View Full Version : The Low Saxon Language

Thursday, June 9th, 2005, 07:31 PM
Low Saxon

Genealogical classification
Indo-European / Germanic / West Germanic / Low German / Saxon (on Ingvæonic [North Sea Germanic] substrate)

Area and dialects
In Germany, Lowlands Saxon is officially recognized in eight northern states (Bundesländer): Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Bremen, North-Rhine-Westphalia, Mecklenburg-Western-Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg. It is also used in a small northern area of the state of Hesse. Conventionally, these dialects, which are strongly German-influenced, are grouped in the following manner:

Western Lowlands Saxon:

Northern (Lowlands) Saxon (in the northwest – with the Frisian-influenced dialects of Eastern Friesland, Oldenburg and Emsland as a special enclave within this group)

Westphalian (in the southwest)

Eastphalian (in the southeast of the Western Lowlands Saxon area)

Eastern Lowlands Saxon:

Mecklenburgish-West-Pomeranian (in the northern half of Eastern Lowlands Saxon)

Mercian-Brandenburgish (south of Mecklenburgish-West-Pomeranian)

The Eastern Lowlands Saxon group used to extend across what is now Northern Poland (“Western Prussian” or “Eastern Pomeranian”) all the way to parts of Russian-administered Kaliningrad (Königsberg) (“Eastern Prussian”). With the exception of the Mennonite West Prussian dialects (Plautdietsch), these dialects east of today’s Germany are now moribund or extinct.

The dialects used in the eastern parts of the Netherlands are Dutch-influenced and have their own conventional grouping:

Groningen dialects (mostly in the province of Groningen)

Drenthe dialects (in the province of Drenthe)

Stellingwerven dialects (in the region of Stellingwerven within the province of Fryslân (Friesland) and also Overijssel)

Overijssel dialects (in the province of Overijssel)

Twente dialects

Salland dialects

Western Overijssel dialects

Achterhoek (in the province of Gelderland)

East Veluwe dialects (in Gelderland as well)

Those in the north may be considered part of Northern Lowlands Saxon, specifically of the Frisian-influenced type. Those farther may be considered part of Westphalian.

The officially “German” minority of Denmark (mostly in Jutland) used to be predominantly Lowlands-Saxon-speaking. However, its label “German” led to language policies that were an extension of German ones as they were before Lowlands Saxon came to be officially recognized in Germany. Minority administration, media, education and church services are conducted in German and make no allowance for Lowlands Saxon. As a result, Lowlands Saxon is now either moribund or extinct in Denmark.
Lowlands Saxon is also used in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Australia and the Americas. The dialects of Eastern Eurasia belong to Mennonite “Plautdietsch.” Many of its speakers have recently migrated to Germany. Plautdietsch is also used in the Americas. In North America there are several non-Mennonite Lowlands-Saxon speaking communities as well, especially in the Midwest of the United States. Some of these began in the 19th century and have developed specifically American dialects of the language, with both archaic and innovative features.

Click for more information: Eastern Friesland Platt
Other articles: The Influence of Middle Low German on the Scandinavian Languages

