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High and low German

I understand that "High German" and "Low German" were both common dialects during 19th century immigration but that High German is primarily used today, at least in business. Why is this, in particular? I am also wondering if Low German is still used to any great extent perhaps among those in certain areas of Germany yet (northern Germany more likely). I also wonder how much different these dialects are, and if there would be problems understanding among those of one dialect hearing the other dialect? Thanks in advance to anyone who is "in the know" about this subject!

August 11, 2017



There is some conflation of words here. The German dialect continuum splits into three major groups known as Low, Central and High (or Upper) German (probably simply due to the elevation of the regions where they are spoken). However, since the Standard German spoken in Germany is mainly based on High/Upper German dialects, it is also known as "High German". Still, these are two different things.

The reason for Standard German becoming, well, standard, is simply that across dialect groups mutual intelligibility is not entirely assured. To give you an example, I have had difficulties understanding a person from only about 150km south of where I grew up, because there is a major dialect border in-between. More recently, I was listening to a conversation of two people behind me in a line. It took me minutes to even figure out that they were speaking German. When I asked, it turned out that they were from Bern. I was not able to understand what their conversation had been about. However, with me speaking Standard German and them speaking Standard Swiss German, we were able to communicate. Within groups, you may find some differences, but you can usually understand each other. For example, I don't have too many problems with the dialects spoken even 400-500km east of my home, because there's no major dialect border there. We might have misunderstandings, but they will be more on the trousers vs. pants level.

Several Low German dialects are threatened, probably because they are among the dialects that are least related to Standard German. Some of them are occasionally even refered to as a different language (Plattdeutsch, for example). There are supposedly still a few million speakers, probably most of them in the country side and with a tendency to be older. Most younger speakers are probably "bilingual" (i.e. also able to speak Standard German).

If the subject interests you, here is some more info: The consonant shift that separates out the major groups: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_consonant_shift
A project mapping usage of different words (in German): http://www.atlas-alltagssprache.de/


Thank you for your reply, E.T. Gregor, as well as Gatiquo and Deodwyn! All of you have been helpful.

My question came from this: I am a retiree who is looking into our family history (so we don't lose it), and I am aware that both sides of my family who came from Prussia and from Hannover in the mid 1800's spoke Low German. My mother said that, although she did not speak much German herself, she heard it spoken at home by her grandfather who had come to the US as a small boy and had grown up with it, and she could understand most of what was said by him.

But then she lived with another family while attending high school (a farm girl, she lived too far out in the country to commute in those days) and she was mystified by what the other family was praying before meals. She finally realized that they were praying the Lord's Prayer in High German. Although she was familiar with the prayer in Low German, it took her some time to recognize it in the other dialect.

Since I am far removed from that period of time in our family, you and the others have helped me to understand a bit more -- thank you again!


WARNING: wall of text ahead

Het iemand t over t Nedersaksies (of dat Platduuts uut Duutslaand)? Nao, das iezig!

Disclaimer beforehand: I am neither a historican, nor a linguist and I cannot guarantee the absolute truth of my statements. Still, I am 'in the know about the subject' (I do rather like Low Saxon) and I hope this gives you some information, for more information, I recommend doing some research of yourself.

Note: Low German and Low Saxon both refer to what is more or less the same language. Low German (Plattdeutsch, Plattdüüts) refers to the varieties spoken in Germany and Low Saxon (Nedersaksisch/Nedersaksies) to those spoken in the Netherlands. This language did not in fact 'split' from any older form lof High German, but rather from Old Saxon; a language relatively close to Old Franconian (ancestor of Dutch). So close in fact, that linguists used to confuse them with one another. SO: Low German is not a dialct but rather a sperate language. Don't worry, it is a common mistake to make, the term 'Low German' is a rather confusion-inducing one.

"I understand that "High German" and "Low German" were both common dialects during 19th century immigration but that High German is primarily used today, at least in business. Why is this, in particular?"

Alright, this may get a bit long as the history of Low German/Low Saxon (I will just use 'Saxon' to refer to both for ease) is quite interesting and it will take some time to get from the time where it was used as lingua franca, to the 21st century where usage is diminishing year by year as more and more speakers die without passing on the language. Just know that some parts of the history will be about what happened in the Netherlands, not in Germany but it could very well have happend similarly. Ich bin nicht Deutsch, ik ben Nederlands.

About Middle Low German (in Dutch Low Saxon - West-Veluws)

Disse taal was de haandelstaal van de Hanze. t Middelnedersaksies is deur de Hanzekoopluui in t hele Noord- en Oostzeegebied verspreid eraakt en was daor de belangriekste taal. n Bulte Middelnedersaksiese woorden bin daordeur in de Noord-Germaanse talen (Skandinaviese talen) terechtekeumen. Toe de 16e eeuw tot n einde kwam, was de tied van de Hanze grotendeels veurbie. Luui die n betere opleiding hadden praotten in Nederlaand Standardnederlaands en in Duutslaand Hoogduuts. Tenminsten, bie t zakendoon was dat wel zo, thuus praotten ze nog Nedersaksies

Basically: there once was a trading league: the Hanseatic trading league to be precise. They were pretty influential back in the day and used Middle Low Gemran as their lingua franca. Theyt traded mostly around Northern-Europa (and parts of Western) and thanks to this trading, their language spread across their trading routes. Thanks to this, the North-Germanic languages as well as the Baltic and Finnish(!) and Estonian contain many loanwords from Middle Low German. However, like any company (or empire for that matter) at some point, the trading league lost its influence and with that: the language (Middle Low German) lost much of its influence as well. In fact, one could compare this situation to how the staus of the French language diminished and made way for English. The traders, the businessmen and all the important educated people just stopped using the once powerful Middle Low German language and simply did their business in their own languages. The language did not disappear. It may have lost its importance, but it still had many speakers across quite a large area (most certainly spanning Northern Germany, the Eastern Netherlands and some parts of Southern Denmark.

