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What’s with this “Wren” thing?
The oldest extant version of the fable
are presenting here appeared in 1913 in the first volume of a two-volume anthology
Saxon folktales (Plattdeutsche
Volksmärchen “Low German Folktales”)
collected by Wilhelm Wisser (1843–1935). Read
believe there has never been a time when I took language for granted, when
I was not fascinated by language and all that it touches, moves, conveys and
determines. Already at a very young age I was aware that language comes in numerous
varieties and modes, that the variety and mode you use allows people to categorize
you. What particularly intrigued me was that more than one language variety was
being used in my own neighborhood, even in my own family, that one person can
use more than one, switching from one variety to another.
I had figured out that, because of the type of German I spoke, people were
treating me in a certain way, especially people in other, “better” parts of
town. I didn’t know then that what we were speaking at home and in the neighborhood
most of the time was a somewhat “cleaned-up” type of “Missingsch,” a German
dialect with a “Platt” (Low Saxon or “Low German”) substrate, a dialect that
gave away our working-class background. (It was only through years of schooling
and media exposure that I learned to use “proper,” “high” German.)
both spoke Missingsch-derived German, my dad a much more “extreme” version,
full of Low-Saxon-derived expressions and without distinction or with faulty
distinction between the dative and accusative cases (a distinction not made
in most of
My parents were first-generation Hamburg natives. Attracted by job and seafaring
opportunities and perhaps also guided by hopes of emigrating overseas, their
parents and grandparents had moved there from the east. My maternal grandfather
(who was killed when the Allies carpet-bombed the working-class neighborhoods
had moved to Hamburg from a small town in Western
in order to become a sailor, and he got to visit the Americas. Our ancestors
had left behind
Germanic, Slavonic and Baltic people, languages and cultures had intermingled
Although this sort of thing was never talked about directly, I had begun educating
myself and “connecting the dots.” My awareness of linguistic and cultural hierarchies
and contacts gradually took shape, and even before I left my native area I
had been pretty much sensitized to issues that loom large in the lives of minorities,
immigrants and colonized aboriginals.
My dad had worked as a farmhand when he was young, and he worked in shipbuilding
when I was growing up. So he spoke Low Saxon (“Low German”), the earlier language
of our area and of our ancestors. I was sometimes allowed to accompany him
on his manly leisure-time pursuits in mostly Low-Saxon-speaking environments.
I remember soaking up the language. I was learning it mostly passively, virtually
secretly, later to be reinforced by reading stacks of Low Saxon literature.
I ended up knowing the language well enough to speak and write it just fine
when decades later I decided to reclaim and promote my ancestral heritage.
I had no problems whatsoever when, in the context of Heimatkunde (local
history and culture), we had learned some token “Low German” stories and ditties
in school. Most teachers seemed to go along with it grudgingly. The language
was foreign to all but one of them, also to some of the kids in my class who
did not understand it and considered it a waste of time, most likely because
their elders at home had said so. These token “Low German” contents fell by
the wayside at the first sign of budgetary problems. They were regarded as
being even less important than art and music.
I remember months of excited anticipation before my first English class. I
couldn’t wait to get started on this supposedly exotic language, the key to
the door to
the rest of the world. After our first lesson I arrived home with a long face,
telling my parents that English wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, that
I could understand most of it already, that it was a bit like a far-out dialect
of “Platt.” Later I was to learn that my hasty assessment hadn’t been all that
far off the mark, that in the olden days the Saxons from my home area had been
great part responsible for making Celtic-speaking Britain Germanic-speaking.
Low Saxon was helpful in learning English proved to be well-founded. Most German
kids without this knowledge seemed to have a harder time. It even turned out
that it was very helpful in reading Middle English. I was able to understand
most of the original version of Chaucer’s Canterbury
Tales at first reading,
while most native English speakers need weeks and
copious glossary notes just to get through the first few verses. My knowledge
of Low Saxon and
English later facilitated my reading comprehension of Frisian and Scandinavian.
One summer a girl from Scotland was visiting neighbors of ours. I tried out
my fresh and rather shaky English on her. She seemed to understand the little
I could say then,
could hardly make out anything she said.
Boy, did she sound weird and wonderful!
was quite smitten for a while. I assume now that she was just beginning her
transition from Scots to Scottish English. My fascination with Scotland has
remained with me since then.
