The most amusing of thousands of loan words incorporated into the German that come to mind is the German Fisimatenten which translates as pretenses, shenanigans, overtures to hanky panky, fussing about or subterfuges. Various erudite explanations for this term are offered but I prefer to believe that it entered the language via the Napoleonic presence. French soldiers asked German girls to visitez ma tente to visit my tent. The German girls knew what was intended but they did not understand the French and so they said, “Der will mit mir Fisimatenten machen.” (he wants to make Fisimatenten with me.) Incidentally, German girls still use this term for unrequited overtures, as I was to find out, in the post-Napoleonic era, even without a tent.
It is you that I invite into my tent today to display for your perusal my etchings of the word of my Muttasproak
Before we start, and as if you didn’t know: many people, if not indeed most, believe that dialects are corrupted, bastardized forms of the high or standard languages - more accurately known as common denominators - nothing could be further from the truth. Dialects are the original, the designer language, the mold of the word, the mother of all; the milk, neither pasteurized nor homogenized.
Thus, what is central to the understanding of Plautdietsch is that it is more than a means of communication, it is, in fact, a way of life. Analogous to Yiddish, it is a direct, spirited, and spiritually alert language that is a thousand years old and more--centuries older than Chaucerian English, but, like the robust speech of Chaucer’s pilgrims, expressively rooted in the quotidian lives of ordinary folk.
And yet, though the Mennonite civilization has eaten, slept, wept, laughed, borne babies, and earned its bread or failed to, and had, in fact, made the dialect their way of life for two hundred years and more it was held in contempt as a literary vehicle.
In the nineteen forties - effectively overnight - this contemptuous view of Low German was reversed, by a single powerful hand writing in Low German. This pen belonged to Arnold Dyck. He is our one indisputably major writer in Plautdietsch. Almost singlehandedly he established a literary style and idiom that subsequent writers have adopted and imitated to some degree or another. Primarily a humorist, Arnold Dyck was so successful with his Koop enn Bua series that, more than anyone else, he is probably responsible for the notion that Plautdietsch is more suited to comic than to serious writing. Dyck himself tried to dispense that notion with his somber, elegiac short story Twee Breew. His enormous influence may also account, at least in part, for the fact that Mennonite Low German writing generally is to a surprising degree uncharacteristically secular and cultural in both content and treatment rather than religious and spiritual.
With his deep and abiding love for Mennonite Bauernkultur, Arnold Dyck regarded Plautdietsch as the very soul and sinew of that traditional way of life, as the very essence of the Mennonite ethnic identity. From first to last his Low German works contain moving references to Plautdietsch, the mother lode, as the one vital source that holds Mennonites together as a people and subculture.
Dyck writes like Mennonites traditionally lived; they/we spent 87.5% of all our time in the stable, in the fields or in repose and at most 5% of waking time (or asleep) in church. Mennonite papers would have you believe that they or we spend 85% of our time at the altar and 15% conferencing with the aim being to save the rest of the world teaching them the blessings of consumerism. Dyck writes about the church and its proselytizing ways of spiritual cannibalism not at all and while this field of neglect is deliberate he does it so well that no one notices; this is what honesty couched in masterful literary style will do.
But briefly, how then do we divvy up the time which the Lord has meted out so prudently and for which we are to render unto Him such meticulous accounting? Drinking coffee while constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing pedigrees detailing who is related to whom, who has died/married/given birth etc. Oh, and not enough time for the afternoon sleep, Meddachschlop, that mandatory afternoon sleep, aka brisk nap, a very Mennonite practice when exhausted over name tracing exercises (found in the dictionary under Frindschauft nohfädme) and the brain needing time to reboot and reorder the genealogy!
While rereading Arnold Dyck in Germany more than forty-five years ago, I discovered what I had lost and immediately attempted to make an amends for having neglected the mortal dimension of my soul, namely my mother tongue, by recording the entirety of Dyck’s vocabulary into a concordance. Next followed whatever else the limited world of Plattdeutsch had produced in recent time and space spanning four continents. This process has never ended and the dictionary is the tangible result.