Now, let's skip a couple of centuries: so, we have arrived in the late 19th/early 20th century; a time of industrialisation and the emergency of technology as well as educational reforms and later on: mass-media. So, at this point in history, many people in the originally Saxon-speaking parts, still spoke Saxon in their everyday life and had very little reason to learn either High (standard) German or Dutch unless they wanted to get into higher education or some other 'higher trade'. Generally most people were born in a certain place and stayed there or somewhere else in that region for their whole life; no reason to mix with people from another town or province. However, with the industrialisation came increased mobility. People increasingly started travelling and living further away from their hometown esspecially people from the countryside, who came to the big cities to get a job working at a factory for example. This massive mobility, this movement of people, brought some chances in the 'socio-linguistic make-up'. City people saw countryside-people as, well, country bumpkins and their language, their way of speaking, as uncivillized and 'farmer-ish'; inferior. A belief became widespread in the 20th century that speaking plat/dialect (AKA: regional language) to your children at home would make them bad at Dutch, which was basically a death-sentence for a decent future. This belief led to many people (especially in the countryside) to speak (or attempt to) the standard language (often badly) instead of the regional language (like Saxon for example) to increase the likelyhood of their children getting a good future. Sadly enough, this proved very bad for the regional languages: thanks to this belief the children did not speak Saxon and often not even Dutch! No, what many spoke was a hybrid of Saxon and Dutch, a result of not properly learning either. I suppose something similar happened in Germany: a de-valuation of the Saxon language which made people not want to raise their children in Saxon, seeing the language as 'bad for business', choosing instead to raise them in High German to increase their future prospects.

Now thanks to the mass-media and the dominant media language in Germany being German and in the Netherlands being Dutch, little oppurtunity is given to properly learn the language from exposure (seeing as how many people who speak it still refuse to do so, especially when raising children) and the language still has very little satus and is still viewed more or less the same as in the 20th century. It is a rather nasty situation.

Well, that is just the first question. Time for the second:

"I am also wondering if Low German is still used to any great extent perhaps among those in certain areas of Germany yet (northern Germany more likely). I also wonder how much different these dialects are, and if there would be problems understanding among those of one dialect hearing the other dialect?"

Saxon is still used in Eastern Netherlands (to be precise: the provinces of Groningen, Drenthe, Overijssel and parts of Gelderland) as well as in Northern Germany. Unfortunately my knowledge on the German varieties is rather lacking.

The differences between dialects can be pretty great. In many cases even the grammar differs per dialect. A good example of this could be Veluws (a Dutch variety spoken on the Veluwe, a region in the Dutch province of Gelderland): I will not go in many details here seeing as the differences are often very, very regional (can even differ depending on the village, which is quite common across all varieties). But an example could be the ge- and -e as 'prefix' for the gerund. Example: the word 'has/have eaten' In Oost-Veluws - like in Dutch and German - it begins with -ge 'gegeten, like in Dutch although the -en ending sounds more like -n (gegetn)' compare with the German 'gegessen'. In West-Veluws however, this -ge prefix changes into an e-, 'egeten'. The -en ending is often pronounced like -e in this subgroup, but not always. Differences in verb and pronoun usage are also quite common. Yet another example: (this one taken from the 'Veluwse taalwiezer' on the Dutch Low Saxon wiki (nds-nl if you want the code)

Sentence used: "we work"

Zo zegen ze in t West-Veluws bv. wulen warken (Nunspeet) of wulie warken (Putten, Elspeet) en in t Oost-Veluws wuloe wärkt (Hattem) of wie warkt (Voors)

Thus in West-Veluws they say for example: wulen warken (Nunspeet) or wulie warken (Putten, Elspeet) and in East-Veluws Wuloe wärkt (Hattem) or wie warkt (Voors)

The differences can be pretty big, but generally a speaker of one dialect can understand speakers of another dialect, as long as the geopraphical distance between the dialects is not too great.

Generally, as a speaker of a dialect relatively close to Dutch, I can understand most varieties of Saxon within the Netherlands pretty well although Gronings (Saxon: Grunnegs) (spoken in the North-Eastern province Groningen) can be pretty hard to understand. When listening to German varieties, I hear quite a heavy German accent which can make it hard to understand.

Congrats if you made it so far! I'm afraid I have the tendency to make walls of text when writing about this subject.


Much appreciated! Thanks!


Mennonites speak Low German, even today. They simply call it German, though. I work in a farm and ranch store in an area with a Mennonite population and sometimes hear them speaking Low German. It is more similar to Dutch than to Standard German. Interestingly, they use the soft-g like Dutch rather than the hard-g like German.

Those dialect zones can make it hard to understand even in English. We occasionally get folks coming through from Louisiana and I almost had to call an interpreter once (she was from East Texas) to understand one particular individual.


Each region has its own dialect, but most Germans can understand each other with the dialects or by using standard German.

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