Dialect Literature and Speech, Low German
Plattdeutsch (Plautdietsch), a Low German language spoken by Mennonites who originally came largely from the Netherlands and settled in Danzig and along the Vistula River whence they spread into Russia and North and South America. All Mennonites in the 1950s were primarily of two ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, the Swiss-German (see Pennsylvania German) and the Dutch-German or Low German.
When the Mennonites from the Netherlands settled along the Vistula, they adhered to their Dutch language until the second half of the 18th century. Individuals of different backgrounds joining the Mennonites simply learned this foreign language. The native language of the country was a form of Low German or Plattdeutsch with peculiar local characteristics, spoken in some form in all of North Germany. It was linguistically related to Dutch and English. That the similarities between Low German, Dutch, and English were in some respects greater than those between Low German and High German, the official language of German-speaking countries, can be seen in the word for water: Dutch water, Low German woata, and High German Wasser. Until the 17th century it was a literary language. Whereas Dutch remained a literary language, most of the Low German dialects are now colloquial languages, although there was a large body of Low German literature, and the dialect has been used by some of the great writers. A 20th century classification divided the Low German language and dialects by the following geographical areas: Westphalia, Hanover, Oldenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck, Holstein, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, Braunschweig, Brandenburg, West Prussia, and East Prussia. Most of these areas or countries had many local dialect forms.
From Dutch to Low and High German
Although the Mennonites of this area lived at times under Polish sovereignty, they were little influenced by the Polish language. In their daily life they accepted the Low German spoken in their territory. The question has been raised why the Mennonites in America coming from Russia and Poland spoke different forms of Low German. Some scholars have pointed out that this was related to their religious background such as the Flemish or Frisian church affiliations (Quiring). Others considered it due to the different localities in Danzig and West Prussia from which they moved to Russia (Mitzka). The Mennonites accepted the Low German of their environment gradually, at times retaining some Dutch peculiarities. Mitzka has pointed out that some of the notebooks of Mennonite farmers of the 17th and 18th centuries contained a mixture of Dutch and German. This was the time when they were becoming more and more exposed to the German culture and language. C. Wiens, in his study of the Dutch linguistic influence on the vocabulary of this area, has shown that the shift from Dutch to Low German in daily life was completed before Dutch was replaced by High German in worship services, correspondence, etc. In rural areas this change in worship services was completed earlier than in cities like Danzig. Some ministers, e.g., Buhler in the Grosswerder, began to preach in German in 1757, although the congregation did not like it. In 1762 the first German sermon was preached in the Mennonite church of Danzig, for which the minister received special permission, but no appreciation was expressed. The last elder to insist on Dutch preaching in Danzig was Hans von Steen, who died in 1781. The Danzig church record was henceforth kept in German (in Mennonite Library and Archives, Kansas). The first German Mennonite hymnal replacing the Dutch was printed in 1761. In 1788, when the first Mennonites migrated to Russia, some were still using Dutch. Dutch Bibles and other books were taken along to Russia, some of which even reached the prairie states and provinces of the United States and Canada during the migration of 1874. However, the first migrants to Russia, coming from the poorer classes of the Danzig and Elbing area and settling at Chortitza, primarily spoke Low German. Dutch was no longer in use and High German was still a foreign tongue. It was particularly this form of Low German which was perpetuated among the more conservative Mennonites of Manitoba and Mexico, and which has been investigated by such scholars as Quiring and Lehn.
Those Mennonites who stayed in Danzig and West Prussia longer followed the prevalent trend, accepting High German more fully for worship services and literary intercourse. Better education, particularly among the more well-to-do, hastened this development. In 1803, when the Molotschna settlement was established in the Ukraine, the new settlers, being a little more prosperous, had made a greater shift from Dutch to Low German as well as to High German. Also the Low German spoken by them had been considerably altered by High German influences. The difference between the Chortitza and Molotschna Low German was still discernible in the settlements of North and South America in the mid-20th century. There was, however, a general tendency in Russia toward accepting this "more cultured" form of Low German in the areas where Mennonites from both settlements were mixed, such as in secondary schools, forestry service camps, daughter settlements, and especially in the North and South American settlements, where a mixing of various backgrounds has taken place on an unprecedented scale. Among those Mennonites who left Danzig and Prussia in 1850-1880, going to Samara (Russia), Nebraska, and Kansas, the shift from Low to High German had almost been completed before the emigration. In the family the parents spoke mostly High German, but knew Low German well enough to converse with servants and those who preferred it. Their High German, to be sure, revealed peculiarities as a remnant of their Low German background. This phenomenon was true of many of the Mennonites of Prussia up to the time of their dispersion in 1945. At that time Low German was still spoken by the non-Mennonite population, especially by the laboring and poorer classes, in the Prussian communities from which Mennonites had gone to Russia and America, and in which Mennonites still resided. Mitzka, who made a study of the Low German spoken by the Mennonites of Russia and the areas from which they originally came in West Prussia, stated that a geographic shift of the Low German had taken place in their home country.