Already in my early youth I was aware that Low Saxon was a suppressed, if not
oppressed, language. Most of our elders did not approve of us city kids using
it, even many of those elders whose native language it was. They had been made
to believe that it would hold us back educationally and economically, had accepted
the assumption that it was bound to die out (an assumption that, as I learned
later, had been around for centuries). I remember my feeling of awe when I
came across Dutch newspapers, public signs and television programs. I could
most of it, since Dutch is one of the closest relatives of Low Saxon (although
they do not sound very much alike). Seeing it used officially, like a “real”
on realizing that the status and the prestige of a language is determined by
by political moves, often by accident, so to speak.
As a teen I began traveling outside Germany (which at that time was psychologically
piece of cake for a young German, especially in neighboring countries, because
still rampant anti-German sentiments directed even at those of us who had been
II). I traveled
especially in the Nordic countries and Britain, and my knowledge of German,
Low Saxon and English made it easy for me to pick up the local languages, also
study Dutch, Afrikaans and Yiddish. When I turned my attention to Icelandic
and Old Norse, I became
the Scandinavian languages, having descended from Old Norse also, had been
and virtually transformed by
at a time when it was widely used in international trading. It
took me some time to get used to the thought that this language—scorned, suppressed and secreted in the twentieth century—had at one time
prestige and power.
My travels took me
farther and farther afield, and the languages I learned became more and more
“exotic.” I realized then that I had been infected by the “language
bug,” and this at a very early age. I remember “talking in tongues” as a little
babbling away in make-belief languages while playing,
that even I myself couldn’t understand ...
(Well, even little kids can be nerds.)
study of and about languages, having gotten a tremendous boost while I lived
in multilingual Israel for some time, had
time I emigrated to Australia, where I began formal studies in Asian languages
cultures, and from where I went to travel and study in Asia. For the time being,
Low Saxon was quietly occupying the farthest recesses of my mind. Perhaps
it was in part due to my own linguistic background that I ended up specializing
in minority languages of Chinese-administered parts of Inner Asia, an interest
I continued pursuing
for a while after moving to the United States.
lives tend to be cyclical, circular. Consciously or subconsciously we drift
homeward when our awareness of life’s evanescence, of our mortality comes to
When my intellectual detachment, my cerebral armor had worn itself out, I began
a journey of self-discovery. One of the things I realized was that most of
what I had studied about faraway situations applied to things back home as
as though in a rite of passage, a homeward passage, I took up Low Saxon again,
in a rather public way,
creative writing, mostly in poetry, of which a fair bit has been published.
right straight away, felt proper and comfortable
authentic Low Saxon has had no opportunity to develop a grand style register,
of dressing up the truth, no means of smothering real emotions under stylistic
fluff. As soon as you are tempted to grandiosely embellish your style you can
be sure that you are about to write “yellow”
(in the manner of “High” German). This
In the meantime, Low
officially recognized in Northern Germany and in the Eastern Netherlands, and
innovative styles and genres began to make inroads in the long stagnating,
highly fragmented and predominantly
parochial literary scene. This
is the time to join the action, not just to jump
the moment while people’s minds are being opened, while the status
quo we grew up with (“one country = one ethnicity = one language”) is crumbling
away and the goal of accomplishing national unification through eradication
of diversity are being challenged and abandoned.
The Internet has come along and has allowed me to connect with people that
share my interests, also with people that deal with closely related languages
The Netherlander Henk Wolf and I started a small email discussion group. The
response was tremendous, so we formally founded Lowlands-L in
the spring of 1995. Henk has gone on to doing other things, while I have been
holding high the Lowlands flag, eventually being joined by hundreds of people
from around the globe, people that otherwise might feel somewhat isolated on
account of their “weird” interests.
It’s been a ten-year blast, an exciting yet mostly smooth ride, a continuous
learning experience, and there have been some accomplishments along the way.
We’ve been enjoying ourselves while helping to raise awareness of situations
and needs that
otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.
What about the next ten years? Hopefully, Lowlands-L will
continue and will stay on track even if I hand the steering wheel to others.
I hope to keep on helping to create awareness about Low Saxon as a language
used in several countries, helping to bring together those that use, learn
it, helping to encourage them to hold on to what they have while striving toward
new ways and horizons in connection with their Lowlands relatives. Hopefully,
a few years farther down the road there will be less of the traditionalist
disapproval vis-à-vis seemingly newfangled approaches to using Low Saxon, approaches that no one questions vis-à-vis “proper,” “established” languages.
