Eric Hoekstra

Review of "Niederdeutsch in Ostfriesland. Zwischen Sprachkontakt, Sprachveränderung und Sprachwechsel" by Gertrud Reershemius.
(Franz Steiner Verlag 2004, Zeitschrift für Dielektologie und Linguistik Beihefte, 200 pages, 128 text + 72 appendices).

2005, It Beaken 67, 236 - 242.

This book offers a wealth of information from several scientific perspectives (historical, linguistic and sociological) on the Niederdeutsch dialect of Ostfriesland. Contents (translated into English) are presented below:
1. Introduction, 13-17.
2. Language contact in history: Frisian substrate and the influence of Dutch and Standard German, 18-33
3. East-Frisian Niederdeutsch - description of the variety spoken in the area under examination, 34-86.
4. Language retention or language loss? Results of an inquiry in a bilingual village community, 87-97.
5. Bilingualism and language change, 98-117.
6. Concluding remarks and prospects, 118-128.
7. Appendices (transcriptions and an example of the questionnaire / eh), 129-192
8. Bibliography, 193-200.

Chapter 2 presents an overview of the political history of Ostfriesland. It appears that Frisian was spoken in the area up until the 16th century. Then Niederdeutsch became the spoken language, though with a lot of linguistic transfer from Frisian, which now appears as substrate in the dialect. Niederdeutsch also became the written language, together with Dutch. Both of these were replaced with Standard German in the course of time. The present-day dialect as it is spoken is under heavy pressure from Standard German. Frisian is still spoken in Saterland, a couple of (originally geographically isolated) villages in the south-west of the region. The chapter presents an adequate overview, but it surprised me that no mention was made of the dialect of the island of Wangeroog. Wangeroogs Frisian survived until the beginning of the 20th century, and it was described by Ehrentraut (1847) and Siebs (1923). P. Kramer found unpublished material of Ehrentraut, and this was published, together with the published material of 1847, in 1996, see also Versloot (2001).

Chapter 3 presents a linguistic description of the transcriptions which the author made, all in the dialect of the village of Campen, which is situated west by north-west of Emden. The material is straightforwardly described, using the theoretical concepts of traditional grammar. Chapter 4 presents the results of an inquiry investigating speaker attitudes towards Niederdeutsch in the village of Campen. The author notes that the dialect develops into a culture dialect, an object for pastime and leisure, especially for the elderly. Here more information would have been useful, like an indication of the amount of books written in East-Frisian Niederdeutsch, and mention of authors who are noted for their language. Chapter 5 presents some examples illustrating how speaker bilingualism (Niederdeutsch - Standard German) affects Niederdeutsch negatively. Conversely, Niederdeutsch has the effect of giving a phonetic colouring to the Standard German of speakers of Niederdeutsch; sometimes idioms are also affected. The author shows how bilingualism is actively used to colour a story: a Niederdeutsch conversation may contain Standard German phrases for stylistic purposes. A bit naive is the author's assumption that "communicative needs of bilingual speakers form the point of departure for language change" (p.98). At the other extreme, we could quote the cynical truth that a standard language is a dialect with an army. In other words, it is not so much communicative need but rather an internal and automatic act of conformation and subjection which makes people give up their dialect. [note 1] Nor does the theory of communicative need provide further insight into the phenomena at hand. As the book bears a rather low profile on theory (as the grammatical description of the transcriptions makes clear), it is unclear why (notoriously fuzzy) theoretical concepts like "communicative need" must be introduced at all.

I will now go on to critically discuss the grammatical description of Niederdeutsch presented in chapter 3, the book's largest chapter.

Not entirely adequate is the description of the realisation of definiteness in East-Frisian Niederdeutsch (p.46). It is claimed that the definite article can be omitted in the case of generally known institutions like "station" as in "up båånhof" (at the station). Note that this is also the case in English as in "safe routes to school". It is also claimed that the article can be left out in case it is expressed by the adjective, when the combination is "semantisch ein etabliertes Begriffspaar" (semantically a well-established combination), as in "kåel fautn" (cold feet). Note that this is also the case in English, as in "I have cold feet"; indeed this is also the case in German and Dutch. These examples are not well-chosen, nor is the description correct.

