Friday, November 26, 2010

Volga Germans--The Mennonites

One of the languages of the German Mennonites of Russia is Plattdeutsch, also called Low-German . I first came across this story reading the Wycliffe Bible translators page about translating scripture for Germans from Kazakhstan resettled in Germany, who didn't know German. Most of us scattered around the world who have German roots trace back to pre-Germany days--i.e. there was no country known as Germany when my ancestors arrived in the United States. In fact, there was no United States in the 1720s, and they'd all pledged loyalty to the King of England. My Mennonite roots go back to Hannah, the brave widow of Hans Wenger, a weaver of Bern, Switzerland, who with the help of friends and family, emigrated to American for religious freedom in 1749.

Here is an account of the wanderings of the Mennonites who ended up in Russia. "The Mennonites occupy a special place among the Germans [of Siberia]. When the Mennonites left the Netherlands in the sixteenth century and resettled in Prussia, they did not see themselves as sharing a common origin. Among them were people of Flemish, Dutch, Frisian, and Lower Saxon ancestry. Two basic types of speech had been maintained by the Mennonites— molochnenskii and khortintskii. However, they took as a common language a Low German dialect (Plattdeutsch). As a result of their religious isolation, the Mennonites did not mix with the local peoples and thus maintained their traditional customs. At times they joined their different confessional groups into one ethno confessional unit. During and since the resettlement the Mennonites have been officially registered as Germans; most scholars think of the Mennonites as Germans. The Siberian Mennonites themselves trace their ancestry to Germans, although they also emphasize their Dutch origins."

Siberian Mennonites extend welcome to visiting Americans

Freedom has done what the Soviet Communists couldn't: "In the Germanic language family, Plautdiitsch claims a special place. Its long isolation from other German dialects and its close contacts have given it a specific character, which to some extent can be compared to that of Yiddish. The Plautdiitsch language, the sole descendant from the many West Prussian Low German dialects once spoken in the Weichsel delta area, is now spoken by Mennonites in many countries and has partly taken over the religious factor as the main identity marker. It is a pity that a language, that managed to survive centuries of isolation and many years of prohibiti­on, should now disappear where it has long had its most speakers - in Siberia. The increasing emigration to Germa­ny has left many Mennonite villages russified more than decades of Soviet Russification policy could accomplish. The Plautdiitsch speakers who choose to stay find it more and more difficult to provide their children with a Plautdi­itsch speaking environment, and in the long run it must be feared the language will lose much ground to Russian. In Germany, the children of Russian Mennonite immigrants will almost certainly only have passive knowledge of Plautdi­itsch.

One can only hope the language will survive in North America and in the isolated colonies in South America, where a revival can be observed." From the article "Plautdietsch, a Germanic language related to Dutch and Frisian, spoken in Siberia"

Canada has a Plattdeutsch radio station. You can listen here--pod cast. I listened to a poem in Plattdeutsch from Russia, and the rhythm was definitely Russian/Slavic; this sounds English.

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