One Language, Two Wikipedias: The Saxon Spelling Split

In Wikipedia’s interwiki sidebar, the Nedersaksisch and Plattdüütsch Wikipedias are far apart. Small wonder, there are hundreds of different Wikipedias in other languages. Nothing striking there, right? But few people know that Nedersaksisch and Plattdüütsch are actually one and the same language. How did this come about? The short answer: spelling.

I’ll give it to you straight: writing Low Saxon/Low German is a hot mess. Not in the least because it isn’t centrally governed. And that’s going to be a tough nut to crack if someone actually dares to venture there.

What Language Are We Talking Here?

Ideas of what Low Saxon actually is, and perhaps just as importantly, what isn’t, vary wildly. This language has around 6 million speakers, centred around two neighbouring language areas: one in Germany, and one in the Netherlands. They form a dialect continuum across the border, meaning that dialects change gradually from one village to the next, and they can understand each other to varying degrees. Pockets of speakers can also be found in Denmark, the Baltics, the Ukraine, and all over the Americas, with its most notable speaker community in Brazil.

Every separate dialect region thinks they speak the most perfect Low Saxon. And it should be the model for a standard language, if anyone ever gets round to creating one. Because there isn’t one, yet. Which, to put it mildly, complicates things.

The Low Saxon language area. Note the colour difference between the Dutch (lighter) and German (darker) sides. (Source: Wikipedia)

Internal and External Attitudes

Due to its fringe status and absence from schools, even its speakers generally don’t know much about their own language. Some don’t even know it is a language. Germans often ignore the entire Dutch region, and most German maps for the language only show the German part. Even though Dutch Low Saxon may be regarded as more publicly available, and it has a relatively more prominent position nationally. Around 1.8 Million Dutch Low Saxon speakers on 17 million Dutchmen make for a far bigger percentage than 3,5 million German Low Saxons on 83 Million Germans.

The Dutch Low Saxons are generally more aware of German Low Saxon. But they don’t dare to look beyond the border too often, for fear of discovering that their dialect isn’t all that unique, or turns out to be heavily influenced by Standard Dutch. In fitting culturally imperialistic style, German linguists file the language under German as “dialectal varieties”, while Dutch linguists prefer to call them Eastern Dutch. Many studies don’t even use the official name and simply refer to them as unspecified ‘dialects’. To researchers they are a nuisance, because they have a tendency to contaminate research results in studies of standardised languages.

A Short History of Whatchamacallit

But naming the language properly is a pickle too, as can be seen in the very first sentence of this piece. The Platt in the term Plattdüütsch is believed to refer to either the lower-lying, flat countryside of Northern Germany as opposed to Hochdüütsch (High German) from the more alpine regions. It may also simply mean ‘uneducated, shallow’. The Düütsch part is thought to mean ‘of the people’ or ‘folkish’. Perhaps it is best known in its English form as Dutch, although that usually refers to people from the Netherlands in general. To Low Saxon speakers from the Netherlands, however, Düütsch means ‘from Germany’. Which they aren’t. So they usually just call it ‘plat’, although any non-standard variety of Dutch can be called plat as well.

Coined somewhere in the 19th or 20th century by Dutch scholars, the term Low Saxon points towards its origins in Old Saxon. This language is best known for a body of texts dating from around the 9th century, and for its contribution to the language that you’re reading here. After a few centuries of development, Old Saxon had changed so much, it deserved a new name. Historical linguists decided to ditch the Saxon bit, and call it Middle Low German instead, for reasons unknown. Middle Low Saxon, then, became the Northern European lingua franca of the Late Middle Ages, due to the prominence of the Hanseatic League, a trading network of cities across the North of Germany and the east of the Netherlands. After its Hanse heydays, it gradually disintegrated into separate fringe dialects of very low stature, more and more expelled from public life, and influenced by their respective dachsprachen.

