High German, Low German, English German?

I’ve been reading a lot of German recently, including modern works, not-so-modern (Tomas Mann, Theodore Storm), and Medieval, specifically Middle-Low-German. The contrasts are interesting, especially once I realized how easy it is to read Middle-Low-German… as long as I read it aloud.

Those of you who have read Chaucer and some Middle English are probably blinking at me, because the gap between modern English and Middle English is rather wide. Shouldn’t the gap between Middle-Low-German and modern German be similar? Well, sort if, ish, unless you speak English pretty well. First, to sort out something at baffled me for far longer than it should have.

High Germany is to the south.

High is not the top of the map, in this case. Nor is it related to topography, although you could make an argument for it, indirectly. Think how the rivers in Northern Europe flow: from south to north. Upper Germany is upstream. Lower Germany is downstream. Thus Saxony is south of Lower Saxony. And the High German dialects are spoken south, or upstream, of Low German. My accent and closest dialect are Bavarian-Austrian, in case anyone was curious.

If you go back in the history of English to when the Germanic part moved into the British Isles, you may recall something about Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, with the occasional Viking just for excitement. Those Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from what would become the Low German and Friesian language areas. Low German, when written, looks a bit like Dutch, and there was a lot of cross-fertilization because the area from the mouths of the Rhine to Jutland (the Denmark Peninsula) was settled partly by Dutch speakers who moved into the region by invitation to drain the low, marshy ground. This is the flat part of Germany. And by flat, I mean flaaaaaaaat. Netherlands flat. Stand-on-a-can and see the Ural Mountains flat. The Low German dialect spoken the most in the US is Plattdeutsch, sometimes written as Plaat. Which sounds like “flat.”

Because of the constant trade and migrations around the North Sea, Low German, Dutch, and English remained relatively close for quite a while. They came from close roots, and especially when reading Dutch and Middle Low German, I can see and hear the links. The spoken versions are far more different, because the pronunciations have shifted over the years. Dutch is guttural where English is not so much anymore, and Dutch grammar has a few moments that make German grammar appear well-organized and absolutely, well, Germanic in its strict adherence to the rules.*

So there I was, reading along in a big book about the Hanseatic League, and coming across Low German quotations. And not having too much trouble reading it, once I sounded it out. For example: “Item so schal nen mester edder knecht des hilgen daghs arbeyden, by eme halven pund weddes.”**

In modern German, more or less: Es sei den ein Pfund Straffgeld bezalen, kein Meister oder Dienstman werden am Sontag arbeiten.

In English: Nor shall any master or servant work on a Sunday, under penalty of half a pound.** Literally, the translation would be “Also so shall nay master or knave of the holy day to work, by him [a] half pound fine.”

The word order is closer to English, the nouns are not too far away either – daghs [pronounced “dahgs”] looks more like “days” but sounds closer to modern German “Tag,” pound vs. pund vs. pfund. Halv is close to half, as opposed to modern German “halb.”

If I sound it out, between my English and German, I can get about 2/3 of the meanings of most of the Low German quotations in the book. The feeling is like having a secret, magical key that unlocks an old, mysterious but fascinating door or treasure chest. Yes, I’m one of those Odd people who enjoys learning the histories of languages, who has fun tracing the roots of words waaaay back into the misty past and who delights in finding shared meanings and histories of new words.


*German grammar still has not been completely codified or understood.

**From Johannes Schildhauer, The Hansa: History and Culture (Dorset Press, 1988) Translated by Katherine Vanovitch. A really neat book, great pictures, but in spots you can tell it was written in East Germany.


8 thoughts on “High German, Low German, English German?

  1. Afrikaans, also known as “Kitchen Dutch”, the languge of the Afrikaner in South Africa, is descended from 16th-century Dutch, and has remained much closer to the German of that period than modern Dutch. As a result, understanding Afrikaans, I can get by with modern Dutch, Flemish, and (to a certain extent) low German.

    The rules of grammar in Afrikaans are also a bit fiendish, related to centuries-old German and Dutch rules. For example, a famous (and true) place name in South Africa (until a bureaucrat changed it) related to a spring (“fontein”) at which a passing hunter shot dead two Cape buffalo with a single shot from his rifle. The spring was promptly christened (yes, in one word, according to ancient usage) “Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein” (literally, “Two buffalo with one shot stone dead shot spring”).


    • Afrikaans sounds almost English, like you should be able to understand it, but it just doesn’t make any sense. I had a friend from over there, and she sounded like you should be able to understand her when she was talking to home, but while your mind would translate words into English, they just don’t make any sense.

      Or listen to some music sung in Afrikaans, and you find yourself singing along and translating about half the words to meaningless English gibberish.

      • Eh, between a little dutch and a little german, and some training in medieval english well over a decade ago, spoken Afrikaans is almost-understandable to me. Not actually actually understable, except the occasional words I’ve been picking up, but I get the sense that with more vocabulary, I could get it. But written Afrikaans is complete gibberish, since my brains has a hard time with translating those letters to that-pronunciations (not unlike reading Russian.)

      • German isn’t immune from that, either: when I was a little younger and in dancing condition, there was a song in the goth clubs that came over from Germany generally known as “Death sold light beer.”

        It was actually Faderhead’s TZVD, “Tanz zwo drei vier” (dance two three four). But once you heard Death sold light beer, it’s really, really hard to hear the actual words.

    • What little Afrikaans I’ve found, I sort of pick up meanings, mostly for nouns. And for bad words. Pretty much all the bad words. *sigh*

  2. I speak one language – American. I lack the ear to pick up more than a few words of any other language. So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that I almost understood Wagnerian Opera.

  3. What’s wrong with the bad words??? You CAN communicate using them… LOL Thanks for the lesson, I didn’t realize there was that much difference.

    • Well, on occasion one does need to have a wee bit more vocabulary than “you blanking blank blank go blank a blank blank.” On occasion. πŸ™‚

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