) because they associate it with the fairly recently founded German state of
(Niedersachsen), which does not represent the entire language area. Another result of generations
of educational neglect is that most
know that Old Saxon is the ancestor of their regional language, or
that there is such a thing as Old Saxon, even now that Low Saxon has been
Saxon and its closest relatives
is a very simplified representation. The currently
predominant theory is that English, Scots and Frisian
make up an “Anglo-Frisian” branch. This, however, does not seem to match the influential role of Saxon
settlers and rarely mentioned Frisian participation
An alternative hypothesis is that Old English arose
from the confluence
and possibly other language varieties as well, Frisian-like
features in English and Scots being likely due to
the child-rearing role of Frisian women among early
Today’s Low Saxon is spoken in what used to be the
old territory of the Saxons (the true Saxons, as opposed to the people of
today’s German state of Saxony). Beginning with the 12th century, the
language expanded eastward all the way to today’s German-Polish border
Saxons and their neighbors (9th century)
earliest known Saxons inhabited Northern Albingia,
a small area north of the mouth of River Elbe. It is
from there that many of them emigrated to Britain.
Westphalia, Angria and Eastphalia came to be settled
later. Later still, Saxons settled in Frisian areas
west of Old Saxony. Together with other speakers of
Germanic languages many of them migrated to previously
Baltic- and Slavic-speaking areas in the east.
The entire medieval language territory covered most of today’s Northern
Germany and the northeastern provinces of the Netherlands.
Hanseatic Trading League had spread far and wide by the 16th century.
This portrait, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, is of the merchant
Georg Gisze at the London Steelyard in 1532. Gisze’s family was from
Cologne, just outside the Saxon-speaking region, but he grew up in
Danzig (Gdańsk). The letter he is holding is in Middle Saxon: Dem Erszamen Jorgen gisze to lunden in engelant mynem broder to handen (“To be handed to my brother, the honourable Jorgen gisze at London in England”).
Middle Saxon was the international language of the
Hanseatic Trading League. As such it greatly influenced the languages used
around the Baltic Sea as well as parts of the North Sea coast,
especially the Scandinavian languages, Polabian, Slovincian, Kashubian, the
Baltic languages, Livonian and Estonian, and it left some loanwords in the
English language as well (for
“mate”, “trade” and “freight”).
Low Saxon is also used by many North and Latin Americans as well as by
people in the former Soviet Union with roots in that Northwest European
region. This includes most Mennonites.
Since so far no official surveys have been conducted, the number of Low Saxon
speakers can at best be guessed, and guesses range anywhere from a couple
of million to seven or even ten million worldwide. Much depends on the
definition of “proficiency.” Many people that claim to know the language
can more or less understand it but speak and write it poorly, with Dutch,
Russian, Spanish or Portuguese interference, depending on their locations
and primary languages.
the Middle Ages, cog-built Hanseatic trading vessels dominated
the Baltic Sea and were a common sight on the North Sea coast as
well. On them Middle Saxon traveled as an international language.
Until recently, Low Saxon was a suppressed or even oppressed minority
language within its original territory. The Low Saxon dialects spoken in
the Netherlands used to be officially considered dialects of Dutch, and those
spoken in Germany used to be officially considered dialects of German. In
Germany, even the names of the ancestral languages Old Saxon and Middle
Saxon were renamed “Old Low German” and “Middle Low German” respectively
Brick Gothic architecture is characteristic of Hanseatic cities
from the Netherlands to the Baltic Countries, as here in Lübeck,
the center of the Trading League and its Middle Saxon lingua
Without separate language status, Low Saxon did not enjoy any protection,
leave alone official support and promotion. The language retreated from the
public sphere and mostly held out among relatives, friends, neighbors and,
in some cases, coworkers. However, in some rural locations it remained the
commonly used language until Dutch- or German-speaking people settled there.
The sudden influx of resettled German-speaking refugees around the end of
II amounted to the death-knell for the language in many communities. Especially
in Germany, the language seemed to disappear from the cities were many
people had come to equate its use with poor education and believed it would
be an obstacle to their offspring’s success in life. However, in many cases
it merely went underground as a low-prestige language. It continued to be
used behind closed doors and in other “safe” environments. Due to
educational standardization and the influences of the media on the national
level, the language did not fare
much better in most rural communities.