What should have been pointed out here is that East-Frisian Niederdeutsch exhibits a very interesting phenomenon, that is found neither in German, nor in Dutch or English. Ostfriesich Niederdeutsch allows the definite determiner to be regularly absent. Consider the following examples (from the transcriptions of Reershemius):

(1a) Dåår zit düwel in
there sit devil in
“The devil is in it.”
(1b) Mälkwågn kuam jSCHWA al um zeäs üür
milk car came PTC already at six o'clock
“The milk car already came at six o'clock.
(1c) Däi dürs nooit in discou
that-one dared never in disco
“He never dared to go into a disco.”
(1d) Rües hät zeächt
Russian has said
“The Russian said.”
(1e) Zou wuln ouk bloss mit rat wäch
so wanted also just with bike away
“So they also wanted just to go away on the bikes.”

Interestingly, East-Frisian Niederdeutsch, in the BRD, borders on the dialect of Groningen, in The Netherlands. The Groningen dialect also exhibits the phenomenon of the frequent absence of the definite article. Ter Laan (1953:35) notes this phenomenon for several of the subdialects (notably the ones with Frisian substrate), and cites the following examples:

(2a) Man het geliek
man is right
“The man is right.”
(2b) Kou staait in slout
cow stands in ditch
“The cow is standing in the ditch.”
(2c) Ik kreeg stòk en sluig hom
I grabbed stick and hit him
Ï grabbed the stick and hit him.”
(2d) Dou deur dicht
close doar down
“Close the door.”
(2e) Kinder wazzen ziek
children were ill
“The children were ill.”

Books written in the dialect confirm Ter Laan's observation. In Diemer's (1953) translation of "The Merchant of Venice", for example, we encounter examples like the following:

(3a) Dou deuren op slöt
do doors on lock)
...(act 2, scene 4)
(3b) Och, moust mit jeud nait langer redenaaiern
Oh, you-should with Jew not longer argue
... (act 4, scene 1).
(3c) Kenst net zo goud op strand stoan goan bie zee
you-can just as well on beach stand go at sea
... (act 4, scene 1).
(3d) En vroagen aan vloud wat minder hoog te komen
and ask of flood to rise less high
... (act 4, scene 1).
(3e) As wie boetendeur dichtdoun achter aine vrijer
if we close outside door behind a pretender
... (act 1, scene 2).

The phenomenon seems to be well-established in both Groningen and Ostfriesland. The facts indicate that the definite article can be omitted in a much wider range of contexts than those mentioned by Reershemius. More generally, the linguistic similarity between East-Frisian Niederdeutsch and the dialect(s) of Groningen might have been noticed. Furthermore, Reershemius'grammatical description of Niederdeutsch might have profited from the research done on the Groningen dialect, and from the research done on Frisian, as these three have various syntactic characteristics in common, some of which Reershemius failed to observe. An example of such a similarity, at least in older East-Frisian Niederdeutsch is the order of verbs in verb clusters consisting of infinitives without 'to', which seems to be strictly head-final in all three, or the absence of the Infinitivus-Pro-Participium (IPP, Ersatzinfinitiv) effect. A similarity shared between Groningen dialects and East-Frisian Niederdeutsch (but not Westerlauwers Frisian) is the extensive and semantically vacuous use of the auxiliary to do.

Somewhat misleading is the discussion of mood in East-Frisian Niederdeutsch. The author claims (p.73) that this language variety distinguishes two moods, indicative and conjunctive (also referred to as subjunctive in some languages). No doubt, the author was misled here by the grammatical description of High German, which does have a mood distinction between conjunctive and indicative. The author claims that there are two different forms of the conjunctive (just as in High German). That is plain nonsense. The text is very vague about the morphological form of these 'conjunctives'. However, investigation of the example sentences makes it clear that conjunctive I is identical to the simple present, and conjunctive II is identical to the simple past. This should have been clearly mentioned by the author. Much clearer, and less misleading, is the description in Lindow et al (1998:68) where it is plainly stated that the conjunctive is formally identical to the indicative. Of course, from that it must be concluded that the conjunctive (or to be more exact: the distinction between conjunctive and indicative) is absent from the grammar of East-Frisian Niederdeutsch, since there is no evidence for it based on the morphological shape of the verb. For the same reason, we also do not talk about dative, ablative or elative case when discussing the noun system of East-Frisian, nor do we talk about the dual form of the pronoun. The absence of the conjunctive is a property which East-Frisian Niederdeutsch shares with English and Dutch. Thus, its absence is not surprising from a dialectgeographical point of view.

