Questions About the German Language Classification

Updated March 28. In response to some criticisms, I agreed with Professor den Besten in part by removing Limburgs and South Gulderish from Macro-German. I put them in Macro-Dutch, which I will hopefully do a post on in the future. With languages like these, it’s pretty hard to tell where Dutch ends and German begins.I also split Veluws into East Veluws, which stayed in German, and West Veluws, which moved over to Dutch.

In response to the German language post, Hans den Besten, a top Dutch Germanist linguist, first agrees broadly with my classification, but then makes a critique about the scope of Macro-German:

But what is lacking is a definition of what counts as a German dialect. This may differ from case to case. The Low Saxon dialects of the Netherlands may have been included because they are an extension of Low Saxon Niederdeutsch, even though they are under the roof of Schrift-Dutch rather than Schrift-Deutsch. That Limburgish has been included may be due to a couple of High German Low German isoglosses running through that area. But if even South Guelderish and Veluws are included (in so far as I know Veluws is Franconian but for the eastern strip along the Overijssel) I don’t see any reason why Brabantian-East Flemish, West Flemish, Zealandic and Hollandic should be excluded. Furthermore, the exclusion of West and North Frisian also needs some justification. Referring to Anglo-Frisian isoglosses will not be enough because unlike English these languages share a lot of syntax with the rest of Continental West Germanic, since they are SOV cum Verb Second. And if we try to set the two Frisians apart by referring to the idiosyncrasies of the verbal cluster (no Ersatz-Infinitiv, strict head-final order but for the Frisian “kortstaarten” litt. ’short tails’) then — maybe — Gronings should be taken out of your list of German dialects/languages because it shares a lot of verbal cluster syntax with West Frisian.