Low German in America
In the great Mennonite migration from Russia to North America in 1874 the Chortitza or Old Colony Mennonites went to Manitoba and later some to Mexico and South America. They preserved the original Low German in its purest form, although it also showed Russian and English influences. They had only a very limited mastery of High German and English, and in Mexico and South America of Spanish. The Molotschna Mennonites went primarily to the United States, settling in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, although some settled in Manitoba. Mennonites from Poland settled in Kansas and Dakota. The Low German of the Polish group differed more from that of the Molotschna and Chortitza than these did between themselves. The Molotschna Mennonites did not all speak the same form of Low German, nor had they lived together long enough to achieve complete uniformity. The later Molotschna settlements, such as Waldheim and Alexanderwohl, had very definite linguistic characteristics which was retained and were noticeable in Kansas in the mid-20th century .
Russian and English Influences
Gerhard Wiens's study of the influences of the Russian language on Low German made some startling observations: "This study of mine may indeed shock some of my people," because their Low German "was not nearly so pure as we were proud to claim." He presents examples of how new words were introduced from the new environment and assimilated, how Russian neologisms entered and Low German words were given a Russian form. Quiring also made a study of Polish and Russian influences on Low German, while C. Wiens deed similar work on Dutch influences on Low German. J. John Friesen and J. W. Goerzen pointed out the relationships between Plattdeutsch and English. By the 1950s no one had fully investigated the influence of the English language on Low German in Canada and the United States, or the Spanish and Portuguese upon the Low German in Mexico and South America, although such influences were noticeable.
Among the Mennonite groups of Russian background in the United States in the 1950s, Low German was still spoken or understood in solid Mennonite communities such as Goessel, Buhler, Inman, and Hillsboro in Kansas, Henderson in Nebraska, and Mountain Lake in Minnesota. However, by far not all the young people were able to converse in Low German. It could be expected that Low German would gradually disappear within a few generations among the Mennonites in the United States, but would likely remain in use for some time to come in Canada and particularly in Mexico and South America where the bearers of this language were living in much greater isolation. A Plattdeutsch religious radio program was broadcast over CFAM in Altona, Manitoba by the Mennonite Radio Mission after 1957, and another at Swift Current, Saskatchewan. During World War II, when the use of the High German was not permitted, the Mennonites of Brazil used Low German in worship services. The Old Colony Mennonite ministers frequently changed from High to Low German since many of the young people understood very little High German. Many of the Indigenous living in the vicinity of the Chaco Mennonites in Paraguay spoke some Low German. Thus far the studies dealing with the Low German as spoken by the Mennonites have been devoted primarily to synchronic, diachronic, and phonetic investigations (Quiring, Goerzen, Lehn). Only few attempts (Mitzka) have been made to trace the origin, spread, and differences among the various Low German dialect forms spoken by Mennonites, their relation to each other, as well as the structural development of each.
There was a noticeable culturally restrictive effect of the continued use of the dialect, particularly in groups where the isolation from the main stream of German or English culture was marked. Most of those who spoke Low German as their major language read practically no literature, since there was very little modern Low German literature available especially of a religious character. (See Language Problem.)
The Low German and Pennsylvania German languages have been used by the conservative Mennonites and Amish as barriers against "worldly" influences. Like other forms of nonconformity, such as dress restrictions, they have been at times a positive and at times a negative factor in the development of a wholesome Mennonite church and community life.
Low German Mennonite Literature
Among the Mennonites of Russia, J. H. Janzen was the first to write Low German plays. They were primarily designed to be given in schools and dealt particularly with questions pertaining to education. He continued his writing in Canada and was succeeded by Arnold Dyck, who wrote Dee Fria, a comedy, "Wellkaom op'e Forstei!" and a number of other Low German plays and numerous narratives and short stories, such as Koop enn Bua op Reise; Koop enn Bua faore nao Toronto; Die Millionäa von Kosefeld; and Onse Lied. These plays were still being given in Mennonite communities of North and
South America where Low German was spoken. This was generally the case in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay. -- Cornelius Krahn
The years 1955-1985 saw a marked decline in the use of Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch) in the United States, Canada, Germany, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Only among Mennonites in Latin America was Plautdietsch holding firm. Even in the high density Mennonite areas of southern Manitoba where the dialect was still spoken extensively in rural parts and towns like Steinbach, Winkler and Altona, it has lost ground steadily, especially in Winnipeg, which has the greatest urban concentration of Mennonites anywhere. In other Canadian communities where Low German was still common, as in the Niagara peninsula of Ontario, it was mostly recent immigrants from South America and Mexico who kept it alive. In North America generally the majority of Dutch-Prussian-Russian Mennonites under the age of 40 no longer speak or understand Plautdietsch.
