Building Blocks of Low Saxon : An Introductory Grammar
Building Blocks of Low Saxon (“Low German”) - ©2008, Reinhard F. Hahn
The Mission
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The People
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Building Blocks of Low Saxon : The Mission

“Would the real Saxons
please stand up?”

or “Keeping Charlemagne’s Spirit Alive

If you ask the average German who the Saxons (German Sachsen) are he or she will tell you they are the inhabitants of Saxony (German Sachsen). If you ask who the Old Saxons (German Altsachsen or alten Sachsen) were, most will tell you that they were the inhabitants of Saxony in earlier times. Tech­nical­ly speak­ing, those answers are correct. But this question remains: “Which Saxons and which Saxony?”

Few traditional primary and secondary school cur­ri­cu­la in Germany (and only a small mi­no­ri­ty of Ger­mans has ter­tiary edu­ca­tion) deal with details of this. As a result, most Ger­mans think of Saxons as in­ha­bitants of today’s German “Free State of Sa­xo­ny” (Frei­staat Sachsen). How­ever, the in­di­gen­ous po­pu­la­tion of that area is not of Saxon origin at all. It speaks Thuringian and Central Frankish dialects of German, and its region adopted its name through political maneuvering, much to the chagrin of the true Saxons at the time.

Replacing “Saxon” with “German”—Among experts still referred to as sächsisches Fachhallenhaus (Saxon half-timbered hall house), sächsisches Haus (Saxon house) or altsächsisches Bauernhaus (Old Saxon farmhouse), this traditional Saxon type of building (here the 1533 Rieck-Huus in Hamburg-Curslack) is now for average people’s ears referred to as niederdeutsches Hallenhaus (Low German hall house). Similarly, Altsächsisch (Old Saxon) and Mittelsächsisch (Middle Saxon) have come to be popularized as Altniederdeutsch (“Old Low German”) and Mittelniederdeutsch (“Middle Low German”) respectively.

The earliest known tribal Saxons inhabited Northern Albingia, a region bordering the northern bank of the mouth of River Elbe in what is now Western Holstein. As land be­came scarce, the Saxon popu­la­tion began to expand south­ward where it ab­sorbed in­di­gen­ous po­pu­lat­ions such as Che­rus­ci, Cha­ma­vi and Chat­ti, also re­main­ing por­tions of Lan­go­bar­di (Lom­bards) and Sue­bi. Dur­ing the first cen­turies of the Com­mon Era the Saxons harassed the po­pu­lat­ions of what are now the shores of the Ne­ther­lands, Bel­gium, France and Britain. There are some in­di­ca­tions that some Saxons settled on the shores of what are now Belgium and France. Large numbers of Saxons, along with members of other tribes, settled in post-Rom­an Celtic Britain and par­ti­cipated in the crea­tion of the (Anglo-Saxon) English language.

The Saxons were fiercely independent and strategically strong people organized in a loose tribal federation with representation at intertribal gatherings. They rejected the idea of supreme rulers such as as those found among the Romans who never managed to subdue the Saxons but had imposed their system and religion on the subjugated neighboring Franks.

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.

Officially declared a uniting hero, though con­sid­ered “slaught­er­er of the Saxons” by other peo­ple, Frank­ish em­per­or Char­le­magne over­see­ing the forced Christi­an bap­tism of de­feat­ed Saxons (imagined scene en­graved by Fran­çois Gui­zot, 1787–1874)

While establishing his “Holy Roman Empire”, King Karl (Charles, 742–814) of the Chris­tian­ized Franks ran into ve­hement op­po­si­tion on the part of the zea­lous­ly in­de­pend­ent, anti-Rom­an and anti-Chris­tian Saxons. It took this em­peror, Charle­magne (Carolus Magnus, “Charles the Great”), and his united Frank­ish-led war machine se­veral years of brutal attacks and mass ex­ecu­tions to sub­due the Saxons (and the neigh­bor­ing Western Slavs) and at least for­mal­ly in­tegrate them into his empire and make them into Chris­tians (though not ne­ces­sa­ri­ly be­liev­ing ones) by the power of the sword.

In their Dutch- and German-dominated schools, des­cendants of Sa­xons are still being taught to ce­le­brate Charle­magne, the slaugh­ter­er of their an­cestors, as a great he­ro­ic be­ne­fac­tor and uni­fi­er. (In many lan­gu­ages of Asia, fa­ran­ki, fe­ren­gi and other names de­rived from “Frank” or “Frankish” mean “(Christian) Westerner” and tend to connote as much bar­barism as the name “Hun” connotes to West European ears.)

While the Frankish federation used mostly Latin, Old French and Old Frankish, most Sa­xons under Frankish rule retained their Old Saxon language and as much in­de­pendence as they could get away with, while some sporadic anti-Frankish re­bel­lions still arose even after official integration. After more and more Slavic tribes had been subdued, Saxons par­ti­ci­pated in Ger­manic east­ward mi­gra­tion. They ab­sorbed many Slavs, which led to the de­ve­lop­ment of Slavic-colored Eastern Low Saxon dia­lects. Saxon ad­mi­nistra­tion and lan­gu­age eventu­al­ly came to do­mi­nate in some for­mally Fri­si­an areas as well, and this led to the de­ve­lop­ment of Fri­si­an-colored North­western Low Saxon dialects (such as in Eastern Friesland and Groningen).