There were three other defining moments which led to the encapsulation of the vocabulary. The first involved our neighbor in Gnadenfeld, southern Manitoba, one Oole Johaun (Kühne) Wiens, the next, the leading Low German dialectologist in his day, Professor Walther Mitzka, and finally the scholar, Professor Harvey Dyck of Toronto.
Some eighty-five years ago, Johaun Wiens had joined the Whites under General Wrangel when the political future of Russia appeared up for grabs. Trapped in the Crimea by the Reds, the commanding officers informed Wiens and his cohorts, that they would rest a while, regroup and then surprise the Reds and all with a fierce attack. The next morning Wiens encountered these self-same officers having breakfast at an open grill, munching cumin flavored lamb burgers. Wiens reflected, “Na, nü jintj mie een Lijcht opp, enn etj ritjt mett eemol meea auls Kotlette. Wie habe aulatoop de Betjse voll enn tjeen Papiea.” (Well, suddenly it dawned on me and I started sniffing more than burgers. I concluded that we had our pants full and no paper).
Wiens’ division fought gamely but soon found themselves in retreat all the way back to the Crimea, eventually being forced to escape across the Black Sea to Constantinople. Since I was then much into the Mozart stage, I asked Wiens whether he had seen the Seraglio, the theme of the opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) in Constantinople. Wiens was not eager to get into that harem chapter; he was a Mennonite prepared to discuss war but not love and the making thereof. He hid a passing smile and answered: “Na joh, doa word von eene Serai jerädt, oba etj weet uck nich meea.” (Well, yes, there was some talk about a serai but I no longer remember clearly). The fact remains: the Turkish Seraglio is an architectural masterpiece while a Serai is a lean-to or dilapidated shack, or even an outdoor biffy in Mennonite Low German. In Russian, a serai is a barn or stable.
The next defining moment occurred nine years later in the university town of Marburg in Germany. Professor Walther Mitzka, was an East Prussian and one of the first who had noticed that there was a peculiar element to the Mennonite Low German dialect. This element was the Dutch; Dutch remnants which had been retained by the Mennonites in their otherwise flawless West Prussian vernacular.
Mitzka was unconventional if he was anything else. He knew I was the only Plautdietsch speaking Canadian Mennonite between the Rhine and the Dnieper at the time and so he called across the street one day: “Heea, waut meent Olbassem enn wua tjemmt daut Wuat häa?” (Listen, what does olbassem mean and where does the word come from?) Since Mitzka had lost a leg to the First World War, I crossed the street to tell him that Olbassem meant Johannisbeere in German and currants, both red and black, in English. “And the word has roots, but where?” I replied that I did not know. “Then I will tell you,” he said. “Mennonites always lived close to open water and so fishing was important to them. To catch eels, they baited currant bushes with carrion and then left them in the water overnight. Next morning they jerked the bushes out of the water and the eels, intertwined, were caught. So Olbassem means an eel broom.”
Intuition and my usual candor compelled me to do the impossible. I contradicted a German professor and said, “I am not convinced.” “Send See besope?” (“Are you drunk?”) he yelled. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what, you prove me wrong, and I will arrange a scholarship for you as long as it takes you to complete a Ph. D. if you are interested.”
I hiked over to the library and made for the dictionary of the Nederlandse Taal. And sure enough, my intuition had proved me right. Ol in Middle Dutch or Nederlands means ale and bessie means berry. Thus Olbassem means an ale-berry and is recorded on page 167 in the dictionary.
The last defining moment was an interaction with Professor Harvey Dyck. In his book “A Mennonite in Russia: The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851 - 1880; translated and edited by Harvey Dyck, U. of T. Press 1991,” Dyck chanced upon the medicinal herb variously termed Loefstock but was at a loss to explain the term.
I turned to page 148 of my manuscript and sent the following printout to him: “Loefstock, Lövstock, Leppstock - m. Liebstöckel, auch Maggikraut; wird als Gewürzblätter, aber auch als Arznei gezogen. Bei den Mennoniten in Rußland als Medikament beliebt. Loveage, mengl. loveache; altered (after love ache) from afrz./ofr. Levesche, luvesche; levisticum from L. ligusticum, loveage plant native to Liguria from Ligusticus. Ligurian from Liguria (country in Cisalpine Gaul), a European herb of the carrot family, formerly cultivated for use as a home medicine by Mennonites in Russia, more recently as a flavoring agent or potherb.”
