Wiktionary:About Low German

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Low German/Saxon is a Germanic lect, a dialect continuum spoken in northern Germany, the eastern Netherlands, and numerous places outside central Europe. It has three main forms:

  • (German) Low German, spoken in northern Germany and Brazil
  • Dutch Low Saxon, spoken in the eastern Netherlands
  • Plautdietsch (also called Mennonite Low German), spoken in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere

Low German/Saxon is related to Dutch, to the Frisian languages, to English, and to German. In some cases, Low German expressions are intelligible to English speakers: He was en old Mann is one Low German sentence English-speakers can understand.

On Wiktionary, the variants of Low German spoken in Germany are represented by the code nds-de and are covered by the page Wiktionary:About German Low German.

The variants spoken in the Netherlands are represented by the code nds-nl and covered by Wiktionary:About Dutch Low Saxon.

Plautdietsch is represented by the code pdt and covered by Wiktionary:About Plautdietsch.

What to call Low German/Saxon on Wiktionary[edit]

Low German is the most common name of the dialect continuum, and is the name used on Wiktionary. It is a calque of Plattdeutsch (Plattdütsch (and its forms)) or Niederdeutsch. Platt means "flat" and is interpreted as "relating to the lowlands" or "simple, easy to understand". At the time this name spread (in the Renaissance) plat had the general meaning of "intelligible". nieder, on the other hand, actually means "nether" and relates to the lowlands in contrast to the German highlands, the Alps, Harz mountains, etc. Deutsch (Dütsch (and its forms)) is related to the English word Dutch and the Dutch word Duits, and referred (at the time it spread) to any continental West Germanic language.

Low Saxon is another name often used in English. This name derives from that of the Saxon tribe which spoke Old Saxon, the lect from which Low German evolved. This name (as Nedersaksisch) is the most common name of the language in the Netherlands. However, there is a dialect group called "Low Saxon" spoken in Lower Saxony in Germany, which Low German should not be confused with.

On Wiktionary, the form(s) of Low German spoken in Germany are called Low German, the form(s) spoken in the Netherlands are called Dutch Low Saxon, and the form(s) spoken by Mennonites and others outside central Europe are called Plautdietsch.

Historical stages of the Saxon language[edit]

Low German developed from the language Old Saxon. The earliest predecessors of the language were the West Germanic dialects spoken by the Saxon tribes. Middle Low German has heavily influenced the languages of the Hanseatic League's trading partners: Old/Middle Danish, Swedish, Norwegian.

Key to pronunciation[edit]

About the nature of long vowels[edit]

Both Low German and Middle Low German have two kinds of vowel sounds that are traditionally called 'long', for all vowels but the closed ones (i.e. /uː/, /yː/, /iː/). The first are diphthongs that descend from earlier long vowels, and the second are the same as the equivalent short vowel but pronounced long. These latter ones are called "tonlang" (sound-long) in German. The sound-long vowels are often vowels which were short in Old Saxon but stood in an open syllable, and thus were lengthened by regular sound change.

Some confusion exists about the terminology of these vowels. Traditional grammars do not refer to the diphthongs as such, but call them simply "long vowels", and the speakers of most Low German dialects often think of them in those terms (much as the sound of the English eye is considered a ‘long i’ in traditional English grammar despite its diphthongal character). When speaking of "diphthongisation", especially regarding the dialects of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, an author might refer to a more open version of the diphthong rather than the existence of a diphthong in contrast to a monophthong. For example, someone pronouncing the "long E" as /eɪ/ might refer to /ɛɪ/ and /aɪ/ as "diphthongs" but consider /eɪ/ a "normal E".

The following is not a complete depiction of all sounds in all dialects but is an exemplative overview.

Letter Short Long Soundlong
⟨a⟩ /a/ or /ɒ/ /oɒ/ /aː/ or /ɒː/
⟨e⟩ /ɛ/ /eɪ/ or /ɛɪ/ /ɛː/
⟨o⟩ /ɔ/ /oʊ/ or /ɔʊ/ /ɔː/
⟨ö⟩ (and other spellings) /œ/ /øʏ/ or /œʏ/ /œː/

Some of the sound-long vowels have had special characters in some areas or in the writing of some authors. The most widespread are "ę" for /ɛː/, "æ" for /ɶː/ (and to a much lesser extent for /œː/) and "œ" for /œː/. "Ä" has been used for both /ɛː/ and /ɶː/.

Key to dialectal pronunciation[edit]

In general, the most closed version (on the left) is spoken in the west (e.g. Lower Saxony), while the most open (on the right) versions are from the east, especially rural (not urban) parts of w:Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

e = /ɛɪ/ = /eɪ/~/ɛɪ/~/aɪ/
o = /ɔʊ/ = /oʊ/~/ɔʊ/~/ɒʊ/
ö = /œʏ/ = /øʏ/~/œʏ/~/ɶʏ/; [eɪ] (w:Königsberg, Low Prussian)
ü etc. (long) = /yː/; [iː] (Low Prussian)
ü etc. (short)= [ʏ]; [ɪ] (Low Prussian)
r = /r/ = [r]~[ɾ] (except in syllable coda)
a = /ʌ/ = [a]~[æ]~[ʌ]~[ɒ]

The Merger of monophthongal A and O[edit]

Due to the relative similarity of the sounds of lengthened A and lengthened O, both were used somewhat interchangeably in Middle Low German writing. Later, "A" replaced the letter "O" in the quasi-standard that Middle Low German had developed. This was because, at some point in history, most Low German dialects merged the sound-long A with the sound-long O. Later many merged the long A with the sound-long A as well. Which sound was kept and which was lost was random throughout the dialects. In addition, Low German orthography became more varied and also more randomized in later periods, so that words might be written with either A or O in a region (e.g. apen and open), while not necessarily giving away the pronunciation.

Comparison of Low German and Dutch Low Saxon orthographies[edit]

Some important differences between Dutch-influenced orthography of Dutch Low Saxon and the German-influenced orthography of Low German pertain to the representation of the following:

Issue Netherlands Germany
IPA /z/ z s
IPA /s/ s s, ss, ß
IPA /y/ u ü
IPA /ø/, /œ/ eu ö (rarely æ or œ for /œ/)
vowel length in closed syllables doubled vowel h, doubled vowel, or doubled consonant, or not clearly marked
capitalisation of nouns No Yes
For example, compare Dutch Low Saxon zes (six) and kruus (cross) with German Low German söß/söss (six) and Krüüz/Krüz (cross).
  • Dutch speakers usually use a double vowel (laand) to show the length of a vowel in a closed syllable, German speakers might use a double vowel or an h (wahnen). Both use an e after an i. The difference can be seen in the spellings of the word which means "year", which is pronounced either /jɒːɾ/ or /jɔːɾ/ or with /-ɐ/ instead of /ɾ/: it is written as jaar and joar in Dutch Low Saxon, but as Jahr, Johr, Jaohr, Jaor or some variant thereof in Germany.
  • Influenced by Standard High German, which capitalizes nouns, many Low German authors also capitalize nouns, and capitalized nouns are the norm (lemma form) for Low German. Many Dutch Low Saxon speakers do not capitalize nouns, and uncapitalized nouns are the norm (lemma form) for Dutch Low Saxon.