The 'High' and 'Low' of the German Dialect

Gross, Brother Placid. "The 'High' and 'Low' of the German Dialect." Hebron Herald, 21  January 2009, 9.

Our German Dialect

Here is a little lesson about our German dialect. It always bothers me when I hear our Germans from Russia people apologize for not speaking “correct German.” I hear comments like “my German is Low German; my German is Platt Deutsch; my German is poor German; my German is half Russian; my German is “welsch”; or my German is so “fer mixed.”

Because we do not speak “High German” people come to the conclusion that it must be “Low German” and Low German is not the official language of Germany therefore it must be bad, or embarrassingly bad. 

This cannot be farther from the truth.  In the 1600s and 1700s there were probably 500, some historians say 1,000, distinct different dialects in the land area, which now is the country of Germany.  Every community, or every valley, had its own dialect.

Actually, for those people it was not a dialect but rather it was their official language. To this day one can still hear many different dialects in Germany. Some linguists say there still are as many as 250 distinct German dialects.

The southern end of Germany borders the countries of Switzerland and Austria. This is in the Alp Mountains and is very high in elevation. The northern part of Germany touches the Netherlands and the North Sea.  The Rhine River, which is a very large river, starts with the snowmelt in the Alps and flows north to the North Sea around the Netherlands. The Netherlands are on the northwest side of Germany. Holland is a country of The Netherlands and one third of Holland is below sea level.  “Niederland” means low land and is known as the Low Counties.

Now remember that there were, and still are, many different dialects all across Germany. In the southern or higher elevation, the dialects were said to be High German, and then there was Middle German, and in the north, it was Low German. 

In each of these three main groups, there were many, many variations of dialects.  In the far north of Germany, the people speak Platt Deutsch. Platt Deutsch does not mean bad German, as many people seem to think. Rather, Platt Deutsch means flat German. The word “platten” means to flatten or to press or iron.  It is called Platt Deutsch because the far north of Germany is very low and quite flat.

In the Low German or Platt Deutsch there also are many different dialects just as there are in High German.

When our people went to Russia they took their old language with them and the language stayed pretty much the same for the next two hundred years. Meanwhile back in the mother country the language changed very much especially with the coming of books and newspapers and then later on with radio. 

Much of the present day standard German in Germany has developed over the past two hundred years whereas the dialects have changed very little.

Our Germans from Russia people who now live in America speak different dialects because they came from different areas in Germany; then in Russia they continued to live in closed communities. 

Many of the Black Sea Germans from Russia (which is us) originally came from the south or southwest areas of Germany so they spoke one of the many High German dialects. They did not speak Low German or Platt Deutsch. The one group of people who did speak Low German are the Mennonites who originally came from northern Germany. Our Germans from Russia dialects are older than the language in present day Germany. 

In reality it can be said that the dialects are more correct than the Standard German in Germany.  Their German has changed and is still changing, whereas our German-Russian language did not change all that much. To say that the German in Germany is better than our Dialects, would be about the dame as saying that the American English is better than the English in England. 

Before the printing press was invented, all books were hand written so we can see that books were not readily available to the ordinary people. The process of printing evolved gradually and slowly in different parts of the world, however, history says that the printing press was officially invented in 1450.  The credit for inventing the printing press with movable type goes to Johannes Gutenberg in Germany. One of the very first books to be printed was the bible, which was in the Latin language.  Martin Luther was born in 1483 or about 33 years after the printing press was invented.

Luther wanted the common people to be able to read the bible, so between 1522 and 1532 he translated the bible from Latin to German.

There were many variations of the German language, so which dialect would be used for the new translation?  Luther himself was from the southeastern area of Germany so he used several different dialects from the middle to south (high) German. Before the printing of the bible, the ordinary people had very little reading material. The people had been speaking for thousands of years but they were not reading or writing to any great extent. Therefore, the spoken language should be considered more correct than the printed language. When the bible became available, the schools began to use the bible to teach reading.  In their homes, the people used the bible both as a religious book and for learning to read.  Now gradually, slowly, but surely, the language of the bible became the language of the country; and because the bible was written in a combination of the High German dialects, the official language gradually became known as “High German.” 

Other words which sometimes are used and which mean the same thing as High German are Book German; Standard German; or “Schrift Deutsch” (written German). 

All the dialects, both Low and High, sometimes are referred to as the “Kueche Deutsch” (kitchen German). Because of more printed material, radio, television, telephone and more traveling, etc., the dialects are losing out as more people speak the official language of the country. When German children start school, they are asked to forget their mother tongue and speak the official language of the land.

In the northern areas of Germany there now are groups of people who are getting together and trying to preserve their Platt Deutsch dialects. Among our Germans from Russia descendents in America there are many different dialects. Our language is not the German that is in Germany now and it is not Low German, so what is it?  The correct way to explain it is to say that we speak one of the dialects of the High German. Our German-Russian language is older than the written German and it is older than the Standard German, so there is no reason why we should apologize, or hesitate, or be embarrassed by how we speak the “Deitsh.”

This short essay tells you only a small amount of what there is to know about our language; but, hopefully it is enough so that you can be proud of the fact that you know as much as you do.

Reprinted with permission by Hebron Herald

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