“Plattdeutsch” or Low German has almost completely disappeared from German public life. Only three per cent of the population speaks this old language from the north of Germany. Artists, theatres and schools are now trying to do something about it.
“Ik schick di nochmal dat Bummelbian, kiek di dat an” – she uses this sentence all the time, says Susanne Bliemel. She is a teacher at a grammar school in the North German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and teaches in Plattdeutsch – an old language that was widely used in the north of Germany until the 20th century. Today, however, it has almost disappeared from public life. To make sure Plattdeutsch does not die out altogether, Ms Bliemel helps her pupils to swat up on Plattdeutsch vocabulary. In standard German, the sentence is “Ich schicke Dir nochmal den E-Mail-Anhang, den solltest Du Dir ansehen.” (I’ll send you the e-mail attachment so that you can take a look at it.) The Bummelbian is thus the e-mail attachment – this old language, as we can see, also is also keeping up with the times.
Plattdeutsch (also Low German) is one of the six major dialect families of the German language. The Deutsches Sprachatlas research centre of the University of Marburg, one of the most important institutions for dialect research in Germany, defines a dialect as a local language that has its own grammar. The other major dialect families include the North-West German Frisian, the Central German Saxon, the South-East German Franconian, the South-West German Alemannic and the Southern German Bavarian. They originated during the migration of peoples in the Middle Ages, when the Germanic tribes settled in certain areas and each developed its own form of West Germanic language.
The decline of dialectsWith the nationwide establishing of standard German in the mass media and schools, dialects started to go through a period of steady decline. Plattdeutsch was hit particularly hard, since, of all the dialects, it differs the greatest from standard German, Hochdeutsch. Certain phonetic shifts, which took place in German in the Middle Ages, distinguished the language from other Germanic languages such as Dutch and English, but these shifts spread mainly in the South and hardly made it at all to the North. Only 2.5 million people still actively speak Plattdeutsch today – roughly three percent of the German population. Other dialects, such as Bavarian, have had more luck defending themselves against the onslaught of standard German culture. 13 million people still speak the southern German dialect.
In March 2017, the government of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania set up Plattdeutsch classes at six schools in order to keep the dialect alive. Pupils can even take the Abitur exam (qualification for university entrance) in the old language. Susanne Bliemel has taken over the management of the state-wide education initiative. That is the reason why she has been teaching not only young people, but also kindergarten teachers, students and teachers, who will then later pass on what they have learned to their own students.
A positive imageAt Bliemel's own school, in the Mecklenburg town of Crivitz, about a third of the new pupils decided to take Plattdeutsch. “We were surprised in a most positive way. We did not expect so many to be interested in it.” Over the past few months she has come across more and more parents who actually never learned the language themselves, but would like their children to learn it. “Plattdeutsch now has a positive image.”
For the lessons, the Plattdeutsch “rescuers” also had to start a small revolution. The reason being that, to this day, everyone can write Plattdeutsch whatever way he or she likes. There are no spelling rules. However, for the teaching of the dialect in schools they are now devising a set of formalised spelling guidelines – the first for centuries.
A special soundIn addition to the state-subsidised educational initiative, local artists are also trying to bring the forgotten language back to life on the stage. For example, the Hamburg pop band Tüdelband or the television presenter Wiebke Colmorgen, who together with musician Meike Schrader, wrote an anthem to her city of Hamburg in Plattdeutsch and now aims to inspire children for Plattdeutsch. Even the NDR TV presenter and singer Ina Müller, well known in Germany, has already been on tour with a series of readings in Plattdeutsch.
The most important cultural strongholds for Plattdeutsch, however, are the two special theatres, the Ohnesorg theatre in Hamburg and the Fritz Reuter Theater in Schwerin that perform in Plattdeutsch. “The special thing about ‘Platt’ is the sound,” says Rolf Petersen, director of the Reuter Theatre, who has been performing in “Platt” since he was 14 years old. “It has a melody like music.” As these days there are hardly any plays written in “Platt”, the Reuter Theatre uses plays from the standard German repertoire. They are then simply translated into Mecklenburger “Platt”.
“Platt” is alive and kickingPetersen's favourite word in “Platt” is Schietbüdel – literally translated it means shit bag, that is, a diaper, but is used as a pet name for toddlers. A very figurative expression – as is so often the case in Plattdeutsch. Also many “Platt” derogatory expressions, however, have made it into everyday colloquial German: Döspaddel (blockhead), Klookschieter (smart-ass) and Trantüte (slow coach) are still understood by Germans, even if they do not come from Northern Germany.
Wiebke Colmorgen talks PlattdeutschWat mutt dat mutt (wörtlich: was muss, das muss; im übertragenen Sinne: Da führt kein Weg dran vorbei)
What must be done, must be done
Na, mien lütt Schietbüdel (Na, mein kleiner Schatz/Liebling)
Hey, my little darling
Du büst aver uk'n Döösbaddel (Du bist aber auch ein Dummkopf/Trottel)
You are such an idiot