Low German Language in German Research

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Some people become somewhat incensed when they are told that their ancestors spoke ‘Low German.’ Their response is something like “My ancestors were good people/nobility (or some such thing) and would have spoken good German.” Well, ‘Low German’ is good German; it is just a different language. Unfortunately, this language has the word ‘German’ in its name. Perhaps it would be looked upon more favorably if it had a totally different name, one that reflected its long and noble heritage. But, alas, in English at least, this language must live in the shadow of its more powerful neighbor, Standard (High) German.

Low German is spoken in the north, or 'low' lands, of Germany. Two thousand years ago, there were many Germanic dialects, including Bavarian, Alemannic, Frankish, and Saxon. It is from Saxon that Low German developed. About 1500 years ago, a series of sound changes occurred which started in the southern part of the Germanic-speaking region and slowly spread northward. Various dialect features stopped at different places. These features are still with us today and are the main criteria for delineating modern German dialects. Low German is set off from the High (from the ‘highlands’ of the German-speaking region) and Middle German dialects by not having participated in any of the sound changes. Therefore, it is a very conservative language in many respects. Its consonants sound more like those of English than to those of High German. Low German also looks and sounds very much like its sister language, Dutch.

But what does this have to do with German genealogy? Well, the researcher might come across documents that have Low German features. Most commonly, it will be only names that are Low German, as most areas in Germany switched to High German for official purposes by 1600. Names, such as Schoonmaker, ten Brink, Barkhofen, op de Weeg, Willems and many others betray their Low German origin. If you see one of these surnames, you should believe that the family that carries the name is, or at least had ancestors, from northern Germany. But, because people are now so mobile and move for various reasons, a name itself cannot tell you where a living person is from. However, the form of the name can give you a clue about the origin of an ancestor.

Researchers will probably encounter Low German names when researching in northern Germany. But will they encounter the Low German language itself? Since most official switched to High German so early and there are not many records from before the switch that are of interest to the genealogist, the answer is probably no. However, once in a while, a researcher will encounter a Low German document. What to do? How hard will it be to decipher and translate the document? These questions can be answered very simply. The difficulty in reading the document depends more on the handwriting than the language. If you can read German or Dutch, you will have no trouble reading Low German. In fact, sometimes it is difficult, even impossible to tell whether a text is in Dutch or Low German.

Here are a few entries from the church book in Wirdum, which is in the very northwestern corner of Germany, very near the North Sea and The Netherlands.

Anno 1657
Rebecca Arnold Joh: Schoolmeisters Dochter, Hemke Jacobß d: Vaddersche d. 25. October.

Here we see the Dutch (and English!)-looking School-, where German would have Schul-. Dochter looks Dutch, too, as does Vaddersche.

Haitet, Joahn Meteß Sohn, syn Suster Vaddersche. D. 20. Sept.

Although it is sometimes impossible to tell whether a text is Dutch or Low German, there are often clues to tell the reader which language it is. First, this parish is in Germany, which lends support to the idea that the language is Low German. But that is not a determining factor. In this entry we see the word Sohn, which is German. In Dutch, we would expect zoon. Syn is not typical of Standard German and neither is suster. Both are Low German.

Anno 1659
Anneke, Cornelließ Willemß dochter, Hilke Pieter Meuleß
     Vrouwe Vaddersche, op Aland gedoopt d. 27. Febrüa:

Here we see Vrouwe, which looks very Dutch, as opposed to German Frau. Vrouwe and Vaddersche display the typical Dutch and Low German initial V for the ‘F’ sound. German has both V and F. Op is a Dutch and Low German word for Standard German auf. Finally, we see gedoopt, where Standard German would have getauft. This is also exactly the same as in Dutch.

These few entries show that Low German was in use in the parish registry in the middle of the 17th century in the German town Wirdum. Although there are other entries which contain more Low German words, such as gestorven, these three illustrate that a researcher with German or Dutch skill will have no trouble reading Low German.

For a more detailed explanation of the sound changes and how they relate to surnames, see this WIKI article: The Dialect Basis of Spelling Variation in German Surnames

or, click here for an article on Languages in the Lower Rhine Area of Germany
or here for Spellings Variants in the Northern Rheinland.
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