The Story of Low German/Plautdietsch, Reuben Epp

The story of Reuben Epp’s interest in languages began in Sask. in an elementary school. He was the only German child in this class, the others were all English. They were required to translate a portion of literature by Geoffrey Chauser from Middle English into present-day English. He found it easier than his classmates.

Some words were similar to his mother tongue-(LG)Low German. This made him curious why so many words were the same in both languages and he determined to find out one day. He became a teacher and his hobby became to explore the origins of the LG and English languages.

Today over 7 million people of the world speak LG or Plattdeutsch. Hans Werner an editor of ‘Preservings’ has visited many LG speaking people in Siberia, Mexico, Bolivia and Belize who speak Low German and he says that children from each mentioned country would be able to play and talk together.

It is a language without borders, no grammar or assignments. Most of the information of this language is in High German and it dates back to AD 500.

In those early years there was a real mix of languages, Low Saxon, Low Franconian, Flemish/Dutch, Low German in the northern area of Europe. It seems that people moved and formed communities, speaking the same language. For many years LG was a dialect, then it became a written language.

It was best known in the northern part of Europe. The Old/ Low Saxon moved more to the north west and the Old/Low German to the north east. Then by the 9th century LG dominated northern Europe and became a written language. The Old Saxon went more to the north east Anglo Saxon, England.

Most of the northern Europe dialects had similarities, the LG gained popularity in the 12th -16th centuries were widely used. When the Hanseatic league began all transactions were done in LG. This was a business and commerce league where trade was done not between countries but between cities who had access to the North Sea and Baltic Sea. About 70-77 cities were involved.

There were head offices in various cities but the business language was LG because Lubeck, a LG city had the head office of the Hanseatic League. And as a result, the LG became the language of law, religion and most businesses.

As time went on disaster hit the Hanseatic League. Business was conducted in more modern ways and the league collapsed and the LG language popularity went with it. The High German developed quickly in schools of higher learning.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439 many things changed. When Martin Luther left the Roman Catholic Priesthood and nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 because he said “Sins cannot be forgiven by indulgences but by grace are we saved through faith.”   That changed many things and the reformation had begun. Later he translated the Bible from Latin to High German. He questioned whether he should translate it to LG or High German. He chose High German and now LG language became ever lower. Now the High German language developed quickly in schools of higher learning.

Another Roman Catholic priest Menno Simons, from Holland also left the priesthood and said there were more things that need to change. (1 baptism should be upon confession of your faith,(2 People should not go to war,(3 church and state should separate. Many people agreed with Menno Simons and they were severally persecuted.

They found refuge in Prussia where they were allowed to live their faith. They brought with them Dutch/LG and found that the Prussian people spoke LG. This is where these ‘Mennonites’ lived for 200 years and they spoke LG in the home, High German was taught in school and spoken in church. All children were to be in school,including girls, because they were to be able to read the Bible to their children.

When Russia needed settlers in 1788, most of the Mennonites moved to Russia. Again, they made sure that they would keep their freedom of faith and language a ‘Privilegium’. So, their life style was the same as in Prussia. This is where the Platdeutch (Dialect of LG) became more popular.

This became the practice where ever Mennonites moved be it Russia, North America, Central and South America. So even if LG was not a written language it spread all over the world. This is how it still was when I grew up here in NB.

I do not remember learning English because my mother always read English stories to us, so I could understand and speak it, but the reading I learned in school. In those days we would speak English as much as possible and LG was frowned upon as a lower language. We were not allowed to speak LG at school and if we did we were ridiculed.

We have visited Mennonites in Bolivia, Paraguay. Belize, Mexico. They still speak LG in the home, High German in school and church. There is no link between the LG and the Mennonite faith. When Mennonites moved from country to country, they were large in number and brought with them large communities. There are more Mennonites that know nothing about LG than those who do.

Today it is a written language again, it is respected because the English came out of it. When you look at the hand out (just a sampling) you will quickly see how closely the LG and English are linked. In the late 1700’s

The Dutch, Low Saxon, Low German were such a mush that the writings of Menno Simons had a flavouring of most of them in his writings, but the Dutch and LG were prevailed. Everyone did what seemed right in his own eyes at the time.

In the 1800’s the Mennonites in Russia saw the writing on the wall, that their freedoms were being threatened. Canadians needed settlers for the vast prairies and the freedoms were promised to them. So shortly after MB became a province, negotiations began. The First delegation of settlers arrived in MB in 1874. Again, they insisted on German in school and church and they spoke LG at home.

The government granted them their freedoms the Privilegium as they had it in Russia. The Mennonites were used to living in villages and requested this kind of settlement in Canada. Each settler was to live on his own land(1/4section). The government passed a bill that the Mennonites could settle in villages. So, they could keep their own way of life. Each village had a school, a church just as they were used to.

In the 1920’s when schools became district schools many feared they would lose their freedom’s and moved to Mexico. So, the story of LG goes on from country to country. (Written by Rose Hildebrand)