Hans poses a number of interesting questions about the borders of Macro-German. Let’s look at them one by one.
The Dutch dialects and languages are on this page. As Brabantian-East Flemish, West Flemish, Zealandic and Hollandic are listed as Dutch on that page, I am treating them as Macro-Dutch and not Macro-German.
As far as Gronings goes, I am treating it as Macro-German due to Ethnologue’s grouping here. As you can see, Low Saxon is treated as separate from Macro-Dutch there and also in my treatment. To me, it is better to see Macro-Dutch as something equal to Low Franconian and to put Low Saxon in with Macro-German.
In terms of Frisian, Ethnologue places it outside of Macro-German altogether along with English in the West Germanic Family. Keep in mind that Germanic and German are not synonymous. After all, Swedish is Germanic but not German.
As far as Veluws, Ethnologue sees it as Low Saxon and not as Low Franconian.
Ethnologue has no listing for South Guelderish or for anything similar. South Guelderish is a very confusing classification, that, if anything, looks like a sister language to Limburgs, if not a part of Limburgs itself.
After conferring with a Dutch linguistics professor, I have now decided to remove Limburgs, South Guelderish and the related Low Rhenish lects spoken across the border in Germany from Macro-German.
I have put them in Macro-Dutch, and hopefully will redo the classification of Dutch soon in a separate post. As far as two languages, one called Southeast Limburgs/Aachen, and another called Low Dietsch, they have stayed in Macro-German, because my professor friend described at least the SE Limburgs lects as Ripuarian, with Ripuarian automatically going to Macro-German.
The languages described above are collectively known as Meuse-Rhenish, and to be honest they are transitional between Low Franconian (Dutch) and Low Saxon (German).
We run into a situation like what one finds in Alsace-Lorraine, where curious travelers said that, “Some people speak German, some people speak French,  and others seem to speak languages that are neither French nor German.” Substitute “Dutch” for “French” in the above situation and you have a pretty good portrayal of the confusing language situation on the Dutch-German border.
These languages are confusing because really they are  transitional languages between Dutch and German.
Hans also raises some questions about Dutch Low Saxon. I have decided to throw all of Dutch Low Saxon into Macro-German, as this seems to be the consensus these days. Hans says that Veluws is Franconian, but I am not so sure. My professor said Veluws is regarded as marginally Low Saxon. I am going to hold to my guns and keep Groningen in Low Saxon. A friend of mine remarked today that in some ways, “Dutch” in terms of linguistics is almost a political construct.
A very tricky language to classify was East Frisian Low Saxon.  It’s clearly not Low Franconian (Dutch) but neither is it Low Saxon (Low German). So what is it? It’s really in its own category, which is something like Friso-Saxon, a Low German language with a heavy Frisian base. I put it in Low German because that is where most folks seem to be tossing it.
There have also been criticisms that my treatment was overbroad in scope. If anything, it is conservative.
There may be up to 40 separate languages within Swiss German. The Ripuarian lects are so diverse that 150 of them are different enough that they have had separate dictionaries written for them. Of those 150, about 120 of those have serious differences in lexicon, phonology and morphology. Speakers of Ripuarian frequently refer to “150 Ripuarian languages.” There are probably a number of separate languages within Tyrolean South Bavarian.
However, barring solid documentation for these separate apparent separate languages, it’s not reasonable to split them off yet.
The question comes up about where you split a dialect chain. Indeed, this is one of the trying questions of Linguistics. Once you get to the point where there are some dialects in Lect A that cannot talk to some dialects in Lect B, you have yourself as dialect chain. Hence, Czech and Slovak are split even though Eastern Czech can understand Western Slovak, because Western Czech can’t understand Eastern Slovak.
A commenter points out that the problem of doing this is you are going to end up with separate languages that have communicable dialects. Indeed this is true, but it’s the case in many world languages that they have dialects that communicate with dialects of neighboring tongues.
There is a dialect chain running from Belgium to Austria where each village can talk to the next. There is another dialect chain running from Portugal to Sicily. There is yet another running from about Turkey way over to Siberia.
A greater problem with dialect chains is refusing to split them at some point into separate tongues, because then you have one language with noncommunicative dialects which makes less sense than separate languages with communicative dialects.
I use the term “lect” to mean something that may be either a dialect or a language, or some speech form that we can’t figure out if it is a dialect or a language.
Finally, the perennial question of intelligibility came up. You often read that this or that lect can easily communicate with some other lect, that they are mutually intelligible, more or less mutually intelligible, etc.
It is commonly noted that, for instance, Dutch and Afrikaans are highly mutually intelligible. In fact, my investigation revealed that Dutch speakers say that they have ~80% intelligibility of Afrikaans. That’s probably about what it is.
80% is not mutually intelligible. It means separate languages. The problem with 80% intelligibility is that it is just enough lack of communication to cause what I would call “significant disruption in communication.” This gets more important as we discuss more high-level things. It is almost impossible to discuss complicated and important topics well with less than 90% intelligibility. That’s just enough disruption to throw a serious monkey wrench into things.
At the other end of the spectrum, when we are discussing, say, the weather, much lower levels of intelligibility may be tolerated and we are still able to get our point across.
Some of these determinations were made simply by intuition. On this page, you can look at many different translations, often in Low German, of a single text. Looking at that text in different lects, it become clear which are dialects and which are so different that they may be languages.
Let us take a look here: Hamburgisch, Ollands and
Oldenburg, three Low Saxon lects:
Hamburgs
Ollands
Oldenburg
Quick observation shows us that Hamburgs and Ollands obviously must be dialects of one tongue. Yet Oldenburg seems so different that it seems dubious that Oldenburg speakers can converse with the others at 90%+ intelligibility.
Conclusion by “simple observation” (I prefer to call it “direct observation”) was criticized as somehow unscientific. However, direct observation is a well-known scientific technique involved in the hypothesis – testing – conclusion dance of the empirical method.
Keep in mind that much of science is simply observational, hunches, intuition, etc. Francis Crick visualized the double helix structure of DNA via sheer intuition while tripping on LSD.
Sir William Jones famous discovery of Indo-European certainly was simply obervational and intuitive also.

