Updated June 28, 2016. This post will be regularly updated for some time. Warning! This essay is very long; it runs to 66 pages on the Internet. This is part 1 of the essay: Low German. Part 2 deals with Central German and Part 3 deals with High German.
This classification splits Low German from 10 languages into 12 languages using the criterion of >90% intelligibility = dialect and <90% intelligibility = language.
Low German or Low Saxon is a group of far northern German dialects. Dialects up by Hamburg and Friesland sound like English. According to an older edition of Ethnologue, there are 20-30 Low German lects which are all mutually unintelligible. None of the Low German languages are intelligible with Standard German. Low German differs from region to region and even from village to village.
Ethnologue says that there are only 1,000 speakers of Low German, but that 10 million can understand the language. This is completely wrong.
On the basis of a recent survey conducted in the former West Germany 25 years ago, 20%, or 3.5 million, said that they could speak Low German very well. Another 36%, or 6.5 million, said they had anywhere from some to good Low German speaking abilities. Fully 89%, or 16 million, had some reasonable amount of understanding of the language.
This means that 25 years ago, there were 10 million people in West Germany alone who could speak Low German to one degree or another.
Until fairly recently, most Low German speakers could only speak their Low German language and nothing else.
Low German has over 4,000 different dialects in it. As late as 1960, a situation existed from Hamburg west to the Netherlands border in Germany whereby, while most spoke Standard German, most also spoke regional dialects. In general, one village could understand the next couple of villages over, but beyond that, things got dicey. So even 50 years, you had many de facto separate languages of Low German. The question is how many of these separate languages still exist.
Even today, more pure forms of Low Saxon have about 40% intelligibility with Standard German.
Recent writings suggest that all Low Saxon speakers can communicate adequately in any of these disparate lects. This flies in the face of SIL’s earlier statement about 20-30 inherently unintelligible languages. Therefore, there needs to be an assessment on the ground of what existing Low Saxon lects look like and how intelligible they are with each other.
Some descriptions describe the type of intelligibility within Low Saxon as akin to that between the Scandinavian languages. However, recent findings seem to indicate that the mutual intelligibility of the Scandinavian languages is much exaggerated.
Having seen transcriptions of translations of a single short story into different Low Saxon lects, it seems clear to me that they differ dramatically. Ethnologue has already split off Westphalian and East Frisian Low Saxon, so the matter is settled as far as those two go. All of the rest are lumped into Low German as some possibly dubious macrolect. The situation regarding intelligibility within German Low Saxon remains very confused.
North Low Saxon is a Low Saxon language spoken in the north of Germany. It is understood across a wide region. There is a standard version based broadly on the Hamburg dialect that is widely used on TV and in the media. Dialects include Holsteinisch, Schleswigsch, Bremen, Hamburgs, Emsland and Oldenberg. All of these dialects are apparently mutually intelligible, though transcribed versions of them are often quite divergent.
Schleswig-Holstein is a North Low Saxon language spoken in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany. Holsteinisch North Low Saxon and Schleswigsch North Low Saxon appear to be mutually intelligible, but some speakers of Schleswig-Holstein have difficulty understanding North Low Saxon from Lower Saxony to the south.
Holsteinisch (Holsatian) is a North Low Saxon dialect spoken in Holstein around Kiel. It has similarities with the Old Low German language and to Bremen Westphalian and Heide Westphalian. Holsteinisch is still holding up pretty well.
This is the area from which the Angles and Saxons originated before leaving for Britain. Holsteinisch may well be intelligible with Hamburgs, Oldenberg and Schleswigsch. Subdialects include Heikendoft, Dithmarscher, Central Holsteinisch (Zentral Holsteinisch), Stormarner, East Holsteinisch (Ostholsteinisch) and Kiel.
Schleswigsch (Schleswickian) is a North Low Saxon dialect spoken in Schleswig. It has a lot of influence from North Frisian and Low Danish. This lect is not intelligible at all with Standard German. People from around Berlin even say that they can’t understand a word of this lect in its pure form. In the city of Flensberg near the Danish border, the whole city speaks Schleswigsch. Very close to the border with Denmark, people speak a form of Schleswigsch that is intelligible with South Jutnish, a highly divergent form of Danish spoken in the far south of Denmark that is actually a separate language.
This dialect is doing very well compared to the rest of Low Saxon, especially in the west area of the zone.