A personal wish of mine is that more people in my native Northern Germany will
get on board, not necessarily as members of Lowlands-L but by joining the ranks
of the open-minded rather than of those viewing as suspicious and seditious
my efforts in connecting Low Saxon (“Low German”) with “foreign” languages
rather than continue the tradition of treating it as an neglegible appendage
of German. “Foreign” languages in their minds include the closest genealogical
relatives of Low Saxon, even the Low Saxon dialects used by our relatives in
the Eastern Netherlands, by Mennonites all over the world and by long-standing
Low Saxon communities in North America. All I am hoping to do is offering an
alternative way of helping Low Saxon assert itself as the independent language
it now is officially. Having it rub shoulders and compare notes with its closest
relatives (Dutch, Afrikaans, Limburgish and Cleves Frankish being the closest)
is not a dangerous, seditious,
disloyal or secessionist act and does not threaten the longstanding (though
predominantly subservient) relationship it has with “High” German. Yes, I feel
passionate about the linguistic and cultural heritage of Northern Germany and
Netherlands, I love using Low Saxon in literary writing, but I love my native
German as well. (Well, I really love all languages.) I just acknowledge the fact that the languages of the Netherlands
and Belgium are more closely related to the original language of Northern Germany
and that English and Scots are descendants of these languages, not of German.
old relatives across man-made borders be seen as anything other than peace
promotion and beneficial to the survival chances of the indigenous language
of Northern Germany?
I have developed much admiration and affection for each and every one of my
fellow Lowlanders. I enjoy the diversity among them and the genuine efforts
they make to reach out across various types of boundaries. They have been giving
me very much these ten years, have helped me in my personal learning and maturing
process. I am deeply grateful for every day I “hear their voices,” sense their
knowledge, their passion for sharing, their excitement about even tiny discoveries,
their not infrequent humorous banter. Any expression of appreciation is
a touching, precious gift for me.
P.S.: A certain pesky Lowlander had the audacity to criticize a draft of this introduction, saying it contained practically no personal information. (How nosy is that?!) So, following our friend Sandy Fleming, I present to you, in a vain attempt to use quantity to make up for quality, more than you ever hoped or cared to find out about me:
Twenty vital facts about me:
Many Americans assume that Reinhard is my family
name and Hahn is my given name, some ending up calling me “Hans,” or, if they
get the order right, “Richard.” Once in a while people spell my first name
as “Rheinhardt,” apparently because it feels more “satisfyingly German.”
I’ve been given three nicknames: “Professor,”
“Bean King” and “Parrot Head” (in this chronological order)—but permission
to use these is restricted to a select, intimate few.
Before puberty I was a mosquito magnet, and now I’m mosquito-proof.
Without ever dying my hair I have had all
possible hair colors except black, have had at least three distinct eye colors
without using tinted contact
lenses, and once I went through a Persian-like unibrow phase.
Reading while riding a vehicle makes me feel sick, but I never get seasick on water.
I can’t curl my tongue.
My favorite tree is the weeping willow,
my favorite flowers are the wistaria, the peony, the rose, the lotus and
lily, and my favorite type of dog is the fox terrier, followed closely
the Shetland sheep dog and the mutt.
I enjoy concerts, recitals, dance and
plays, but I can’t stand most types of opera
(especially Wagnerian ones).
My favorite Mexican song is any whose lyrics do not contain the words corazón (heart) and sentimiento (sentiment, feeling, sympathy, regret).
I have been to the two lowest places
on earth: the Dead Sea (Israel and Jordan) and the Turfan Depression (Eastern
Turkestan, Xinjiang, Central Asia).
On one of my faraway journeys I ate
dog meat assuming I was being served beef.
Turkestan (Xinjiang) I once stumbled across a mummy—literally.
According to me there are seven continents on
Earth: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, Greenland, North America and
South America. Lately I’ve been considering Greenland an American country. And, by the way,
I have a very soft spot for Greenland and its people.
I find the combination of black and yellow most alarming.
I know the only sure-fire cure for hiccups. (Really! I do!)
Though I’ve heard a lot of talk about ugly languages,
I’ve never actually heard or seen one.
I am perfectly happy listening for hours to any language I don’t even understand.
I refuse to answer any question of the type “How many languages do you know?”
Human qualities I admire most are compassion, creativity, non-manic humor, eccentricity and anything else that demands genuine courage of an individual.
One of my remaining ambitions is mastering the art of creative silence (but unfortunately
I have yet a long way to go to the “silence” part).