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8 thoughts on “Questions About the German Language Classification”

  1. Thanks for your answers to my questions. I am not going to to reply to all of your points. That is not necessary and it would be boring. But there are two things I would like to respond to:
    Firstly, don’t put too much trust in Ethnologue. It has been made by humans and so is fallible. A good reason for not calling Veluws Low Saxon is the fact that there is no unitary plural ending -t on the finite verb.
    As for Macro-German and Macro-Dutch, (or Macro-Low Franconian.) I fear you lost me there.
    Dutch and the Dutch dialects are part of a big chain of Franconian dialects that is running from the Netherlands and Belgium along the Rhine and the Main. This connection is real in terms of phonology. lexis and syntax.
    But if despite of that Dutch and its dialects are EXcluded from Macro-German I am puzzled. And so I wonder what could be the reason to INclude Low German. Low German is usually understood as Low Saxon (usually, because there are also a few Low Franconian dialects within Germany which are of course called Low German.) should in fact be called Saxon without Low because (Low) Saxon is not in a Saxon dialect chain leading up to Central and Upper Saxon because such Saxons do not exist. (The actual Upper Saxon is not Saxon. It is only called Saxon because of the area where it is spoken. And that area is called Sacony since a Saxon family ended up there.
    Yet the name Low German sugests that we should, or rather may, place the Low Saxon dialects under Macro-German. I know. But if names count then we should not forget that in former centuries Dutch could be called “Duytsch”(Deutsch) in Dutch and more precisely “Nederduytsch” (Niederdeutsch). In the early19th century the Netherlandic [= Dutch] Reformed Church still called itself Nederduitsch Reformed Church.
    We could of course keep Dutch and its dialects away from the Macro-German umbrella because of their phonologies. But in that case the Low Saxon dialects should also be taken off the list of German dialects languages. In that case there is the possibility of creating Macro-Low Dutch for which compare The Dutch – Low Saxon subdivision of Ethnologue. But two Macro-languages Macro-Dutch and Macro-(Low) Saxon would also do.

  2. Thx Hans. I have to use some sort of a system here, and this is the one that I more or less arbitrarily chose. The question of whether to put Low Saxon under Dutch or German is a tough one, but many treatments do put Low Saxon in German, or at least mix Low German in with Low Saxon, as Ethnologue does. If we mix in Low German with Low Saxon, there is indeed a dialect chain running Limburgs to Vienna or whatever.
    I guess it’s just a coin toss here really, whether to throw Low Saxon into Dutch or German, and questions like Macro-Dutch and Macro-German get confusing. I decided to draw the line at Macro-Dutch as being Low Franconian for somewhat arbitrary reasons.
    This treatment isn’t really about classification anyway, but about dialectology and figuring out what’s a dialect and what’s a language. So I’m not really making any hard statements about classification here, more about intelligibility.
    Thx.

  3. Keep in mind that much of science is simply observational, hunches, intuition, etc. Francis Crick visualized the double helix structure of DNA via sheer intuition while tripping on LSD.
    Pretty sure this is an urban legend.
    Sir William Jones famous discovery of Indo-European certainly was.
    Jones wasn’t the first person to point out that Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin.

  4. Perhaps he was not the first, but he is the one credited with the discovery of Indo-European in his famous speech before the Oriental Society in India.
    I believe that Crick is documented as having said that about LSD and the double helix, but I’m not sure.

  5. Ethnologue classifies Esperanto as “a language of France”. In some ways they’re a bit too robotic and not human enough.

  6. That’s ok. They can call Esperanto a language of France. I guess that is where the most speakers are. They didn’t say it was French; they said it was a language of France. Big difference.

  7. “Ethnologue classifies Esperanto as “a language of France”
    — This is ludicrous… Esperanto is still relatively popular in Eastern Europe, is among the most studied foreign languages in Hungary, but is nearly ignored in France. Lots of obscure dialects are recognized in the educational system (a proficiency test allows to gain additional points in exams) but *not* Esperanto.
    Erh, the page reads “used most widely in central and eastern Europe, China and other countries in eastern Asia, certain areas of South America, and southwest Asia.”

  8. Paul Wexler has used Esperanto as a comparison point with Modern Israeli Hebrew, which he describes as a relexified East Yiddish with influences from Modern German and Modern Russian with some grammar and vocabulary artifacts associated with leshon qodesh (the mixed Hebrew-Aramaic of the Talmuds).
    Ludwik Zamenhof, who invented Esperanto, and Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, who was of high significance in the early development of Modern Israeli Hebrew, came from the same Polish Jewish social, cultural, and intellectual milieu.
    Wexler argues that much influence of Zamenhof’s native Yiddish can be detected in Esperanto.

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