The term Low Saxon, in turn, is problematic for German speakers, because to them, it refers to the German state of Lower Saxony. The name Low(er) Saxon could be interpreted as exclusively referring to the dialects spoken there.

How to Write Low Saxon

The more or less common, written form that took shape during the Hanse has long since been forgotten. Even though it served as a standard as far north as Oslo and Stockholm in Scandinavia. There, Middle Low Saxon was long considered highly prestigious. It had a profound effect on Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, still apparent today. The emergence of national languages and nation states, however, meant the Low Saxon area split up, and took on many national traits on either side, especially in writing.

The biggest distinction today lies in the fact that Low Saxon writing in the Netherlands generally follows Dutch orthography, whereas Germans write it according to Hochdeutsch spelling rules. Both systems don’t really fit, because they simply weren’t designed for Low Saxon. They always leave some ground uncovered, left to the imagination of the writer.

The Easier-to-Learn Dogma

The more self-aware speakers believe that Low Saxon is a separate language and get upset if that fact is denied, yet they want their writing to look as Dutch or German as possible. The irony is lost on them. One often-heard argument is that it will be easier to learn that way. For who?

It is a bit like Manx Gaelic, which follows English spelling, even though that makes it difficult to decipher for speakers of Irish and Scottish Gaelic. And vice versa. It creates an obstacle that isn’t there in spoken form: Manx, Irish and Scottish Gaelic are mutually intelligible, yet the written forms make you believe otherwise. Same goes for Low Saxon.

In the Low Saxon situation, the easier-to-learn dogma assumes a learner has prior knowledge of Dutch or German writing conventions, and puts the language in a subjugated position: we first need many years of Dutch or German writing classes, before we can try our hand at Low Saxon. It makes Low Saxon dependent on Dutch and German education, and therefore inaccessible to learners from abroad.

Mangled and Maimed to Mimic

Dutch Low Saxon writing generally looks like a semi-phonetic, mangled version of Standard Dutch, with loads of double and even triple vowels and diacritics. German Low Saxon writing conveniently glosses over important grammatical and morphological characteristics, because High German doesn’t address those either, and they use noun capitalisation as well as double consonants.

Of course, there’s been a million attempts to standardise the writing in the past. But they were usually designed for one dialect only and based on local pronunciation, without regard for the bigger picture. And as there are hundreds of local pronunciations, you can imagine the chaos that ensued. You can start a tribal war by bringing speakers of different regions together and asking them how a vowel like the one in the English word ‘law’ should be written.

Sassy Saxon

One school of thought the Germans love is the Sass’sche Schriefwies’ (Sass’s Writing Form), named after the guy who devised it. It copies High German spelling rules, with stuff like double consonants and noun capitalisation. It works, more or less, but mostly for speakers of Northern Low Saxon. Speakers of other dialects, such as Westphalian (not to mention Dutch speakers) feel left out.

The Netherlands has about six to eight different Low Saxon dialect groups, all with their own (Dutch-based) semi-phonetic writing systems, full of double vowels and diacritics. But since these aren’t centrally taught in schools, anyone who has an interest at all really just messes around and does ‘what feels natural’.

Cultural vs. Institutional Views

To date, Low Saxon writing is still mostly a free-for-all fringe hobby, reserved for elderly people longing for the good old days. They often write stories full of old words to preserve traditions in a semi-phonetic spelling, rather than use it as a full-fledged, modern vehicle for knowledge transfer on current affairs. In other words, people mostly write Low Saxon to show their own pronunciation and knowledge of the language itself. Not per se for getting knowledge across as unambiguously as possible. Writing it has become the main goal. Not a means to achieve something else. Low Saxon has hundreds of poets and short story writers. But it is deafeningly absent as a public, institutional language. There are plenty of Low Saxon language course books, but no Low Saxon books on business and economics education, for example.