With respect to phonology, Reershemius (p.37) does not seem to be completely aware of the rule of final devoicing, a phonotactic restraint saying that that voiced plosives and fricatives must be unvoiced in word-final position. This phonotactic restraint is operative in German, Dutch, Westerlauwers Frisian, but neither in English nor in the Scandinavian languages. Reershemius notes the absence of voiced plosives, but she does not relate it to the (near?) absence of voiced fricatives. She seems to claim that /v/ is found in word-final position, which would be an exception to devoicing. The example she gives 'duuw' (dew), however, probably involves a diphthong ending in /u/ or, at most, in a bilabial glide, but not the voiced counterpart of /f/. At this point, the author could also have mentioned that there are indications that final devoicing probably took place historically at a late date in Niederdeutsch. It has been claimed to have taken place only quite recently in the case of Westerlauwers Frisian (Fokkema 1969 (1958) quoted in Tiersma (1985)). This might then be related to another observation of the author, which is that voicing in final position seems to be preserved where a (historical) schwa has disappeared. This yields the contrast: ik hait 'I am-called' versus ik heid 'I was-called', where the last example derives from heide. Note that under a synchronic analyses, such examples might be taken to indicate that there is no Final Devoicing in East-Frisian Niederdeutsch. More might have been said about this interesting subject.

In general, the grammatical description does not seem to make use of earlier research, neither on East Frisian Niederdeutsch nor on the related language varieties found in The Netherlands or Germany. For example, I looked in vain for a reference to Saltveig's overview of the grammatical properties of Niederdeutsch dialects in the Handbuch zur niederdeutschen Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft (Cordes und Möhn 1983). For Frisian, the work of Tiersma (1985) and J. Hoekstra (1997) might have been used to note descriptions of phenomena which are also found in East Frisian, and which were now left unmentioned. Nevertheless, we are fortunate to have this useful and readable introduction to East-Frisian Niederdeutsch.


1. Besides psychological conformation to the stronger influence, another psychological effect is that of laziness / efficiency. The frequency of Standard German words and constructions is higher than that of their Niederdeutsch competitors, since there is hardly any education, media or literature in Niederdeutsch. Words or constructions which are more frequent tend to win out against those less frequent, since they are more automatic for the speaker. Hence they are easier to produce. Thus Niederdeutsch words and constructions lose out against Standard German ones, since they lose the frequency battle.



Cordes, G und D. Möhn (1983, eds) Handbuch zur niederdeutschen Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft. Erich Schmidt, Berlin

Diemer, W. (1953) Shakespeares 'The merchant of Venice' in 'Knoalster Grunnegers' overgezet. Stabo, Groningen.

H.G. Ehrentraut (1847), Mittheilungen aus der Sprache der Wangerooger, in: Friesisches Archiv I, 3-109, 338-416; Friesisches Archiv II, 1-84.

H.G. Ehrentraut, Mittheilungen aus der Sprache der Wangerooger, bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Arjen P. Versloot. Ljouwert/Aurich 1996.

Fokkema (1969 (1958)) “De verzachting van enkele slotconsonanten na lange klinker of tweeklank in het Fries.” In K. Fokkema, Nei wider kimen. Kar út syn fersprate skriften. Wolters-Noorhoff, Groningen, 185-190. (1958, Album Edgard Blancquaert, Tongeren, 147-151).

Hoekstra, J.F. (1997) The Syntax of Infinitives in Frisian. Fryske Akademy, Ljouwert / Leeuwarden.

Laan, K. ter (1953) Proeven van een Groninger Spraakkunst. Van Veen, Winschoten.

Lindow, W., D. Möhn, H. Niebaum, D. Stellmacher, H. Taubken and J. Wirrer (1998) Niederdeutsche Grammatik. Verlag Schuster, Leer.

Munske, H.H. (2001, ed. In collaboration with N. Århammar, V.F. Faltings, J.F. Hoekstra, O. Vries, A.H.G. Walker and O. Wilts) Handbuch des Friesischen. Handbook of Frisian Studies. Niemeyer, Tübingen.

Siebs, Th. (1923), 'Vom aussterbenden Friesischen der Insel Wangeroog', Zeitschrift für deutsche Mundarten 18, 237-253.

Tiersma, P.M. (1985) Frisian Reference Grammar. Foris, Dordrecht.

Versloot, A. (2001) "Das Wangeroogische". In Munske (2001 ed.), 423-429.