The decline in spoken Low German, however, has brought about an unexpected interest in it as a literary vehicle. Many culturally assimilated North American Mennonites now regard Plautdietsch nostalgically as an artistic repository for ethnic experience they can cherish only in memory. Interest in preserving the dialect as an artistic medium is especially strong in Winnipeg and Mennonite communities in southern Manitoba, although it can be found in other Canadian and American communities as well. The Low German "revival" has recently stimulated activities ranging from the compiling of literary anthologies and dictionaries to the writing of fiction and poetry and the production of original and adapted stage plays, live readings, singing concerts and recordings.
That Manitoba should be the center of this Low German literary activity is not surprising, considering that it was there that Arnold Dyck (1889-1970) wrote his masterful Low German comic novels, stories, and plays for an appreciative local and general Mennonite readership. Dyck was a major writer by any standard, and his Collected Works were published in four volumes by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1985ff. His inimitable comic characters "Koop" and "Bua," the naive Manitoba "bush" farmers who embark on travels in three superb novels, can stand comparison with the great comic archetypes of world literature. Had Arnold Dyck written as well in English as he did in Plautdietsch he would undoubtedly be ranked among Canada's finest humorists.
Other Low German writers have tried to follow Dyck's lead, starting with older writers like Fritz Senn (Gerhard Johann Friesen, 1894-1983), whose rugged Low German poems about the lost Russian homeland are evocative and poignant, as are the poems and stories of Jakob Warkentin Goerzen of Edmonton and the poems and plays of Nicholas H. Unruh of Manitoba. Among the Low German writers active in the 1980s, most prolific and interesting are Jack Thiessen, Reuben Epp, and Elisabeth and Victor Peters. All four like to employ the sly, gently ironic tone that was Dyck's trademark. Thiessen, who can also be brash and abrasive, uses English loan words and trendy clichés to set up an ironic interplay between the simple old Mennonite rural ways and the more sophisticated, often more pretentious, new urban Mennonite style. Epp is well-versed in European Low German writing and is equally skilled at side-splitting comedy and serious fiction. Elisabeth and Victor Peters are essentially anecdotists with sharp eyes and ears for the idiosyncrasies and colorful behavior of rural Mennonite types. These and other writers are regular contributors to the Low German section of the Mennonite Mirror, a monthly magazine published in Winnipeg.
The promotion of Plautdietsch as a literary language has received added impetus from two Low German dictionaries compiled, respectively, by Jack Thiessen (1977) and by Herman Rempel (1979, revised 1984). In 1982 a group of Low German scholars and writers met in Winnipeg to devise a much needed standardized spelling system. The new orthography closely resembles Arnold Dyck's mature system, although the new system is more phonetic and slightly anglicized. Most of the Low German writing now being published, including the two Low German volumes in the new edition of Dyck's works, employs the new spelling. A Low German translation of the New Testament by J. J. Neufeld was published under the auspices of the Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1988. Plautdietsch is also being mixed with English (Armin Wiebe, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens) and with High German (Jack Thiessen, Predicht fier haite) to produce hybrid languages for comic effect.
Radio Southern Manitoba still carried Low German church sermons, and a weekly secular program hosted by Gerhard Ens, another fine Low German writer, in 1990. The Landmark Theatre Group in Manitoba, founded by Wilmer Penner, regularly presented original and adapted plays in Plautdietsch, and Low German singing groups like "Locusts and Wild Honey" performed widely in Mennonite communities and have made successful recordings.
How long these various artistic and cultural projects in Plautdietsch can thrive on an eroding base of Low German users remains to be seen, but the vitality and durability of this centuries-old Mennonite dialect should not be underestimated, both as an active language in the more remote Mennonite communities and as an artistic vehicle kept alive in assimilated Mennonite areas of North America. -- Al Reimer
See also Acculturation; Dialect; Folklore; Humor; Mennonite Studies; Rhymes; Dialect Literature and Speech, German Language; Pennsylvania German; Pennsylvania German Culture; Language Problem
Collected Works of Arnold Dyck, vols. 1 and 2, ed. Al Reimer. Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1986, 1988.
Epp, Rueben. Plautdietsche Schreftsteckja. Steinbach: the author, 1972, poems and stories.