When examining the vocabulary of any language in a dictionary, strict discipline better be observed for otherwise the inquisitive mind will soon be lost in a labyrinth of words leading ever on and on, and the word, meant to be located, is hidden by numerous intrusions of vocabulary, all highly engaging and interesting, but useless to the initial endeavor. So it is with this lecture. The temptation is to bamboozle you with a maze and a thicket of vocabulary. No one is better at this than the Germans; they can analyze and explain and deduce every form of vocabulary blood group, but they rarely, if ever, discuss the heart of the matter, namely the purpose language, and above all, dialects serve. The reason is simple: they rarely know them. Linguistic and dialect blood groups are categorized and tabled, but the life sustaining heart is never charged into life. Over many years I have found this true of all the Niederdeutsche Tagungen I have attended.
To return to the contemporary scene: oral languages, such as are found in dialects, are by their very forthrightness, politically incorrect. While their speakers do not explicitly intend to offend or insult their listeners, the aim is always to express ideas and emotions with as little departure from the point as possible; they allow for few deviations from the truth and rarely permit embellishments, reflections or rationalizations. Neither do they subscribe to the adage that changes necessarily represent improvements. In essence then, when less is spoken, more is said.
In this context let me state the obvious: every dialect has the potential to become a fully-fledged language if circumstances and necessity so demand. Consider, if you will, that prior to the E.C. and Nafta, Europe from the 12th. century up to relatively modern times already operated a far flung Commercial Enterprise called the Hanseatic League with a Low German dialect, graduated into a high language, as the standard medium of exchange.
But back to Walther Mitzka, that unconventional professor who was neither afraid of the truth nor of candor:
At the time of the Großdeutsches Reich, 1939, an East Prussian scholar made his home in Marburg/Lahn, where serious academic endeavors had already been launched to study the nature of German dialects. This scholar was this same Walther Mitzka who now dedicated himself to discovering “was die sprachliche Welt im Innersten zusammenhält” (what makes the linguistic world go round). To that end he carefully chose one hundred and eighty-eight words and twelve sentences and compiled a questionnaire. After he had received blessings and the necessary funds and the addresses of each and every public school teacher in the Reich he mailed these inquiries, requesting the roughly 50,000 teachers of that time to fill them out with their pupils.
More than 43,500 of these questionnaires were returned to the Deutscher Sprachtatlas in the Kugelgasse in Marburg. There these results were scrutinized and analyzed by eye and hand, by thousands over half a century. A given word was recorded on enlarged map segments, seven in all, of the various geographic areas of Germany. Soon patterns or clusters emerged which were not only surprising but also revolutionary.
Many linguistic theories were subsequently verified and some eye openers were discovered. One example of a theory to some, but fact to experts, was the word Böttcher, the cooper, the barrel maker, the Tonntjemoaka. This trade had been practiced in Germany, it was assumed since Roman times, since the time of Jesus birth. Now prove it!
The term for this trade two thousand years ago was cupa. And sure enough, everywhere where the wine trade in Germany flourished, thus necessitating oaken wine barrels, the term was Küpfer. But why did the Küpfer turn into Kuper, Kuiper some six hundred kilometers as the Rhine flows further north? The so-called Second Consonantal Shift had transpired between the twelfth to the sixteenth century B.C.E. and it had mysteriously changed all words with p to pfs or fs and all ts to ss and all ies to eis and all u’s to au’s. Like so: dee Mus rant enn piept enn drintjcht em Hus Wota enn Wien became, in High German: die Maus läuft und pfeift und trinkt im Haus Wasser und Wein. Also the k-.ch (ik/ich, maken, moake(n) ensued during that time period.
(In Mennonite Low German I is pronounced etj and this peculiar palatalization is also in evidence in the diminutive suffix like in Mejaltje - small girl - or an even moire classic example as in Tjinjatjess - little children. But this is a topic for a different and a longer day.)
The Benrather Line is the official demarcation between High and Low German; the town, Benrath, is located on the Rhine close to Düsseldorf and this Linie runs towards the eastern extremity of Germany.