What we refer to as Lowlands Saxon (or Low Saxon) is widely known as “Low German,” especially with reference to its varieties that are spoken in Germany. However, despite the fact that it has been popularized in Germany and in German studies circles, “Low German” cannot be considered the most fortunate of name choices. Firstly, Lowlands Saxon constitutes the Saxon subdivision of a West Germanic language branch known as “Low German,” its sister-subdivision being “Low Frankish” (which includes Dutch, Flemish, Zeelandic and Afrikaans). Secondly, the name “Low German” (German Niederdeutsch or Plattdeutsch) as used by most Germans in non-historical contexts is a catch-all label for dialects of at least two languages that happen to be spoken within Germany: most of them are descendants of Old Saxon, but also included are a few Low and Central Frankish dialects that ought to be considered parts of Dutch or Limburgish (that are described elsewhere in this series). The frequently used name Platt (or Plattdeutsch) or plat is even less precise in that it can refer to virtually any non-standard language variety of the Low Countries (including Northern Germany), even to Rhenish and Alemannic varieties much farther south. Furthermore, Lowlands Saxon and German are descendants of two separate languages: Old Saxon and Old (“High”) German respectively. Before Lowlands Saxon came to be well and truly overshadowed and suppressed by German, many of its speakers still referred to it as “Saxon” (sassysch, etc.) or “Low(lands) Saxon” (nedersassysch, etc.), some as late as in the 19th and early 20th century.
To correct the nomenclative inconsistency “Old Saxon > Low German,” some German academics have resorted to renaming the ancestral language “Old Low German” in keeping with the tradition of Germanizing. The dialects spoken in the eastern parts of the Netherlands are in that country still regularly referred to as “Low(lands) German” or “Nethersaxon” (Dutch Nedersaksisch).
Linguistically most accurate would be the name “Saxon” (or “Modern Saxon”). However, this has come to be used for German dialects that are spoken in the German state of Saxony (Sachsen), originally a non-Saxon state that was given this name because of 15th- and 16th-century dynastic maneuvers.
Most Germans nowadays react to the name “Low(lands) Saxon” or “Nethersaxon” (Niedersächsisch) for the language with bewilderment and dismissal, not only because their mindsets have been conditioned by centuries of Germanizing education but also because they tend to associate the name with the relatively recently (1946) established state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), which is one of eight German states in which the language is used. For this reason some have now begun to use the Dutch name Nedersaksisch rather than the German equivalent Niedersächsisch specifically in reference to the Saxon dialects of the Netherlands.

Not very much is known about the pre-Christian Saxons and their language. Some runic fragments appear to be in archaic Saxon, but they consist mostly of proper names and yield little information. The oldest known reference to the Saxons appears in the accounts of the Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century C.E. Soon thereafter, Roman accounts described the Saxons as pirates harassing the coasts of Gaul (France) and Britain. Some Saxons founded settlements in coastal Gaul and were eventually absorbed by the local Romano-Celtic population. In the mid-fifth century, Saxons began to settle in England. Eventually they founded Saxon-dominated kingdoms in Southern England, where their language, with admixtures of other imported Germanic varieties, developed into the southern dialects of “Anglo-Saxon,” or Old English.
As a result of emigration to Britain, some Saxon-speaking continental areas became sparsely populated or even depopulated. Eventually they came to be repopulated by immigrants from southern regions. It is primarily for this reason that the previously Ingvaeonic (North Sea Germanic) Saxon language took on some non-Ingvaeonic features; e.g., ...

(blue = Ingvaeonic, green = non-Ingvaeonic)


Old English

Modern English

Old Saxon

Modern Low Saxon

Old German

Modern German





fiev ~ fief

finf ~ fimf











he ~ hê



he ~ häi ~ hai



It is widely believed that the Saxons started off as a tribal branch or warrior order of the Germanic Chauci and that their name, which is based on their characteristic short sword called sahs, later spread to other tribal branches. It is further assumed that the original homeland of the Saxons roughly corresponds to today’s Holstein in Northern Germany and that the Saxons gradually fanned out southward from there. The Saxon region eventually came to consist of four tribal domains, or provinces: Northalbingia (north of the Elbe estuary), Angria (south of Northalbingia), Westphalia (west of Angria), and Eastphalia (east of Angria). Their neighbors were Frisians along the North Sea coast, Franks in the south and west, and Slavs in the east. Each province was subdivided, and each subdivision had its appointed leader (furest, literally “first”). There was no overall ruler. Early Saxony thus was a relatively loose tribal alliance. It was a type of republic with annual all-Saxon meetings of local representatives.
In the year 772, an officially Christianized alliance under the Frankish King Charles (“Charles the Great” or “Charlemagne,” 742–814) declared war on Saxony. This marked the beginning of the end of Saxony’s independence, also of its ancestral religion with its patron deity Sahsnot beside the common Germanic deities Wotan (Odin) and Donar (Thunar). Ten years and numerous battles later, Saxony was annexed, though regional resistance continued until 804. Previously fierce Saxon resistance to Christianization attempts gradually ceased.
By this time, the lands east of the Elbe River and some areas west of it, which in earlier times had been sparsely inhabited by East Germanic tribes, had become predominated by western branches of Slavs whose ancestors had migrated northward from the Balkans. These areas came to be gradually usurped by Germanic-speaking powers in a combination of warfare and Christianization. Beginning with the 12th century, an enormous migration wave poured into these eastern lands from various overpopulated northwestern parts of continental Europe. Germanic language varieties eventually came to replace Slavic ones but in turn took on Slavic characteristics, in some areas also Baltic traces left from the now extinct (Old) Prussian language. In areas east of Saxony, the new, Baltic-, Slavic- and Low-Frankish-influenced Saxon varieties grew into what is now called “Eastern Lowlands Saxon” or “Eastern Low German.”