Angel German is a North Low Saxon language spoken in the Anglen region of far northern German. This region stretches from the Baltic Sea in the north and east to the Dannevirke and the Slie in the south and the moors in the west, a triangle of 350 square miles. This is where the Angles who invaded England and gave the name of the country and the language their name came from. Angel German to this day sounds somewhat like English. Angel German is poorly understood even by other Low German speakers because it still has many Danish words and grammar (Bock 1933).
Most of the grammar is German, but most of the vocabulary is Danish with some German and Low German words mixed in (Gosch 1861). It sounds a lot more like Danish than German. There are certain Danish sounds such as the z, soft s and sch that no German can pronounce without special training. One theory is that this was formerly Danish or more properly South Jutnish, a dialect so divergent that it can be seen as a separate language from Danish, that simply became Germanized over time due to instruction in the German language.
At one time, fishermen around Lübeck spoke a form of Low Saxon koine that could be understood by sailors and fishermen from any of the Baltic Sea nations.
Hamburgisch is a North Low Saxon dialect that serves as something like the official form of Low Saxon, a koine, or Standard Low Saxon, in Germany. It is widely understood across the Low Saxon speaking region. The language itself is spoken and around Hamburg.
Ollands, spoken in Ollands, a fruit and vegetable growing region of northern Germany on the Lower Elbe, is a subdialect of Hamburgisch. Other subdialects include Finkwarder, Kirchwerder, Harburg , Olwarder, Veerlanner (with many sub-subdialects), and Barmbeker. Kirchwerder is spoken 12 miles southeast of Hamburg.
There are still some middle-aged speakers of Hamburgisch, and the language is doing better than most Low Saxon lects. In addition, there are also some young speakers of Hamburgish, especially on islands off the coast of the mouth of the Elbe River.
Bremen is a North Low Saxon dialect that is spoken in the area about from Bremen east. It has traces of both the Frisian and the Oldenberg languages and is related to both the Holstein and the Heide languages. It may be intelligible with Oldenberg, Hamburgs, Schleswigsch and Holsatian. Bremen has only 57% intelligibility to speakers of Gronings-East Frisian Low Saxon.
Oldenberg is a North Low Saxon dialect that is spoken just west of Bremen in what used to be the state of Oldenberg. This language is holding up better than a lot of the other Low Saxon lects.
It has been influenced somewhat in the north by East Frisian, and there is an inland version of East Frisian called Saterland Frisian that is spoken right around this area. To the south, it has been influenced by Munsterland Westphalian, and to the east, by Bremen Westphalian and Heine Westphalian.
Subdialects include North Oldenburg (Nordoldenburger). It may be intelligible with Holsatian, Hamburgs, Schleswigsch and Bremen.
Emsland includes the southern part of the former Weser-Ems district (the area around Osnabrück in Lower Saxony and Emsdetten in far Northern Rhine-Westphalia). This dialect has very heavy East Frisian, Dutch and Groningen influences. It is still doing fairly well. Weser-Trave is a subdialect.
West Low Saxon is a group of languages and dialects spoken in the Netherlands and Germany. For the West Low Saxon languages spoken in the Netherlands, see here. Dialects spoken in Germany include South Emsland (Südemsländisch), Hümmlinger, South Oldenburg (Südoldenburgisch), North Osnabrück (Nordosnabrückisch), and West Diepholzer. South Oldenburg is spoken in Oldenburger Münsterland.
Westphalian (Westfäölsk) is a West Low German language spoken in Westphalia in the northeastern part of North Rhine-Westphalia, but not in Siegerland and Wittgenstein. It is a separate language and is definitely not intelligible with other forms of Low German.
It is mostly spoken by older people now. Westphalian is doing fairly well, but not great, compared to other Low Saxon lects. There are still a tiny number of speakers in Iowa in the Waterloo and Cedar Falls area of Blackhawk and Bremer Counties. Dialects include West Munsterland (Westmünsterländisch), South Westphalian (Südwestfälisch), and Bentheimisch.
Münsterlandish is a Westphalian language spoken in Westphalia around Munster. Furthermore, it is very hard for Northern Low Saxon to understand, harder to understand than the rest of Westphalian. It is mostly spoken by older people now. Intelligibility testing with this language and the rest of Westphalian is indicated.
Steinfurt is a Munsterlandish dialect spoken in Westphalia around Munster. It is quite different from Munster Westphalian proper. This language is transitional between North Saxon, Eastphalian and Westphalian.
This seems to be the lect that is often described as Grafschafter Platt (County Language). The term “county” refers to the fact that this region was one of the few in Germany that had was ruled by a count (a feudal figure like a duke). Grafschafter Platt seems to be spoken in the region between Osnabrück (Emsland) and Munsterland and over to the Dutch border where it looks like it borders on Twents.