So one quickly concluded that the Romans and the cupas had been in the Rhine Valley prior to this linguistic shift. The Sprachatlas proved it. But why did this shift not overpower points further north and east? We do not know. What we do know is that up to recently you could ask a German in a village in Northern Central Germany what he called an apple and he would respond with “Appel”; then you would walk three kilometers south to a village and ask the same question but with the answer being “Apfel”. In my day, I tried it and since the apple of my display was identical, but the answers were not, I drew definitive conclusions. The Pferd, Pead and both meaning horse fared no differently.
And so the language story goes. As an aside, I am sure the contemplative spirit has already concluded that standardization has made all differences plain and has stifled or even smothered, in part, the creative power of the myth and thus of the myth maker, in short, the oral story teller.
One of the greatest, if not the greatest surprises that came out of painstaking work in scrutinizing literally millions of words (cognates) in the Sprachatlas is that in the Vistula Delta, wherever Mennonite children predominated in school, the responses to the words of the questionnaires was different from their Low German speaking counterparts. While Mitzka had believed this to be strangely true, the documentation was now before the dialectician.
For instance the word often, oft in German was not used by Mennonite children in their dialect; they responded with foaken. Then there is the indefinite measure of time called Stoot or a few minutes less termed Stootje. The non-Mennonite kids used ielijch for industrious work, while the Mennonite kids used pienijch and drock in the generic. The product of to be pienijch is measured in a Schoof, a goodly amount or quantity. The term for today was hiete and hiet but the Mennonites responded with vondoag. No language to my knowledge has an adequate term for a measure of both hands held firmly together to form a liquid measurement or a little container. But Mennonites do and the term is yapps or Japps in German. A support or bracing is from the Dutch and termed Stiepa, to resist coercion or physical inducement demands the reflexive sijch stiepre. When it came to the term for currants, the German school kids still in Vistula Delta responded with Johannisbeeren but our relatives used Olbasssem.
The list goes into the hundreds. What we have before us is that, while Mennonites upon arrival in the Danzig area four hundred and fifty years ago, gave up their various Dutch, northwestern German, and Swiss dialects and adopted the prevailing dialect of their new home, a lower West Prussian dialect. But with a difference: they added to the new language hundreds of terms from the Dutch dialects which had previously been their various Muttersprachen.
It is well and good, indeed handy and convenient to fascinate with a dialect but a different matter altogether to apply the vernacular to a practical test choosing, if you will, any segment of everyday life, a trial run, like so: Not surprisingly, there are numerous terms for a scare-crow in the dialect, no doubt harking back to the day when scare-crows were necessary to disperse predatory birds from the gardens, crops and melon patches. Heazhgrül, millet-scare, is the most common term but it is also applied to homely women; a further terms is Berstaundeschiesaul, melon-patch monster, related to the German Scheusal, a fright or a monster, Goadeschejcha, garden fright, but the list goes on.
Let us set out, a bit farther afield. The allocated plot of land to the Mennonite was and is a Koagel in Plautdietsch and when using the term, Tacitus emerges; he called the plot coerls in his writings of the Germans, two thousand years ago. Even the surrounding village farms lands were divided into strips of open fields, each of which was called Koagel. In time, the collective larger plot was termed Koagel and sub-divisions were called Stap, or Stape, plural, from the Russian steppe, while a further sub-division of land remained a Fletj. A plot of land with attendant buildings large enough to start or sustain a family was formerly called eene Fiastäd or Feuerstelle, or a place of permanent fire in the hearth or oven in a dwelling, thereby denoting termination of nomadic ways.
Then came the crops accompanied by the decay, due to economy of effort, in naming them. Weit is Weizen, wheat, Howa is Hafer or oats, Joascht is Gerste or barley. The fruit of oats is called Wopp or panicle in English, while the barbed ear of barley is an Eil. Kuckeruzz is corn or maize but generally only of the cattle variety while sweet corn consumed at table is, more recently referred to as Korn, corn and pronounced delicately so as not to expose masticators capable of taking on Kuckeruzz and it strange history of cobs, webs, ears and heads. And Heazh is millet. There are dozens of words for weeds, we had them all from Schwienskrüt, pig-weed, to Kurrei, tumble weed.
