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 are 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 pecular local characteristics, spoken in some form in all of North Germany. It is linguistically related to Dutch and English. That the similarities between Low German, Dutch, and English are 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 has remained a literary language, most of the Low German dialects are now colloquial languages, although there is a large body of Low German literature, and the dialect has been used by some of the great writers. A current classification divides 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 have 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 speak different forms of Low German. Some scholars have pointed out that this is related to their religious background such as the Flemish or Frisian church affiliations (Quiring). Others consider 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 contain 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 [North Newton, 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 is particularly this form of Low German which has been 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 is still discernible in the settlements of North and South America. 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 1850-80, 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, states 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 have preserved the original Low German in its purest form, although it also shows Russian and English influences. They have only a verv 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 differs more from that of the Molotschna and Chortitza than these do 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 have been retained and are even today noticeable in Kansas.
Russian and English Influences
Gerhard Wiens's study of the influences of the Russian language on Low German makes 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 has done similar work on Dutch influences on Low German. J. John Friesen and J. W. Goerzen have pointed out the relationships between Plattdeutsch and English. No one has 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 are noticeable.
Among the Mennonite groups of Russian background in the United States, Low German is 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 are able to converse in Low German. It can be expected that Low German will gradually disappear within a few generations among the Mennonites in the United States, but will likely remain in use for some time to come in Canada and particularly in Mexico and South America where the bearers of this language are living in much greater isolation. A Plattdeutsch religious radio program has been broadcast over CFAM in Altona, Manitoba, by the Mennonite Radio Mission since 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 change from High to Low German since many of the young people understand very little High German. Many of the Indians living in the vicinity of the Chaco Mennonites in Paraguay speak 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 is 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 is marked. Most of those who speak Low German as their major language read practically no literature, since there is 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. (See also Pennsylvania German and Language Problem.)
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 deal 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 are still being given in Mennonite communities of North and South America where Low German is spoken. This is generally the case in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay.
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Mitzka, Walter. Grundzüge Nordostdeutscher Sprachgeschichte. Halle-Salle, 1937.
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Quiring, Jacob. Die Mundart von Chortitza in Süd-Russland. München, 1928.
Rempel, Herman. Kjenn jie noch Plautdietsch?: a Mennonite Low German dictionary. Winnipeg, Man.: Mennonite Literary Society, 1984.
Schirmunski, V. Die deutschen Kolonien in der Ukraine. Moscow, 1928.
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Wiens, Gerhard. "Russian in Low German." Mennonite Life XIII (April 1958): 75.
Ziesemer, W. Die ostpreussischen Mundarten. Breslau, 1924.
Cite This Article
Krahn, Cornelius. "Plattdeutsch." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 2 Jul 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Plattdeutsch&oldid=119772.
Krahn, Cornelius. (1959). Plattdeutsch. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Plattdeutsch&oldid=119772.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 186-188. All rights reserved.
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