There are a tremendous number of dialects in this language, especially over by the Dutch border. It’s not really correct to say that each village has its own dialect, but there is definitely a dialect continuum with new dialects every few villages or so.
The five main dialects are Gildehaus, Upper Grafschaft, Nordhorn, Lower Grafschaft, and Wietermarschen Group.
Wietermarschen Group is spoken in Wietermarschen, Drievorden, and Engden.
Nordhorn is spoken in the city of that name.
Lower Grafschaft is spoken around the towns of Emlichheim, Laar, and Hoogstede. Lower Grafschaft has heavy Dutch influence, more than any other West Low German language spoken in Germany. This language has undergone a serious decline in the past 50 years. It is now spoken by 25% of the population and understood by 50%.
East Westphalian (Ostwestfälisch) is a series of lects that are spoken in the eastern parts of the Westphalian speaking zone.
Osnabrück is an East Westphalian dialect spoken in the area around Osnabrück in southern Lower Saxony.
Lübbecke is an East Westphalian language that is spoken in and around Lübbecke and to the north. The variety from around the towns of Stemwede and Oppenwehe has poor intelligibility with the Osnabrück Westphalian spoken around Bad Ilburg south of Osnabrück only 25 miles to the southwest. The region is heavily forested.
Ravensbergish-Lippish is an East Westphalian dialect that is spoken in the north of Northern Rhine-Westphalia near Lippstadt, Steinhagen, and Rheda-Wiedenbruck.
Paderborner is an East Westphalian dialect spoken around Paderborn in northeast Northern Rhine-Westphalia near the border with Lower Saxony.
Soester Westphalian is an East Westphalian dialect spoken in and around the city of Soester east of the Ruhr region.
Sauerland is an East Westphalian language, definitely a separate language, spoken in Westphalia in the Sauerland, which is in southeast North Rhine-Westphalia. Although it is related to Westphalian, it is a separate language and is not intelligible with other forms of Westphalian or Low German. This language is definitely still spoken. There are other languages spoken in the Ruhr-Sauerland region.
Balve is an East Westphalian dialect spoken in and around Balve, near Dortmund in the Sauerland region of North Rhine-Westphalia. This area has tremendous dialect diversity and there is a new language every couple dozen miles or so. Knowing this and comparing Balve with Lüdenscheid, Balve may be a separate language, however, until we get specific data, we can’t split it off.
Lüdenscheid is an East Westphalian language spoken in and around the city of Lüdenscheid in North Rhine Westphalia. Speakers report that the Low German in this region is incredibly varied, with new languages ever couple dozen miles or so. Thus, Lüdenscheid may be a separate language, , however, until we get specific data, we can’t split it off.
Gladbeck is an East Westphalian language spoken in the town of Gladbeck. Gladbeck is a town located in the Ruhr between Gelsenkirchen and Bottrop and north of Essen.
Eastphalian (Ostfälisch) is a West Low German language spoken east of the Weser River in southern parts of Lower Saxony and western parts of Saxony-Anhalt, in cities such as Hanover, Braunschweig, Hildesheim, Göttingen, and Magdeburg in Eastphalia. It is completely unintelligible with the rest of Low Saxon.This language is barely holding on, with very low activity and only a few speakers. Eastphalian is best seen as transitional between Low German and Middle German.
Eastphalian lects include Solling, Braunschweiger, Bode (Bode Ostfälisch), Calenberger, Elbe (Elbostfälisch), Göttingisch-Grubenhagensch, Heide (Heideostfälisch), Hildesheimer , Holzland (Holzland Ostfälisch), Huy (Huy Ostfälisch), North Eastphalian (Nord Ostfälisch), Oker (Oker Ostfälisch), East Eastphalian (Ostostfälisch), and Papenteicher .
Solling is an extremely divergent lect of Eastphalian that is spoken in the Solling Forest of Lower Saxony. It is dying out, but the pure form of it is still spoken by the elderly. It is very strange and is said to sound like the Frisian language. It is quite possible that this is a separate language, as it is said to be quite distant from Eastphalian proper.
Elbostfälisch is an Eastphalian language spoken around Oschersleben and Haldensleben in the Magdeburger Börde, which is between Helmstedt and Magdeburg. It is spoken on the west side of the Elbe River from Magdeburg west to the Harz Mountains in Saxony-Anhalt. This language has heavy influence from East Low German and is actually transitional between East and West Low German. It is still in very good shape and is widely spoken in Magdeburg at least.
