Niederdeutsch in Ostfriesland

Niederdeutsch in Ostfriesland: Zwischen Sprachkontakt, Sprachveränderung und Sprachwechsel. By Gertrud Reershemius. (Zeitschrift für Dialektologie und Linguistic Beiheft 119.) Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2004. Pp. 200. ISBN 9783515085717. $64 (Hb).

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

This slim volume examines the status of Low German in Ostfriesland, a small peninsula in the extreme northwestern part of Germany, on the border with the Netherlands. Ostfriesland is an especially appropriate area to investigate Low German, since it is part of the central Low German-speaking area and Low German is (still) generally quite well established there.

The first chapter, ‘Einleitung’ (13–17), briefly sets the stage for the rest of the work with an abbreviated overview of work on Low German and an outline of the remainder of the book. The next chapter, ‘Historischer sprachkontakt: Friesisches Substrat und der Einfluss von Niederländisch und Standarddeutsch’ (18–33), focuses on the historical situation. The first language shift in this area, namely from Frisian to Low German, is discussed, as is the impact of language contact with Dutch. The later shift from Low German to Standard German and recent changes in Low German are also reviewed. The chapter closes with a description of the social and linguistic situation in the village of Campen, where the data were collected.

The third chapter, ‘Ostfriesisches Niederdeutsch—Beschreibung der im Untersuchungsraum gesprochenen Varietät’ (34–86), provides a grammar of the variety spoken in the area investigated, based on an extensive collection of data gathered between 1998 and 2000. The phonology is described first (relevant historical developments, e.g. the development of the consonantal system from Old Saxon to Middle Low German and then on to Low German, are also described). The morphology is then treated in detail, and the final section of the chapter focuses on syntax. All of the topics discussed in this chapter are illustrated with copious examples.

Ch. 4, ‘Sprachbewahrung oder Sprachverlust?  Zur Auswertung einer Umfrage in einer diglossischen Dorfgemeinschaft’ (87–97), presents the results of a survey conducted in the village, which was intended to investigate linguistic behavior and language attitudes. Some of the results suggest that Low German is in a strong position, as about 70% of the residents have at least a passive knowledge of Low German, for instance, but closer examination suggests that this view is deceptive, as fewer and fewer residents speak Low German with their children. Thus, it seems that the residents exhibit cultural loyalty, but not necessarily linguistic loyalty.

The next chapter, ‘Bilingualismus und Sprachveränderung’ (98–117), addresses tendencies towards change in various areas of Low German grammar, especially phonology and syntax, and then discusses the use of L2 elements in Low German, for example, as a story-telling device or as an organizational technique. The final thematic chapter of the book, ‘Abschliessende Bemerkungen und Ausblick’ (118–28), looks at topics like the (symbolic) use of Low German elements in Standard German and the connection between Low German and regional identitiy. Reershemius’s conclusion is necessarily somewhat pessimistic: despite the use of Low German as a marker of regional identity, Low German is not being learned by the younger generation, and is therefore in a precarious position. The book concludes with an extensive ‘Anhang’ (129–92), which records the results of a series of interviews with local residents conducted by two elderly native speakers of Low German.

This book is a useful study of Low German.  It is generally well-written and carefully done (barring a few oddities in the phonetic descriptions), and the data collected in the ‘Anhang’ should be particularly useful as a springboard for further studies of the topic.