The variant of German not quite spoken in Germany now

When people talk about High and Low German, one might think that High German refers to the variant spoken in the northern parts of Germany, while Low German refers to the variant spoken in the southern parts. But as geography suggests, this is not the case. Low German is used to refer to the German variant spoken in the low-lying parts of the country close to the sea (hence Low), while High German refers to that spoken nearer to the Alps mountain range (hence High).

However, within these variants of Low German, there is one that is not quite spoken in Germany today. It is primarily spoken by Russian Mennonites, mostly in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, and even as far north as Mexico, as well as in the provinces of Manitoba, Sasketchewan, and Ontario in Canada. What is this language though?

This is Plautdietsch, or Mennonite Low German. Translated literally as “flat / low German”, Plautdietsch was once a Low Prussian dialect of East Low German which received Dutch influences since the 16th and 17th centuries, originating in the Vistula delta area of what once was Royal Prussia, or what is today Poland. This, however, should not be confused with Plattdeutsch, also known as Low Saxon or Low German, a language variety spoken in the northern states of Germany and parts of the Netherlands, by around 4-7 million speakers.

Plautdietsch today is further split into two dialects, along the lines of Chortitza Colony and Molotschna, tracing their origins back to what is now Ukraine. So yes, a tongue referred to as a ‘language’ started off as a dialect of a variant of a language, which later became split into multiple dialects over time. Interesting.

So how did this mess begin? How did this so-called “offshoot” of the German language turned out to be quite entirely exclusively spoken outside of Germany?

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed the word “Mennonite” mentioned a couple of times. It turns out that the Mennonites are members of certain Christian groups who were persecuted in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium in the 16th century. Fleeing from countries like these, they eventually resettled in the Vistula river delta in Poland. Bringing with them Dutch, West Frisian, and Dutch Low Saxon dialects together with some East Low German dialects, by the time the Mennonites began migration to the Russian Empire in the 18th century, their spoken dialect presented little mixing, featuring dialects of the region, with very few Dutch influence.

However, as the Russian Empire expanded into the North of the Black Sea following the Russo-Turkish wars, various people groups were invited from the Kingdom of Prussia, including the Mennonites, to create new colonies in those newly acquired areas. This included what is today countries like Ukraine. It was not until the mid-late 19th century when some Mennonites migrated from the Russian Empire into the United States and Canada, and from there, in the 20th century, they migrated into the South American countries.

Today Plautdietsch is still primarily a spoken language, and has no official written orthography. There have been some attempts to make one though, but this undoubtedly presented some challenges. This included the variation in pronunciation of certain vowels, consonants, phonemes, or words in the different speech communities, as well as the rather cosmopolitan spread of its speech communities today, across the Americas, Europe and parts of Asia (like Kazakhstan and the Asian parts of Russia).

Nevertheless, this has not stopped attempts of written Plautdietsch from appearing, such as the Bible used by the Mennonites. With over 450,000 speakers as of 2007, it appears that the global Plautdietsch speech communities are still pretty much alive and well, even though younger Canadian and American Mennonites primarily use English today. There is plenty to dive into about the Plautdietsch language, but here, its geographical spread and history is perhaps a couple of the most interesting features of the language. This is the variant of German spoken almost certainly not spoken in Germany today.

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