An 8th-century Baptismal Vow in Old Saxon

The old Germanic deities Donar (Thunar, Thor) and Wotan (Odin) as well as the Saxons’ specific founding deity Saxnōt are referred to as “devils”.

A measure of remaining Saxon in­de­pendence is also evident in medieval commercial ventures. This culminated in the formation of the power­ful Hanseatic Trading League that for centuries dominated the shores around the Baltic Sea and parts of the Norwegian coast, with re­pre­sen­ta­tion in what are now Belgium and the Ne­the­rlands, as well as in Eng­land, Scot­land, parts of non-Saxon Ger­many, Fin­land and far-western Russia.

British people of Saxon and related descent were Christianized before their relatives on the European continent. Some of them went back to their an­cestors’ home­land as mis­sion­aries. The 8th-century North­umbrian mis­sion­ary Wil­le­had, now a saint, be­came the first Bishop of Bre­men in 787, two years before his death at Ble­xen upon We­ser. His nat­ive North­um­bri­an Old Eng­lish (“Anglo-Saxon”), the an­cestor of today’s North­um­bri­an and Scots, may well have been to a high de­gree mutual­ly in­tel­li­gible with Old Saxon.

The geographical expansion of Hanseatic in­ter­est and pre­sence led to the Saxon language—hav­ing by now reached the Middle Saxon stage of de­ve­lop­ment—to do­mi­nate North­ern Eu­rope’s in­ter­na­tion­al trade until the gradual demise of the Han­se­at­ic League in the 17th century. At the height of its power it greatly influenced the de­ve­lop­ment of the Scan­di­navi­an languages, to a con­si­der­able de­gree also Slavic Po­merani­an (Slo­vin­­cian and Ka­shu­bi­an), the Baltic languages, Li­vo­ni­an and Esto­ni­an. Mostly in­directl­y (through Scan­di­na­vian) it in­flu­enced the Ice­landic, Fa­ro­ese, Fin­nish and Sámi (“Lap­pish”) languages as well.

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The Christian Reformation was extra­ordinarily suc­cess­ful in the old Saxon home­land: Northern Germany, the north­east­ern part of the Ne­ther­lands, and the Scan­di­navi­an and many Baltic re­gions do­mi­nated by the Han­se­atic League. Might this have been in part an ex­pres­sion of re­sidual Saxon re­jec­tion of the Roman Ca­tholic rule that Charle­magne had so ruth­less­ly cham­pioned a few cen­turies ear­li­er? New­ly Pro­test­ant Saxon trad­ing centers such as Bremen, Ham­burg, Lü­beck, Wis­mar, Schwe­rin, Greifs­wald and Rostock were now no longer ruled by the (Roman Catholic) Church but by councils and senates be­holden most­ly to mer­chant guilds. A person’s re­li­gion was now far less im­port­ant than his per­ceived eco­nomic de­tri­ment or be­ne­fit. This is no doubt one of the main reasons why Serphardic Jewish refugees from the Ibe­rian In­qui­si­tions, pre­do­mi­nant­ly from Po­rtu­gal, gra­vi­tated to­ward Ham­burg (in ad­di­tion to Am­ster­dam) and why soon after the Re­for­ma­tion Ash­ke­naz­ic Jews migrated north­ward from what are now South­ern Ger­many and Austria, then as now almost solidly Roman Catho­lic.

Occurrence of historical Brick Gothic buildings co­in­cides with the Han­se­atic Trad­ing League’s time and sphere of in­flu­ence, such as in the case of Nico­laus Co­per­ni­cus’ birth­place in the East Po­me­ra­ni­an city of Toruń (Ka­shu­bi­an Torń, Ger­man Thorn), Po­land. In­ter­est in ce­le­brat­ing this and other types of in­ter­na­tion­al­ly shared Han­se­atic heri­tage has been grow­ing espe­cial­ly since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Will in­ter­est in the Saxon language follow?

The demise of the Han­se­atic League created a sort of power va­cu­um in what are now the eastern parts of the Ne­ther­lands and the north­ern parts of Ger­ma­ny. Dutch-speak­ing edu­ca­tion and power ex­panded east­ward and Ger­man-speaking edu­ca­tion and power ex­panded north­ward. The Saxon lan­gu­age de­clined in status to be­come the lan­gu­age of the com­mon people. Even­tu­al­ly it came to be seen as a group of low-class dia­lects of Dutch and Ger­man re­spec­tive­ly, and it came to be pro­hi­bited in formal edu­ca­tion and to be deemed un­ac­cept­able in of­fi­cial and public com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Saxon eth­nic con­scious­ness faded. How­ever, its rem­nants may well be evident in today’s regional patriotism in the Eastern Netherlands and in Northern Germany, this pride in being culturally and linguistically quite different from the rest of the re­spec­tive countries. An­other way it may be ma­ni­fest­ing it­self is wide­spread in­ter­est in the Nordic Countries among North Ger­mans, in­clud­ing com­mon­ly cho­sen Scan­di­navian (and Frisian) first names.

Now that Low Saxon has been of­fi­cial­ly re­cog­nized in Ger­many, the Ne­ther­lands and the Eu­ro­pe­an Union, a “typical” Northern German or Eastern Ne­ther­lander gets extra au­then­ti­ci­ty credit for being able to speak Platt or Plat (i.e. Low Saxon). How­ever, edu­ca­tion­al agen­das make sure that in Ger­many the name “Saxon” does not come up in this connection, while in the Eastern Ne­ther­lands aware­ness of Saxon descent is still wide­spread.

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