Low Saxon dialects today
1: Schleswig, 1a: contacts with Jutish, 1b: contacts with North Frisian,
2: Holstein, 3: Lower Elbe, 4: Oldenburg, 5: Eastern Friesland, 6:
contacts with East Frisian, 7: Lower Ems, 8. Groningen, 9: Veluwe,
10: West Saxon, 11: East Saxon, 12: County Bentheim; Westphalian: 13: Münsterland, 14: Western Münsterland, 15: Mercian, 16: Soest, Eastphalian: 17: Ravensberg-Lippe, 18: Paderborn, 19: Eastphalian; Southeastern: 20: Brandenburg Central Mercian, 21: East Central Mercian, 22: North Mercian; Northeastern: 23: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, 24: Far Eastern dialects from today’s German-Polish
border to Russian-administered Kaliningrad (largely extinct as a
result of ethnic cleansing at the end of World War II, though Mennonite
dialects are preserved due to prior emigration)
Groth (1819–1999) and Fritz Reuter (1810–1874), the two giants of the Low Saxon revival
and assertion movement
However, all this time there have been individuals, organizations and
communities that continued using and promoting the language. Furthermore,
Low Saxon continued its long history as a literary language, albeit mostly
confined to “down-home” topics and styles, in part due to publishers’ notion
that all readers of Low Saxon material are old and old-fashioned and would
not want to buy anything “modern” and “sophisticated.” The bias-based
control of commercially oriented
publishers and media producers and a lack of engagement on the part of
relevant governmental agencies thus make it difficult for the language to
shine and adapt to today’s world.
And this adaptation has its opponents as well, people that want to mothball
the language or otherwise prevent its advancement as a legitimate language
in its own right.
Due to these circumstances, the language never developed a standard variety
and standard spelling. It is greatly fragmented with regard to dialects,
social groups and opinions, and it is therefore endangered. Nevertheless,
Low Saxon literature goes back uninterruptedly to the early middle ages and
is currently blossoming again, in great part due to Low Saxon having become
an officially recognized language in Germany and the Netherlands within the
framework of the European Languages Charter.
Saxon hall houses (this one in the Walsrode Heath Museum) began
to be developed in the 13th century and are found from Northern
Holland to Northern Poland. Some of them survive, a few complete
with thatched roofs and the characteristic Saxon crossed horse
head symbol at their gable tops.
Legitimization of the language
improved its public image. Many people now even admire proficient speakers
and writers of Low Saxon, and many of them, including young people, wish
learn it themselves. However, there are still some that disapprove of it
for various reasons, including the absurd notion that its promotion can be
equated with right-wing leanings, a hang-up from Germany’s denazification
in which all things heritage and even the use of the word “Germanic” counted
among many a baby thrown out with the bath water.
However, many generations of avoidance (including prohibition) in formal education
in conjunction with German mainstreaming have taken its toll. The extent
about relevant history and Saxon-based language and culture is staggering
in the general population, even within Northern Germany itself. References
to the ancient Saxons by their true name are absent in non-academic publications.
Old Saxon has been renamed “Old Low German” (Altniederdeutsch). Most people
are not aware of the officially awarded regional language status, and many
that are aware of it keep on treating the language as though it was a German dialect
group. If you visit a North German bookstore to find books in and about Low
Saxon, don’t go to the language section, because such books are found in
the local interest section, if not in the humor section …
Low Saxon is a West Germanic language. As such it is fairly closely related
to Dutch, Afrikaans, Limburgish, Frisian, English, Scots, German and
Yiddish. It did not undergo the so-called “High German shifts” that German
and its closest relatives underwent. Many scholars focus on these shifts
and their absence. However, there are numerous other differences between
Old-Saxon-derived and Old-German-derived varieties, and they can be found
in phonology, morphology and syntax.
Although the Low Saxon dialects of Northern
been influenced by German since the collapse of the Hanseatic Trading
League, it is still in many ways more closely related especially to Dutch,
Afrikaans, Limburgish and Frisian. Together with the Dutch varieties of
Western Flanders and Zeeland, and to a degree also with Scots, they are phonologically
the most conservative varieties in the West Germanic group.