I Wish I Knew How to Speak Plautdietsch

Somehow it was ingrained in me to assume, growing up, that the Plautdietsch language was old, outdated, and “prawst” — uncouth. (Is it ironic to call Plautdietsch uncouth… in Plautidietsch?) My parents and grandparents spoke it because, well, frankly they were older and had been around when more people spoke the language.

It blew me away when I learned that my father’s first language had actually been Plautdietsch. “You mean there was a time, when you were a little boy, that you didn’t know any English?” I exclaimed. He matter-of-factly confirmed this.

But… but… how could this BE? I had a difficult time wrapping my head around this, since English was the only language I knew.

My next thought was, okay well… could I maybe learn Plautdietsch so that I could at least understand what my parents and grandparents were talking about?

Ha, well we all know the answer to that — no way! Plautdietsch had morphed into a handy secret language that adults could use to talk about adult things right in front of children. (I’ll be honest, I’d totally use it that way too, if given the option.)

I mean, there were a few words that I knew. I had two brothers, no sisters. And so, as the only girl in the house, I very quickly learned to pick out the word “mee-al” — which was typically accompanied by a certain tone and a nod — or quick flick of the eyes — in my direction, before returning to another flurry of words in a language I did not know. But “mee-al” for sure was me: “the girl”.

I also knew the words for be quiet and sit down. “Zee schtell!” “Za-tee-dole!”

But other than that, the language was lost on me. I could not use it to communicate.

Now that I’m older, I wish for three purposes that I knew Plautdietsch.

First, for travel. I have heard of many Plautdietsch-speakers who, when traveling in Holland or meeting Dutch folks, are surprised at being able to somewhat communicate, or at least understand each other. It’d be so neat to experience this!

Second, for reading very old books and diaries. Okay, this actually has more to do with knowing German, I suppose (since that was their formal language… and writing was usually a formality). But for a uni-lingual person such as myself, it’s closely related. Learn how to speak Plautdietsch, learn how to read German — it goes hand-in-hand, at least it does in my head.

Third, for a day-dreamier reason: simply to connect to this ancient language of our people-group. An ethnic sort of link to the past, going back hundreds of years! It’s amazing the language lasted and developed from the 1500’s (possibly earlier?) all the way until the 1900’s… only to seemingly evaporate into nothingness now in the 2000’s.

My grandparents are gone, my father is gone, and I no longer hear Plautdietsch spoken as often as I had when I was a child… but when I do hear it, perhaps from a neighbouring table at MJ’s Kafe, or deep within the local MCC thrift shop, my memories are tickled. Something within me wakes up, takes notice.

It’s a fascinating language, and I hope to finally learn it.

How about you? Have you, or someone you know, taken the time to learn Plautdietsch or German for the purpose of connecting to your roots/reading old diaries and letters? What was that like for you, and how did the process work for you? I’d like to know. 🙂