So much for the fields and the crops. Let us turn briefly to the garden to be fascinated by the names our forebears gave or incorporated by way of describing the products. The watermelon deserves a special chapter, but let us concentrate on Kuckeruzz meaning maize or corn as mentioned. The product is either of Indo-European or Ugrian origin, or possibly both, we do not know. The term Olbassem has already been explained, it comes from the Dutch. Then there are the beans, called Schauble, the word coming from the Polish szabla, or the Russian sablja; Latvian schablis, and Lithuanian szoble and all word birth mother to the German Säbel, English sickle, obviously because of the shape of the bean. Bocklezhan is Osmanian/Turkish and means tomato. Mennonites grow Komst, cabbage, for Komstbortsch, meaning the famous Russian cabbage soup. And, finally, there is the modern panacea, already always known to people of the earth, namely Schisnick, Russian česnok and all meaning garlic.
Then came the Russian and Ukrainian vocabulary, practically en masse, since a new way of life, products and plants, fruits and vegetables, hitherto unknown to Mennonites, were incorporated into their new lives and into their vocabulary. Bulka became Bultje with even the gender changing to the neuter because of the diminutive suffix ascribed and affixed to the term, namely -tje. Verenetje, plural, are cottage cheese filled dough pockets but the term is Russian, Verenj, and means jam. Cottage cheese was also adopted and now becomes Gloms from the Polish and or Russian. Kollodets, Kollodez came to mean gelatine as part of head cheese; it’s provenance was the Russian cholodeč.
Outside, a length of rope became a Knaut from the Russian kanat. A boat was henceforth a Lomm, while a Prohm became the new term for a ferry boat. A Petklatje was now the term for a washer between a bolt and a nut and finds it’s origin in the Russian podkladka. A drum in many forms and sizes came to be known as a baraban, while a pocket lighter was a Bensientje, from the Russian Benzinka. A winter coat is a Pulltoo since the Ukraine sojourn, but it is not Russian, rather the French term for a coat which Napoleon left behind. Burnus was a lighter coat from the Russian and Schlubb, for a winter cap, was also adopted from the Russian Schlubka. No self-respecting Mennonite to this day calls his belt of many uses other than Pojas from the Russian of same name and purpose. While on the farm with it’s many related activities and chores, the word Pauslocka from the Polish poslac deserves mention; a Pauslocka is a factotum, somebody who runs errands. Mennonite farmers like to keep their own youngsters scurrying about doing their bidding but they keep anyone on the trot as well who is prepared to execute all manner of errands for them. Pauslocka and the verb pauslocke is, in fact, a very widely employed term. Also, a Pauslocka is meant to carry the Schemedaun, his master’s suitcase if the need arises. Jamadan came into Russia from the Persian. Schemedauntje is the diminutive form of the valise and a common term for a beer belly.
A relative, the nephew, is now a Plemenitj and the Russian form of address became ours, meaning Mennonite. A suitor is still often called an Uchazhor, from the Russian, and a Molodjets was the term loaned from the Russian to describe a male who had distinguished himself by an exceptional performance in sports, in the performing arts, or in school. Then there is the term Tschudack, used to describe a comical fellow, a joker, from the Russian.
When a friend becomes a comrade, the Russian swat is used to describe more intimate friendship; then a Frind becomes a Swaut. When hunting with a Swaut and the success of the venture calls for a break, a piece of Schisnickworscht, meaning garlic sausage, from Russian Tschasnock, is shared; this piece is called a Schmatock, which is downed with a hefty drink called Sturack, and if it is homebrew, the term Semah(g)on is applied. The body may be in Canada but the spirits are in our previous Russian home which continues to bedevil us.
My mother was referred to Ljolja Wasilovna, while my father was called Petro Abramovitsch by his cohorts.
One word which flowed into the Mennonite Low German vocabulary, like none other, was the Dnieper River, where the oldest Mennonite settlement, the Old Colony, was founded. This term, Nippa has become so prevalent and so established in the Mennonite dialect that it is frequently used as a synonym for river in general. It is even used as a verb like in Daut Tjind haft sich enjenippat meaning the child has dniepered, or wet itself.
The Dnieper River assumed mythological proportions. Came Vaspa time, four o’clock coffee of the day, the Dnieper River was present a hundred years later, almost. Older Russian Mennonites looked pitiably upon those who had never savored coffee made from Dnieper River water. Their knowledge of the excellence was such that they turned their eyes upwards and away, dropped their hands into their laps and had nothing to say to those who further questioned their expertise.