Lowlands Saxon also expanded its area into Frisian-speaking regions in the northwest. In most areas along the North Sea coast it eventually came to replace Frisian varieties: in the area between the mouth of the Elbe River up to what is now Northern Friesland, also westward into Eastern Friesland, Central Friesland (Emsland and parts of the Oldenburg region), most of the Netherlands province of Groningen and a small part of today’s province of Fryslân (Friesland). In what is now Northern Germany, Lowlands Saxon became the secondary language among the remaining Frisian speakers. The Lowlands Saxon dialects of all these areas took on more or less Frisian characteristics.
At the same time, networks of mostly Saxon-speaking merchant guilds began to grow into a large mercantile city alliance known as “Hansa League” or “Hanseatic League.” Its power centers being Saxon-speaking port cities such as Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen, it spread to numerous other coastal and inland cities, such as Groningen, Nijmegen, Zwolle, Deventer, Cologne, Dortmund, Osnabrück Lunenburg, Brunswick, Magdeburg, Berlin, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Danzig (Gdansk), Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Krakow, Riga, Reval (Tallinn), Visby, Kalmar and Stockholm. It came to dominate coastal settlements around the Baltic Sea and had one representative office (kontor) each in Flanders (Bruges, 1347–1563), England (London, 1282–1598), Russia (Novgorod, mid-13th century – 1494) and Norway (Bergen, ca. 1360–1754). The Middle (Low) Saxon language, based mainly on the dialect of Lübeck, became the international Hanseatic language of commerce. Both directly and indirectly, it influenced the native languages of the various areas, particularly strongly the Scandinavian, Baltic, Balto-Finnic (especially Livonian and Estonian), and Slavic (especially Polish and Kashubian) languages. It also influenced Middle (High) German. At that time it was considered a language in its own right and after the Protestant Reformation was used to translate Martin Luther’s German Bible translation for the Saxons. It was known specifically as “Saxon” and “Low Saxon” (sassysch, nedersaksisch, etc.). However, it was also referred to as “German” and “Low German” (dudesch, nederduydesch, etc.). The label “German” was the least specific of these, including, besides the Saxon dialects, the medieval and early modern Low Frankish (“Dietsch”) dialects of Limburg, Holland, Brabant, Zeeland and Flanders as well as the various dialects of German proper.
Despite increasing trade and some later revival attempts, Hanseatic power declined and, to all intents and purposes, ended in the late 16th or early 17th century. Consequently, the Saxon language lost international currency. Furthermore, at about the same time the German language began to encroach on Saxony from the south, beginning with institutions of higher learning, spreading to aristocratic and other upper-class circles, as well as to many churches. German thus became the language of prestige, and the indigenous Saxon language soon came to be relegated to the status of a working-class and peasant language. Despised by the ruling class, rejected by those seeking higher social states, and banned from formal education, Saxon came to be regarded by many as a mere collection of inferior German dialects. Similarly, in the Netherlands, Dutch gained national currency, and the Saxon language in the east of the country came to be widely regarded as a group of “(Low) Saxon Dutch peasant dialects.”
The 19th century saw a Lowlands Saxon revival movement that might be considered a part of European Romanticism in reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Led mostly by writers and other people with above-average formal education, this movement sought to reinstate “Low German” as a literary language and thus to develop a writing system for it. Beginning with that era, Lowlands Saxon literature has been mostly confined to parochial, rustic, comedic, sentimental, nostalgic and generally folksy genres and styles. Serious attempts at using the language in contemporary and experimental modes did not begin in earnest until the 1970s and are still few and far between. No standard dialect and writing system has ever been developed and instated. Lowlands Saxon today thus consists of a mass of dialects that are written in various ways, using inconsistently, idiosyncratically applied spelling guidelines based on German and Dutch conventions.
The first few decades after World War II hit Lowlands Saxon in Germany particularly hard. Large portions of its eastern territory went to Poland and Russia, and most of their Lowlands-Saxon-speaking population went to live in Germany proper or emigrated overseas. Their dialects are now moribund or extinct, with the exception of Mennonite dialects (Plautdietsch) that had previously been moved into Eastern Europe, Siberia, Central Asia and the Americas. Furthermore, when mostly German-speaking refugees settled in previously predominantly Lowlands-Saxon-speaking communities in Western Germany, the German language, reinforced in schools and media, came to predominate, thus eroding the position of the indigenous language virtually overnight. As a result of dwindling incentives and lack of public encouragement, many parents chose not to pass their native language on to their offspring, especially in urban settings where “High” German proficiency had come to be associated with economic and social success. Therefore, many Lowlands Saxon varieties are now endangered, being kept alive mostly by aged enthusiasts, activists and entertainers.
At the very end of the 2nd millennium (Netherlands in 1997, Germany in 1999), Lowlands Saxon (which might best be described as a “minoritized” language) came to be officially recognized as a “regional language.” Time will tell how and if this will be implemented, and if this and the recently somewhat improved, in some circles even fashionable image of the language will save it from extinction or will prove to be too little too late.