Göttingisch-Grubenhagensch is a dialect of Eastphalian spoken around Göttingen, Northeim, and Osterode am Harz. It is mostly spoken by older people now.
Heideostfälisch is a dialect of Eastphalian spoken around Celle that has some with Northern Low Saxon elements. It is spoken between Hamburg, Bremen and Hanover. This language has many words that look like English. This suggests that Heide was close to one of the original Old Low German languages that gave rise to Old English. Heide means “pagan” in this language, and this group resisted feudalism and Christianity longer than most other groups in the area. This in part explains the ancient nature of their tongue. This is the area from which the Angles and Saxons originated before leaving for Britain.
Central Eastphalian is is a dialect of Eastphalian spoken in a large area surrounding Braunschweig and Hanover. It is mostly spoken by older people now. This dialect is in particularly poor shape.
Papenteicher is an Eastphalian dialect spoken just north of Brunswick. There are only about 300 speakers left. It is no longer taught to children. There are many more who know individual words and phrase. The language is almost never heard in the region anymore. This dialect has some interesting sounds that are only heard in Friesland and Jutland. It is thought that the region was originally settled by people from this region 1,500 years ago.
East Low German is a group of languages spoken in Mecklenburg – West Pomerania and Brandenburg and surrounding areas, including over into Poland. The two main branches are Mecklenburgish-Pomeranian and Markish. Low Prussian is not included in this grouping – it is a separate group. These are more recent lects, created from West Low German lects with Russian and Standard German admixture.
Mecklenburgisch-Vorpommersch is an East Low German language group. Lects in this group include Wendländisch, Mecklenburgish, West Pomeranian (Westpommersch), and Strelitzisch. Strelizisch is transitional to Mittelpommersch. There are still a considerable number of people who speak and understand this language.
Mecklenburgisch is an East Low Saxon dialect spoken in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. It has very high to excellent intelligibility with North Low Saxon, so it may only be a dialect of Low German. It is spoken in far northeastern Germany around Straslund and Rostock. This area was once Slavic, but Charlemagne moved Germans in this area. These Germans spoke Low German. Many of these immigrants also spoke Frisian, so there is an element of that too.
However, in the 1700’s, High German became such a strong force in the area that this dialect began to be mixed with High German. The dialect remains very archaic, as the region is very resistant to change in general. This dialect is doing ok, but not great, compared to other Los Saxon lects. Although it is officially an East Low German dialect, it is actually on the border between East Low German and West Low German. Before 1945, this dialect was the main means of communication in the villages.
Vorpommern or West Pomeranian is an East Low Saxon language spoken in Western Pomerania, Vorpommern or Hither Pomerania, however you want to translate the term. This is a part of far northeast Germany on the border with Poland. The northern border is the North Sea. This language is doing ok, but not great, compared to other Low Saxon lects.
As part of a dialect continuum, Pomeranian is clearly not intelligible with East Frisian Low Saxon, but it may be intelligible with Mittelpommersch or Mecklenburgisch.
Markish (Märkisch)* is a group of East Low German lects spoken below Middle Pomeranian through Brandenburg down to Berlin and south and east of it, and over to the eastern parts of Saxony-Anhalt. It is little known. It is a major high level German dialect division. Markish is not intelligible with Upper Saxon. This suggests that Markish may well be a separate language. There are many Dutch words in this language.
There are nine lects of Markish.
Pomeranian or East Pomeranian is a Markish language spoken in Poland. This area was Slavic in the 600’s. The Danes laid waste to the area in the 1000’s. The destruction was so severe that the rulers invited German farmers to the area to rehabilitate the land, and this interesting language developed.
Speakers are all elderly and scattered, and the language is moribund. This language was also decimated by the expulsion of Germans from Poland after WW2.
There are five major dialects:
West Prussian (Westpreußisch) was formerly spoken in West Prussia.
Western Further Pomeranian (Westhinterpommersch) was formerly spoken in western Further Pomerania.
Eastern Further Pomeranian (Osthinterpommersch) was formerly spoken in eastern Further Pomerania.
Bublitzisch was formerly spoken in Bublitz (now Bobolice), Poland.
Pomerelian (Pommerellisch) was formerly spoken in a region called Pomerelia.
Pomeranian is not intelligible with Low Prussian or other Low German languages. There is still a significant Pomeranian community in Brazil, and there are some Pomeranian speakers in the US too.
North Margravian or Mittelpommersch is a Markish dialect spoken in the northern part of Brandenburg State around Prenzlau and Wittenberg and in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania around Pasewalk-Ueckermünde.
