Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Low German Language, Grandma and Sugar Bread

I understand the unique dialect known as Plautdietsch, otherwise known as Low German. It is my lifelong regret that I cannot speak it. Here is how this came to be.

I knew her in the formative years of my childhood, my father’s mother, Katrina Loewen, my Grandma Unruh. We lived in the prairie town of Hepburn. Grandma and Grandpa lived in town having moved from their farm years earlier. They were now in their seventies. I surprise myself with the clarity of my recollection of that small house. During those years when I was three and four I was at her house a lot. My parents ran a coffee shop on the town’s main street. Inside Grandma’s back door one entered the kitchen which had a large wood burning stove. There was a small pantry on the right in which Grandma kept her jars of preserves, jams and much more. All of this was done during summer months in preparation for the long severe winters. I remember particularly the large Mason jars with white cooked chicken preserved in liquid. In the depth of winter this meat would be baked or roasted and one would never know it had spent so much time swimming in its Mason aquarium.

When I was at her home we talked together. She spoke the Low German dialect that all the townspeople spoke and she required that I speak to her in English. She wanted desperately to learn how to speak the dominant language in Canada long before mandated French/English bilingualism. While I liked anything Grandma Unruh made for me, I was a sucker for home baked bread with butter and white sugar sprinkled on top. She could keep me there for hours. As I fed my sweet tooth I heard and learned Plautdietsch but I never spoke it. Years later when I was twelve and thirteen, Grandma and Grandpa left their Hepburn home to live with us in Ontario. They were in their eighties then and Grandma still did not speak English.

What a privilege to have a second language, even one as uniquely peasant and appealing as Low German. No translation does justice to some of the nuances of this language when telling stories and sharing jokes.

Mennonite communities settled in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada using Low German in their religious services and communities. These people were largely ethnic Germans whose ancestors moved to newly acquired Russian territories in Ukraine before emigrating eventually to the Americas in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The type of Low German spoken in these communities and in the Midwest region of the United States has diverged since emigration. The survival of the language is tenuous in many places and has died out in some places where assimilation has occurred.

If you are interested:
* A Learning to Speak Plautdietsch Site:
* A Low German Grammar is a very helpful site
* Listen to a podcast called plautcast
* Historical Society Site
* Elmer Reimer has produced a Plautdietsch New Testament in both written and spoken form, and both are available on the internet and the Biblegateway site and can be used simultaneously.
* Canada’s only low German radio station

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