Un Gott Säd - And God Said
Germany, Russian Federation, Canada
What is the most widely spread German dialect? Most Germans would reply “Swabian” or “Bavarian”. There is one they certainly wouldn’t think of, one spoken in places as far away as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Siberia, along the Volga, in North America, Belize, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina -- Plautdeitsch. Admittedly, it is not completely accurate to call it a dialect. It is after all the mother tongue of thousands of people whose second language is not High German but rather Russian, English, or Spanish. It is the language of the Mennonite settlements which were founded by emigrants from Germany over 400 years ago.
At that time the Mennonites were harassed and persecuted as “Anabaptists” in both the Catholic and the Protestant countries of Europe. Many of them left their homes in Holland and Germany and settled in the area around the Vistula Delta under the protection of the liberal Prussians in what was then West Prussia. As time passed, they also began using the Low German dialect, called Plautdeitsch, of the local population. However, they used Martin Luther’s Bible translation in their church services, and “Luther German” remained the language in which they prayed and preached.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Russian Czarina Katherine the Great invited any interested Germans to settle and cultivate the newly conquered regions along the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. They were promised religious freedom and given generous land grants. Thousands of the Mennonites in West Prussia accepted the invitation and moved from the Vistula to the Dnieper. Since they lived in closed communities, they retained their Plautdeitsch language and formed language islands surrounded by Russian. As time went on, they planted more colonies in other areas of Russia.
At the end of the 19th century many of them pulled up stakes again, this time to emigrate to America. Others followed them after the Russian Revolution. In the wide-open spaces of Canada and the USA they found plenty of room for new colonies. But Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina also offered the Mennonites opportunities to settle. As in Russia, Plautdeitsch remained the mother tongue of the settlements in the Americas. Experts estimate that worldwide approximately 400,000 people speak Plautdeitsch as their first or second language.
After World War II, life became even harder for anyone of German descent still living in Russia. They were accused by the Soviet officials of collaboration with the German occupation and were forcibly relocated to remote places in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. As Christians, they suffered oppression, discrimination, and persecution along with the other Christians there. They saw their chance to get away in the 1980s, when West Germany opened its doors to them. A high percentage of these “Russian Germans” have by now chosen to move back to Germany and have found a new home in the old country.
Plautdeitsch is no longer spoken in the place where it originated, West Prussia, presently part of Poland. But now that the Russian Germans have returned “home”, Plautdeitsch has returned with them to add to the colorful variety of Low German dialects in Germany. Even though these dialects are related, they are quite different from one another. Plautdeitsch speakers living, for example, near Bielefeld, would have a hard time communicating with their neighbors in the local Low German dialect.
Not all Russian Germans are Mennonites; neither do they all speak Plautdeitsch. It is estimated that there are up to 200,000 Plautdeitsch-speaking Russian Germans in Germany. They do not live in closed communities as in America or Russia, but many of them have remained together and are concentrated in certain cities or regions. About half of them adhere to the Christian faith. In some places they have started independent churches; elsewhere they have joined up with existing Brethren or Baptist churches. Members of the older generation speak Plautdeitsch with each other and at home, while younger people speak more and more High German as they adapt to their new surroundings. It is doubtful whether the youngest generation will continue using the language of their ancestors. However, in the colonies overseas, Plautdeitsch is not likely to die out; it is part of the Mennonite identity and is still widely spoken.
One could say that Plautdeitsch is an oddity among world languages. It is not spoken by a single people group; yet it unites people with a common ancestry and a common religious and cultural background. Since the Bible plays an important role in their lives, it is not surprising that many of them wished to have it in their own language. For the Mennonites in Russia and America, the German of the Luther Bible was a dead church-language with no connection to everyday life. A few years ago a group of Plautdeitsch-Mennonites from various colonies in Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay came together to start work on the translation, and members of Wycliffe Canada and the Canadian Bible Society helped as consultants.
The New Testament was published in 1987, and in 2003 the completion of the whole Bible was celebrated in Mennonite churches in Manitoba, Canada. Hart Wiens, representative of the Canadian Bible Society and a Plautdeitsch speaker himself, said at one of the celebrations: “People said our language couldn’t be written, and most thought it was too coarse to be used in prayer or in the Bible. It is beautiful to see the Bible written in the language, in our mother tongue. Now the Word of God can find a home in the hearts and lives of our people who are most comfortable communicating in Plautdietsch. The books will have to travel a long way to reach the isolated settlements of Plautdeitsch-Mennonites all over the world. But, as Jesus once said, “Un velot junt doaropp, ekj sie emma bie junt, batem Enj von de Welt!” (And be assured that I am with you always, to the end of the world).