‘Write It Like You Say It’

One thing you’ll often hear on both sides is ‘you should write it like you say it’. But if you only have the national language’s writing system as a frame of reference, that’s a recipe for disaster. Especially when your audience shifts from just family and friends within your close dialect circle to people who’ve been instructed in writing a completely different national language. Which happens on Wikipedia.

As a result, Germans have a hard time deciphering Dutch-based Low Saxon, because they don’t know Standard Dutch. Let alone the wild machinations led by local logic. Conversely, Dutch readers usually do speak and read some High German. But to them, German is a foreign language, and a far cry from the Low Saxon they speak at home.

The Free Encyclopedia?

Now, over to Wikipedia. Starting as early as 2003, the Plattdüütsch Wikipedia instated the rule that all contributions should be written in the Sass’sche Schriefwies’. But as we have seen, writing Low Saxon in German orthography is highly counterintuitive for Dutch speakers. And vice versa. That of course didn’t stop the Dutch from trying, at first. Yet the German moderators had never seen Dutch-based Low Saxon writing before. Instead of asking what this all meant, they simply deleted anything that didn’t follow Sass. Even other regionally accepted spellings from Germany got barred. Of course, you have to draw the line somewhere. but if you claim to represent a language as a whole, you should let in other commonly accepted forms as well.

So, in 2006, after a good old bout of digital bickering, one Dutch contributor turned to Wikimedia’s proposal page for new languages. Things got approved, and now there are two Wikipedias for one language, writing on the same subjects, only in a different spelling. To make things worse, it served as a signal for others to start requesting separate Westphalian and East-Frisian Wikipedias as well. All because people cannot agree on spelling. The last two were rejected, by the way.

The younger Dutch Low Saxon Wikipedia generally urges all users to at least try to follow their local dialect’s semi-official writing guidelines. To specify in what dialect it is written, writers can add a dialect banner at the bottom. It works fairly well, and all dialects and their spellings are treated as equals. One downside is that things like templates, categories, and other system codes get translated into at least eight different varieties, going against the whole idea of a template. Another disadvantage is that any article must have about eight different redirect pages in all the regional spellings of the lemma. It also makes it harder to help each other and correct pages across dialects.

United Saxons: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

This may seem like a hopeless situation. Yet, in 2018, a young group of Non-Sass Germans and Dutch Wikipedians teamed up for two years to create the first all-encompassing spelling for Low Saxon. The resulting Nysassiske Skryvwyse (New Saxon Spelling) is based on the Algemeyne Schryvwyse (Common Spelling), an unfinished project by German-Australian-American linguist Reinhard Franz Hahn, who suddenly stopped working on the project before it was finished.

The New Saxon Spelling theoretically works for everyone, because it is based on etymology rather than pronunciation. It goes back to those Old Saxon and Hanseatic origins, and looks at what linguistic paths have led to all the different dialects today. By working together to find a word form that was most readable and acceptable to both sides, the group was able to design a set of principles that worked across dialects.

In the New Saxon Spelling, everyone more or less writes the same word forms, but anyone can pronounce it the way they’re used to. Writers are still free to use dialect-specific words and grammatical forms typical for their own dialect, but at least they are comprehensible for everyone now. At the start of 2020, the group launched a website detailing the spelling directives. On it, speakers can select their own dialect group, and see how the New Saxon Spelling works for their specific variety.

The New Saxon Spelling makes the language look like itself, rather than a mangled version of Dutch or German. It looks like a united language, across dialects. It opens up a whole world of possibilities, such as creating language-wide teaching materials, a more united online presence, and increased intersaxon exchange.

The new spelling is already in use on the Dutch Low Saxon Wikipedia, next to old forms. The German Low Saxon Wikipedia still holds on to Sass.

Now the hardest part is convincing everyone it is worth implementing.

Plattdüütsch Wikipedia currently has over 82,000 articles, while the Neadersassiske Wikipedia has more than 7,200.

Writer, musician and Low Saxon language activist

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