This dialect has or had two subdialects, West Middle Pomeranian (Westmittelpommersch) and East Middle Pomeranian (Ostmittelpommersch).
East Middle Pomeranian was spoken in the Lower Oder River region of Poland around Stettin and Stargard and may well be extinct since 1945.
West Middle Pomeranian is still alive and is spoken in the areas discussed above. There is some activity to keep this language going, and there are still some speakers left. Before 1945, this language was still the main medium of communication in almost all of the villages in the area.
North Markish (Nordmärkisch or Altmärkisch) is a Markish dialect spoken in Salzwedel, Gardelegen and Stendal in far northern Saxony-Anhalt. This dialect has Eastphalian influences.
Westprignitzisch is a Markish dialect spoken in Perleberg, Pritzwalk, and Wittstock in far northwestern Brandenburg.
Ostprignitzisch is a Markish dialect spoken in Löwenberg, Templin, Zehdenick, and Fürstenberg in far northern Brandenburg. The Prignitz dialects show less Dutch influence than other dialects in the area. They are also close to Mecklenburgish.
New Markish (Neumärkisch) is a Markish dialect spoken in Angermünde and Schwedt/Oder in northeastern Brandenburg.
Flämingisch is a Markish dialect spoken in Jüterbog and Buchenwald in Brandenburg south of Berlin near the border with Saxony-Anhalt and in Saxony-Anhalt in areas north of Wittenberg. Flämingisch is transitional between Low German and Middle German. It is little spoken anymore except by the elderly who are partial speakers. Persons composing a dictionary have only been able to come up with about 1,500 words. It is clearly dying out.
Havelländisch is a Markish dialect spoken in Rathenow, Premnitz and Nauen in Brandenburg west of Berlin.
Brandenburgish or Central Margravian is an East Low German dialect spoken west of Berlin in Staaken, Potsdam and Brandenburg and west of Berlin in Potsdam, Brandenburg an der Havel.
It has been influenced heavily by Dutch from guest workers who came in the 1700’s, and it also has a Westphalian influence. South Brandenburgish (Südbrandenburgisch) and Eberswalder are dialects of Brandenburgish.
There are suggestions that this language is nearly extinct, and may even be extinct, and that speakers for the most part have reverted to a Berlinisch sort of dialect of German. However, this new lect (or whatever lect they area speaking) is unintelligible with Standard German. This language, whatever form it is taking, is still going very strong as of three years ago.
New Mecklenburgish is spoken north and northwest of Berlin around Oranienburg and Neuruppin. It is not in good shape and is under heavy pressure from Berlinisch and Standard German. In fact, it may well be de facto extinct. Investigation is needed to determine if this dialect even exists anyone, or has reverted to some sort of Berlinisch dialect.
Low Prussian (Niederpreußisch) is a separate branch of Low German spoken in eastern Poland. It is spoken in the region where the Slavic Kashubian language is spoken, so it received some influence from that language. This area was Slavic in the 1200’s and became German in the 1700’s.
This is a full language, not intelligible with Standard German or with any other German language. It used to have many speakers, but now it is moribund. There are a few elderly speakers left, but no language community.
It has 11 major dialects.
Low Prussian-East Pomeranian (Übergangsmundart zum Ostpommerschen) was a transitional dialect with East Pomeranian.
Vistula Delta (Weichselmündungsgebietes) was spoken around Danzig (Gdansk) at the mouth of the Vistula River.
Frischen-Danzig Spit (Frischen-Nehrung Danziger-Nehrung) was spoken around the Vistula Lagoon.
Elbing Heights (Elbinger Höhe) was spoken around Elbing (Elblag).
Kürzungs was spoken around Braunsberg (Braniewo).
West Käslausch (Weskäslausch) was spoken around Mehlsack (Pieniezno).
East Käslausch (Ostkäslausch) was spoken around Rößel (Reszel).
Natangian-Bartish (Natangisch-Bartisch) was spoken around Bartenstein (Bartoszyce).
West Sambian (Westsamländisch) was spoken around Pillau (Baltiysk).
East Sambian (Ostsamländisch) was spoken around Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Labiau (Polessk) and Znamensk (Wehlau).
Eastern (Ostgebietes) was spoken around Insterburg (Chernyakhovsk), Memel (Klaipeda) and Sovetsk (Tilsit).
Another dialect was Haff (Haff Niederpreußisch). It is not known where this dialect was spoken.
Dialect intelligibility is not known.
It became moribund due to the expulsion of Prussian speakers from Poland after WW2. It is not intelligible with other Low German languages or with Pomeranian. There are apparently still some speakers in Wisconsin.
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