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I heard that there are special interpreters for translating books from Niederdeutsch to standard German.

The question is: Is it possible to understand Niederdeutsch if you can speak German?

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possible duplicate of Wofür steht "hoch" im Begriff "Hochdeutsch"? –  Tom Au Apr 23 '14 at 21:11
High German and Low German don't mean "elevated" and "not elevated", they refer to the geographical postion in Germany. Simplified, Low German is spoken in the north of Germany, which is low lying country. High German is spoken in the South of Germany, country that is higher lying. –  rogermue Apr 24 '14 at 7:14

8 Answers 8

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Niederdeutsch (or Platt) is an old form of German that survived the move to a more standardized generic German (Hochdeutsch).

Originally there were 3 general geographically separated forms of German: Low-German spoken in (roughly) north & west Germany and the Netherlands, Middle-German and High-German spoken in south and east Germany.

In the Netherlands eventually Dutch went its own way, with influences from English and Frisian and (to a lesser extend) French.

In Germany Hochdeutsch became standardized regular German, but Platt still survives as day to day language for many people.

Platt also got exported to the USA, Cananda and Brazil with the Mennonites (e.g. Amish) and other German minorities that immigrated because of social, religious and/or econimical pressure in the Heimat.
It picked up influences from English, Dutch and Frisian too, albeit less then Dutch did. The variants that evolved outside Europe picked up additional foreign elements, but also remained closer to the original old-German roots, mainly due to isolation of the people speaking it.

Platt remains an "in-between" language somewhere between German and (old)-Dutch.

As whether or not Platt is a language: Linguists generally consider all Germanic languages from Dutch to Hochdeutsch as dialects of the "continental west-germanic" language with belongs in the larger group of "germanic" languages. (That group also includes, among others, the Scandinavian languages and Frisian).

From a practical perspective (if you are not a linguist) it is a language, but quite close to both Dutch and German.

As for understanding it: As someone who is Dutch with a decent grip on German I can usually understand Platt without too much trouble. (Unless the speaker makes an effort to talk quickly and/or use a heavy dialect version of Platt.)
I understand that most German speakers can follow Platt about just as easily.

In either case it helps if you come from a region in Germany or the Netherlands that already has multiple dialects spoken in the area.
To me it seems that people who are accustomed to hearing various dialects have less trouble understanding a foreign language that has dialect variants too.
(Personally I can understand most German dialects quite easily, but it seems very hard for Germans that grew up just using Hochdeutsch. I grew up near the Belgium border in the Netherlands, with family living in Limburg and Noord-Holland. I switch dialects without thinking about it. That seems to help.)

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Thank you for the detailed answer! –  optim1st Apr 24 '14 at 4:24

As a native Low German speaker, I would like to add that even with some informal education in High German, I have a hard time following it. My parents were of Mennonite descent, started a family in Canada, and primarily spoke Low German at home until my siblings and I began schooling in English. Had I not taken an interest in learning "regular German", or High German, as we called it, I would have been unable to comprehend even the simplest phrases. Growing up with Low German, I always considered it to be simple, funny language, practically synonymous with a lack of education. However, as I advanced in school and went on to college, I began to value the language and see it as a rare heritage. So, is it a language? Maybe not by the standard of a trained linguist, but I will always consider it to be one. As to the analogy about BBC English vs daily English, I think it is pretty far off. There is a great deal more difference between Low German and any other language than an accent. Probably a better analogy would be North American English vs. Some of the Creole variants spoken in Belize.

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Well, I don't speak low German. I just searched a random video on Youtube and listened to it.

I do not understand every word but I fully comprehend what they are talking about.

That said, I guess non-native speakers will probably have their difficulties, so the ultimate answer to your question is: yes and no. It really depends on how good your German really is.

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The general consensus seems to be that, yes, it's a language in its own right. If you speak German it's usually possible to understand parts, perhaps get the gist of it (although that's by no means a given). It has been replaced by standard (high) German for all intents and purposes, but it's a far cry from any of the other regional dialects.

To my (native, if Southern) ears it sounds like a blend of German and Dutch, with a fair dose of English thrown in for good measure.

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There are many different dialects in German. I dont think you can understand them as a Russian who has learnt German. Also some Lower German dialects are more like Dutch. For example the dialect is Kleve is more like the dialect Dutch dialect in Brabant than like German. But even for me, a person whose native language is Dutch and who speaks German quite well, it is hard to follow. The Dutch dialect in Kerkrade and the German dialect Herzogenrath for example is total jabber for me. That dialect is more like German. Nevertheless the locals there, on both sides of the border, speak dialect to each other and understand each other. It is a strange sort of mixture and I have the urge to say, please speak either Dutch or German, I cannot make anything out of this.

But the dialect is something that is not very much spoken nowadays, certainly not by the younger generation. Almost everyone can speak standard German there too I think. So unless you want to pick up that dialect as a new challenge, there should be no problem for you to make yourself understandable in German there.

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Nice example. Kerrade/Herzogenrath is such an awful mixture of Limburgs (a heavy Dutch dialect that most Dutch can't understand) and German that it is complete incomprehensible to anyone who was born more that 10 kilometers away from there. I have family from the region that grew up 15 km from Kerkrade, speaking Limburgs all their lives, and they can't understand that particular dialect if their lives depended on it. As someone who is from Brabant: The dialect of Kleve still sounds dominantly German to me. I do find it easier to follow than regular German. –  Tonny Apr 23 '14 at 16:01

If you have a talent for languages you understand a little bit. I speak standard German, did some studies in Dutch and then I discovered the charmes of Platt (Niederdeutsch). But I had to begin with simple texts with translations, and I had to learn where to find websites with Platt, dictionaries and grammar explanations.

A good introduction is PlattMaster.de

There is a lot about and in Platt on the Internet.

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Thank you for the link! –  optim1st Apr 24 '14 at 4:25

It depends. If you just speak high german it is quite hard to impossible to understand. The nearer you life to the region the better is the chance that the german dialect spoken will resemble the one your neighbour uses. Good chance to understand if you life in the north of Germany or speak Dutch, if you life in the South and speak the Bavarian tongue you will be completely lost.

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I would say no, Niederdeutsch is not a distinct language from German. Niederdeutsch is a demotic form of German, where High German is the standardised German that is generally learned and accepted. You could say High German is like BBC English, and Niederdeutsch (low German) is like everyday English, with all its idiosyncracies.

Of course, there are many dialects of low German (Bavarian, Saxon etc), which are again quite different from each other; much like there are different forms of low English (Lancashire, Scouse etc), which are distinct from each other.

As far as I can tell, the reason for these dialects of demotic English and demotic German are that historically the different regions of Germany and England had different tribes, who spoke different languages. So the different forms of demotic language happened because there were different languages spoken in those regions. Of course there are additional variations from other historical occurences in different regions of a country.

So to answer the question, low German was several different languages historically, but is essentially demotic German.

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"You could say High German is like BBC English, and Niederdeutsch (low German) is like everyday English, with all its idiosyncracies." That is demonstrably untrue. This might be the case for regional variants, like Swabian German, even Bavarian, but NOT Low German. Keeping that in mind, Bavarian or Saxon are dialects and regional variants of High German. –  Ingmar Apr 23 '14 at 15:02
You are confusing the two different meanings of Hochdeutsch. Bavarian is certainly a High German dialect. –  Carsten Schultz Apr 23 '14 at 20:24

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