Then there were the Nippa’enja. These were mainly landless Mennonites who plied the trade of water transporters (Lomm), rowing passengers across the Dnieper River to the city of Alexandrovsk or to the Island of Chortitza according to necessity or request. Nippa’enja resided in close proximity to the Dnieper in modest accommodations.
In Ukraine, Mennonite melon patches were of a size only Texas can rival. These patches were termed Berstaund, from the Ozmanian/Arabic baschtan, with the same meaning. Arbus is as old as time and some Mennonite historians claim that Noah grew some on the quarter deck of his craft. The prospect of a rounded red slice of this fructus universalis kept up his spirits and assisted him in maintaining a steady hand at the helm.
In late summer the already mentioned Nippaenja transported huge amounts of watermelons (Arbüse), mainly grown in Niederchortitza, across the river which were bartered by local melon mongers (Kuppelwiewa), who sold them in the wider neighborhood. Regular customers for Mennonite watermelons were to be found along the Dnieper River, then by reloading, to points further north; even Moscovites and people in St. Petersburg awaited these annual shipments. As well as ferrying freight and passengers, these Nippa’enja engaged in commercial fishing. In addition to ice fishing in winter, they repaired their fishing gear including Bolleries, a sort of fish net used in shallow waters. Not infrequently the Nippa’enja were known to be uncouth, just waiting for the question, “Wua tjemmst Dü häa?” (where do you come from?) to which their ready and rehearsed reply was in the classic genitive case “Von Vodaspetz enn Muttaretz” (from father’s tip and mother’s rip) although it should be noted that such vulgarisms were already known in the Prussian area.
I shall not enter into the vocabulary borrowed from the Russian by the Mennonites for swearing but an older half-brother frequently told me that my father could swear in Russian for fifteen minutes without repeating himself. I asked my father about this one a year before he died and he claimed he had then recently timed himself and managed only thirteen minutes, try as he might.
A chapter needs to be devoted to the so-called Jüdeplon or Judenplan, the name given by Chortitzer Mennonites to Jewish settlements. The Judenplan was an attempt by the Russian government in the Kherson province in the middle of the 19th. century to provide Jewish settlers with training in agriculture by model Mennonite farmers. Inter-human relationships on this enterprise were good, sometimes exemplary, with many Jews learning the Mennonite dialect to perfection while many Mennonites learned Yiddish and spoke it until recently. This undertaking was terminated suddenly and brutally by the Nazis in 1942-1943, thereby drastically changing many Mennonite’s attitudes to things German.
Dividing partitions in the fields to keep out neighbors and stray animals as well as serving the purpose of demarcations were called Tun or Tien in the plural. The word “town” owes its etymology to the lowly fence, the Tun, meaning a fenced in area, an enclosure or a wall around an old town in Europe. Knowing this makes it very easy to determine the etymology of a pre-medieval town called Swindon in England, close to London. Swindon means nothing more or less than Schwienstun, Swine Town; we have the tun suffice in Lon-don as well.
Still in the agricultural realm, every Mennonite, indeed all Anabaptists know the Martyrs’ Mirror or know of it. Fervent believers were burned at the stake, auf dem Scheiterhaufen. The word Scheit is in the pile but is never used to describe a piece of wood with which people burn or are burned. And yet, we have the term as in Oatscheat (scheit), meaning a singletree, the sturdy piece of oak attached to the load and to which, in turn, the traces of a horse are attached.
Further, there is a term in Plautdietsch called Owesied which is any side-room, or extension to a main building, like a granary or annex, in which fire-wood, chaff or even implements were stored. Owesied goes back to the semi-circular addition to the side of the church. Since it is an architectural appendix, it is also used to describe a hefty posterior generally of the feminine gender.
A nail is Nagel in German and Noagel in Plautdietsch, hail is Hagel in German and Hoagel in Mennonite Low German. And then there is tail which still existed in Middle Low German as Zagel and which is used daily in Plautdietsch as Zoagel for a tail of an animal or the penis of a male. But the predictable Zagel in High German has dropped off, has been lost in the ways of time and is gone. A Kopp is a head like in Kopf. However, Plautdietsch has a more refined term for the human head, namely Heeft. It is invariably used in Komstheeft, a head of cabbage but there are such who call a headache “Mie ritt de Heeft.”