Number of speakers
The number of Lowlands Saxon speakers is not known, since so far there have been no large-scale surveys. Estimates vary wildly, from 2 to 10 million. Between 1.5 and 2 million tend to be estimated for the Netherlands. Estimates for Germany are less specific. Much depends on how language competence is defined. The number would be large if it included people who are somewhat conversant and can follow simple narratives, and it would be even larger if it included those who consider themselves speakers but can really only manage lexically, idiomatically and grammatically deficient, German-based, “made-up Platt” (Patentplatt). The number of true native speakers is small and decreasing. However, there is a fair and perhaps growing number of North Germans who are proficient in Lowlands Saxon as a second or “resurrected” language.

Lowlands Saxon was officially recognized as a “regional language” in the Eastern Netherlands (1997) and in Northern Germany (1999) within the framework of the European Language Charter. It remains to be seen how this will be implemented and if implementation will amount to more than the reluctant tokenism we have observed thus far.

Public services
In the regions in which Lowlands Saxon has come to be officially recognized, it may be use in any communication with officialdom. However, so far this is so merely in theory. In Germany, insufficient funding and training count among the favorite excuses for non-implementation and foot-dragging.

At this time, Lowlands Saxon does not serve as a primary language in formal education or as a mandatory school subject, and few schools offer it as an elective subject. It is offered in elective courses and pathways in a small number of community colleges, teachers colleges and universities. At the university level, it tends to be studied primarily as a theoretical subject via the media of Dutch or German.

Lowlands Saxon has never ceased to be a literature language. Numerous Lowlands Saxon books and periodicals are published every year, and the number has been increasing in recent years. Most belles-lettres works still fall into the categories of “folksy” and “comedic,” but some works in contemporary styles and genres are published too. Some of contemporary writing is encouraged by way of literary contests. An increasing number of Lowlands Saxon publications are translations from other languages.There are a few professional Lowlands Saxon theater companies and numerous amateur theater companies. Lately some companies have been making attempts at including contemporary and non-parochial plays, either original works or translations from other languages.
Production of Lowlands Saxon sound recordings has been increasing in recent years. Predominant are electronic books and song collections on tape cassettes and compact discs. Aside from the usual traditional fare, there are contemporary musical performances, such as chançon-style, pop and rock songs.
There is a long-standing tradition of using Lowlands Saxon in radio broadcasting, especially in radio plays, authors’ readings and religious sermons, lately also in talk shows. The language is used less in television, but there appears to be some increase in recent years.
The number of Internet presentation in and about Lowlands Saxon has been increasing steadily. This medium may hold particular promise for the language in that it has the potential of uniting its speakers, learners and aficionados from all over the world.

Author: Reinhard F. Hahn, 2002