Friesen, J. John. "Romance of Low German." Mennonite Life 2 (April 1947): 22.
Goerzen, J. W. Germanic Heritage: Canadian Lyrics in Three Languages. Edmonton: the author, 1962.
Goerzen, J. W. Low German in Canada: A Study of Plautdietsch as Spoken by Mennonite Immigrants from Russia. Edmonton, [Alta.]: the author, 1970.
Goerzen, J. W. "Plautdietsch and English." Mennonite Life 2 (April 1947): 22.
Grimme, H. Plattdeutsche Mundarten. Leipzig, 1910.
Lehn, Walter Isaak. "Rosental Low German, Synchronic and Diachronic Phonology." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertion, Cornell University, 1957.
Loewen, Harry and Al Reimer. "Origins and Literary Development of Canadian-Mennonite Low German." Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1985): 279-286.
Mitzka, Walter. "Dialektgeographie der Danziger Nehrung." Zeitschriftt für deutsche Mundarten 17 (1922): 117-135.
Mitzka, Walter. Deutsche Mundarten. Heidelberg, 1943.
Mitzka, Walter. "Die deutsche Sprache in Westpreussen." Staat und Volkstum (Berlin, 1926): 487-495.
Mitzka, Walter. Grundzüge Nordostdeutscher Sprachgeschichte. Halle-Salle, 1937.
Mitzka, Walter. Handbuch zum deutschen Sprachatlas. Marburg, 1952.
Mitzka, Walter. "Die Mennoniten in Russland und ihre Beziehungen zu Westpreussen." Staat und Volkstum (Berlin, 1926): 471-487.
Mitzka, Walter. "Niederpreussisch" Zeitschrift für deutsche Mundarten 16 (1921): 151-154.
Mitzka, Walter. Sprachausgleich in den deutschen Mundarten bei Danzig. Königsberger deutsche Forschungen II, Königsberg, 1928.
Mitzka, Walter. "Die Sprache der deutschen Mennoniten." Heimatblätter des deutschen Heimatbundes 8 (Danzig, 1930; also as a reprint 1931).
Peters, Elisabeth. Dee Tjoaschenhatja--The Cherryhedge. Steinbach: Derksen Printers, 1984, Comic play.
Quiring, Jacob. Die Mundart von Chortitza in Süd-Russland. München, 1928.
Reimer, Al. "Innocents Abroad: The Comic Odyssey of Koop enn Bua opp Reise." Journal of Mennonite Studies 4 (1986): 31-45.
Reimer, Al, Anne Reimer, and Jack Thiessen, eds., A Sackful of Plautdietsch. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press and Mennonite Literary Society, 1983.
Reimer, Al. "There's Now An 'Official' Way to Write Low German." Mennonite Mirror 11 (June 1982): 7-8.
Rempel, Herman Rempel. Kjenn sie noch Plautdietsch? A Mennonite Low German Dictionary. Winnipeg Mennonite Literary Society, 1984.
Schirmunski, V. Die deutschen Kolonien in der Ukraine. Moscow, 1928.
Thiessen, Jack. Predicht fier haite. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1984, humorous collection of mock sermons.
Thiessen, John [Jack]. Studien zum Wortschatz der kanadischen Mennoniten. Marburg: Elwart, 1963.
Thiessen, John [Jack]. Mennonite Low German Dictionary/Mennonitisches Wörterbuch. Marburg: Elwart, 1977, limited to Low German words not cognate with High German words.
Unruh, Benjamin H. Die niederländisch-niederdeutschen Hintergründe der Mennonitischen Ostwanderungen in 16., 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Karlsruhe-Rüpurr : Im Selbstverlag, 1955.
Wagner, E. "Ueber die Mundart der Thorner Stadtniederung." Unpublished University of Königsberg doctoral dissertation, 1912.
Wiebe, Armin. The Salvation of Yasch Siemens. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1984, comic novel.
Wiens, C. "Niederländischer Einfluss im Wortschatz der Weichselwerder." Zeitschriftt des Westpreussischen Geschichtsvereins (1916).
Wiens, Gerhard. "Russian in Low German." Mennonite Life 13 (April 1958): 75.
Ziesemer, W. Die ostpreussischen Mundarten. Breslau. 1924.
Cite This Article
Krahn, Cornelius and Al Reimer. "Dialect Literature and Speech, Low German." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 5 Jun 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dialect_Literature_and_Speech,_Low_German&oldid=174677.
Krahn, Cornelius and Al Reimer. (1989). Dialect Literature and Speech, Low German. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 June 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dialect_Literature_and_Speech,_Low_German&oldid=174677.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 186-188; vol. 5, pp. 232-233. All rights reserved.
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