Before the exact determination of the new language is made in historical and geographical terms it should be mentioned that many Mennonites for half a century after the above-mentioned or conclusive findings, still maintained that their language was a Dutch dialect or emanated from a remote, hidden and sacrosanct valley all their own, yet to be discovered.
And so it comes as no surprise that one Alexander Rempel attempted to write a doctoral thesis on the origin of the Mennonite Low German, he failed.
And this despite the fact that there were thousands of refugees from the Kurische Nehrung and the Kurische Haff who had made their new homes in Germany, generally on or close to the Waterkant, and whose names were Hildebrandt, Kliewer and Klippenstein and who spoke Low German like Johaun Jot Niefeld with möaken enn köeken intact but who had no knowledge whatsoever of who the Mennonites were. Sadly, some of them didn’t even care. I have met them at their Low German conferences by the dozen and we spoke like we did at home when the Kenädja came calling with their flat earth theories during my childhood.
After the Second World War when millions of refugees from the German East sought new homes in the West, one Professor Erhard Riemann, originally from East Prussia, settled in Kiel. A much earlier compatriot, H. Frischbier, had written a folksy dictionary of the Prussian Lowlands; this work was neither scholarly nor reliable enough for the discriminating scholar. Consequently W. Ziesemer compiled a superior dictionary of Prussian dialects, and like Frischbier, the vocabulary was mainly recorded in High German; a knowledge of High German was obviously necessary for its usage. Ziesemer published two fine volumes of this idioticon when the war struck. He temporarily deposited his reservoir of voluminous files for further study and publication in a safe place, a storage shed in a field. A stray bomb hit it and halted further work on the grand scheme; Ziesemer’s final entry was Fingernagel.
Riemann was a researcher cum manager and he hired over many years hundreds of students to file in excess of 3,500,000 of cognates and synonyms of Prussian vocabulary, gleaned and gathered from Prussian refugees. Riemann noticed full well the anomaly which Mennonite vocabulary represented but he regarded these an intrusion to his mind set and disregarded them, or at least failed to draw attention to this anomaly. His able assistant, Dr. Ulrich Tolksdorf, a Königsberger, took over the compilation of the Prussian dialect dictionary when the latter died in 1984. He immediately divested himself from typical Germanic Partikularismus and set out to give the peculiar Mennonite contribution its due. In the volumes which were published under his tutelage, hundreds of entries document the enrichment which the Mennonite dialect within the prevailing dialects, or shades thereof, represents. This process is ongoing although the dictionary with five massive volumes is now complete. Tolksdorf’s successor, Dr. Reinhard Goltz, a Hamburger with the works, likewise is an open-minded spirit, thorough, capable and competent.
Tolksdorf sketched a great many maps of the local Prussian dialect depicting the exceptions which Mennonite vocabulary represent. When Ulrich Tolksdorf met an untimely death at age 54 in 1992, any possibility, if unlikely potential of North American Mennonites pursuing research on their Muttersprache at the source, came to an abrupt end. Their allegiance to their dialect had withered at the vine.
It is tempting to seek refuge in the good old times, Fräjoah, a much practiced brisk nap on the pillow of yesteryear. While such illusionary prevarications exercise the faculties of self-delusion, they offer more. For with every improvement, invention and investment in futuristic glories, come the mounting hangovers of illusions, and the past, the world of the dialect, comes to represent a slower world more in tune to the reflective person’s concept of divine tempo when the price of gasoline played a subordinate role to göttliche Gelassenheit, the serene state of the human soul.
I thank you for paying a free visit to my tent. If you have ever been accorded hospitality in a tent in the Middle East, be it Israeli or Arab you will probably agree that a tent in a desert is instant home and ambience like no other abode. This is bedeviling but it is so.
Tents breed an intimacy so persuasive that the experience calls for a redefinition of language. To that end, an attempt has been offered by a sampling of a dialect, likewise a homey vernacular, namely my mama loshen, meine Muttersprache, miene Muttasproak and all so invitingly conducive to exercising Fisimatenten.