Building Blocks of Low Saxon : An Introductory Grammar
Building Blocks of Low Saxon (“Low German”) - ©2008, Reinhard F. Hahn
The Mission
The Language
The People
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Vowels & Diphthongs
Sound Rules
Dialect Variation
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Building Blocks of Low Saxon : The Language

The Language

Low Saxon has entered the age of electronic communication. It is now used in the media (here by North German Broadcasting) and has noticeable Web presence.

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 North Sea 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 to the 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 in Germany 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 Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), which does not represent the entire language area. Another result of generations of educational neglect is that most North Germans do not 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 officially recognized.
Low Saxon and its closest relatives

This 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 in Britain. An alternative hypothesis is that Old English arose from the confluence of Old Saxon and Old Frisian, 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 Germanic settlers in Britain.

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 and beyond.
Early Saxons and their neighbors (9th century)

The 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.

[Click here to read more about the people.]

The entire medieval language territory covered most of today’s Northern Germany and the northeastern provinces of the Netherlands.

The 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 instance “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, German, English, Russian, Spanish or Portuguese interference, depending on their locations and primary languages.

During 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 franca.

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 World War 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.
Europe’s Low Saxon dialects today

Northern: 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)

Klaus 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.

Timber-framed 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 to 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 era 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 of ignorance and denial 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 Germany have 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.

  English1 Scots Frisian N. Low Saxon Limburg. Afrikaans Dutch Yiddish2  German
apple: ˈʔæpɫ̩ ˈʔepɫ̩ ˈʔaːpəl ˈʔapɫ̩ ˈʔɑpəɫ ˈapəɫ ˈʔɑpəɫ ˈɛpɫ̩ ˈʔapfʰəl
book: bʊk byk buk bɔʊk ~ baʊk boːk buk buk bix bux
cat: kʰæt kʰat kat kʰat kɑt kat kɑt kaʦ ˈkʰaʦə
church: ʧʰɝʧ kʰerk ˈtsjɛrkə kʰaːk kɪrk kɛrk kɛrk kɪrx ˈkʰɪrçə
deep: di(:)p dip djip dɛˑɪp ~ daˑɪp deːp di(:)p di(:)p tif tʰi(:)f
door: do:ɚ do:r doər dœːɝ ~ døːɝ dœər døːr døːr tir tʰyr
daughter: ˈdɔ:tʰɚ ˈdɔxtər ˈdɔxtər ˈdɔxtɝ ˈdɔxtər ˈdɔxtər ˈdɔxtər ˈtɔxtɛr ˈtʰɔxtər
dream: driːm driːm drɪəm drɔˑʊm ~ draˑʊm drɔʊm druˑom dro:m trɔɪm trm
dry: draˑɪ drəi druːgjə drœːɪʝ ~ drɔːɪʝ drœəç druˑox dro:x ˈtrɪkŋ̩ ˈtrɔkʰən
five: faˑɪv fəiv fiːf fiːf fiːf fəɪf v̥ɛɪf ˈfɪnef fʏnf
foot: fʊt fɪt fut fɔʊt ~ faʊt foːt fut v̥ut fis fus
goose: gu(:)s gys goəs gɔʊs ~ gaʊs gɑʊs xãs xɑns ganʣ gans
great: gɹɛɪt grɛt grʏt groːt grut xruˑot xroːt grɔɪs groːs
heart: hɑ:t hɛrt hɛrt haːt ~ hat hɛrt ɦart hɑrt harʦ hɛrʦ
heaven: ˈhɛvən 'hi:vən   ˈheːvm̩ ~ ˈhɛːvm̩̩          
house: haʊs huːs hyːs huːs hus ɦœʏs hʌʏs hɔɪs haʊs
old: ʔoʊɫd ʔɑ:ɫ(d) ʔɔːlt ʔɔˑʊɫt ~ ʔaˑʊɫt ʔɑʊt ɔʊt ʔʌʊt aɫt ʔalt
pan: pʰæˑn pʰan ˈpãnə aˑn pɑn pn pɑn fan ˈpfa
plant: plɑːnt plant plãnt plaˑnt plɑnt plãt plɑnt   ˈpflanʦə
pot: pʰɔt pʰat pɔt pʰɔt ~ pʰʊt pɔt pɔt pɔt tɔp tʰɔpf
sheep: ʃi(:)p ʃip skiəp ʃɒːp ~ ʃoːp ʃɒːp skɑːp sxaːp ʃɔf ʃɑːf
ship: ʃɪp ʃep skɪp ʃɪp ʃeːp skɪp sxɪp ʃɪf ʃɪf
snipe snaɪp snəip snɪp snɪp ʃnɛp snɪp snɪp   ˈʃnɛpfə
stone: stɔʊn stəin stiən stɛˑɪn ~ staˑɪn stn stĩˑẽn stn ʃtɛɪn ʃtaɪn
tide: tʰaˑɪd tʰəid tiːt tʰiːt tiːt təɪt tɛɪt ʦaɪt ʦʰaɪt
thief: θi(:)f θif diəf ˑɪf ~ daˑɪf deːf di(:)f di(:)f   di(:)p
thousand: ˈθaʊzənd 'θu:zən(d) ˈtu:zən ˈdu:zn̩(t) ˈdu:zənt ˈdœʏzən(t) ˈdʌʏzənt ˈtɔɪzn̩t ˈtʰaʊzənt
tongue: tʰʌŋ tʰʌŋ tɔ̃ŋə tʰʊˑŋ tɔ̃ːŋ tɔ̃ŋ tɔŋ ʦɪŋ ˈʦʰʊŋə
tough: tʰʌf tjux taːɪ tʰɒːˑɣ ~ tʰoːˑɣ teːç tɑːɪ taːɪ   ʦʰeː
out: ʔaʊt ʔut ʔyt ʔut ʔut œʏt ʔʌʏt ɔɪs ʔaʊs
us: ʔʌs ʔʌs ʔys ʔʊs ~ ʔʊˑns ʔoːs ɔ̃s ʔɔns ɪnʣ ʔʊns
wake: wɛɪk wɑ:k vɔ:k vɒ:k ~ vo:k vaːk vɑːk ʋaːk vax vax
water: ˈwɒːtɚ 'watər ˈvɛtər ˈvɒːtɝ ~ ˈvoːtɝ ˈvaːtər ˈvɑːtər ˈʋaːtər ˈvaser ˈvasər
week: wi(:)k wik ˈviːkə veːk ~ vɛːk vɛɪk viˑek ʋeːk vɔx ˈvɔxə
what: ʍɒt ~ wɒt ʍet ~ ʍʌt vat vat vat vat ʋɑt vɔs vas
wrist: ɹɪst rest   vrɪst          

1: Non-American; 2: Non-Baltic

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