Posts Tagged ‘Low German’

Bilingual and Happy – Menno Style

Knowing how to speak both English and Low German is a wonderful thing. Perhaps you are newly immigrated to Canada from an Old Colony Mennonite Darp in Mexico and exploring the vast new world of English words open to you, like, “Large-says me dat hemberje.” Or like me, you have grown up in Canada speaking Low German, but your syntax and word choices are just awkward enough to make aunts and uncles smile behind their Schneppeldäka.* Either way, your possibilities for expression and meaningful conversation are double. There are just a few pitfalls to watch out for as you practice.

If you are new to Canada, complications can arise when neighbouring in English. Like anyone learning the language, you may use the wrong syntax and words that don’t translate your meaning perfectly into English. In comparing the ease of jcartier-dish-washer-300pxhousekeeping today with that of her childhood, Groossmama might say, “From the dishwasher had yet no one heard”, leading her grandchildren to think that the dishwasher was apt to shrug into a summer cardi and leave the house without telling anyone when it would be back.

Albert’s colleague Barry found himself in a similar conversation. Only a month ago, he moved from a busy city into the country. One day, Barry arrived home after a heavy snowfall to find that his Mennonite neighbour, Henry, had thoughtfully cleaned his driveway. When Barry offered to pay him, Henry refused, saying, “It’s free… I see you work out.” Someone less intuitive than Barry might have feared that Henry was making an inappropriate advance toward them. Fortunately, Barry realized that Henry was explaining that he observed that Barry’s job requires him to be away throughout the day, so he cleaned Barry’s driveway as an act of (platonic) friendship.

But you may run into trouble even when you have become fluently bilingual. Having choices means you will be prone to flip from one language to the other in search of the best words to express what you’re trying to say. Your listener may also be bilingual, but if you have led the conversation thus far in English, your conversation partner is listening in English. A sudden switch to Low German may leave them as confused as if they’ve just heard a completely foreign language. Observe the following conversation between Aggie and Margaretha.

Aggie: I totally need new makeup. This liquid powder mattifying foundation looks terrible on my face.

Margaretha: (nods sympathetically) My gecko’s skin is less flaky.

Aggie: What should I do?

Margaretha: Your Stella McCartney leggings will totally take the focus off your face. Just go for your run au naturel.

Aggie: I can’t. I just know I’ll run into Corny at the park. He’s just moved into the building and he is soooooo GQ.

Margaretha: Well, Sephora is having a sale today. You just have to spend a hundred dollars on lip liner and –

Aggie: JAUMA NOCH EENT!** (jumps to her feet and grabs her purse) Te’waut sädst mie daut nicht tom easchten plauts?***

Margaretha: What?

Aggie: Waut?

To complicate matters even more, the confusion around language isn’t limited to English or Low German-speaking people. It extends to their animals as well. One day, I saw a cat crossing our neighbour Bob’s yard. It was walking toward his chicken barn. I knew it didn’t belong to Bob and being fond of cats, I stopped to talk to it.

“Here kitty kitty kitty.” The cat didn’t stop, slow down or even indicate that it heard me. I called again, “Here kitty kitty kitty.” The cat didn’t even flick an ear; so strong was the lure of untapped mouse holes in Bob’s chicken barn. On a hunch I called out, “Miets miets miets miets.” Sure enough, the cat halted in its tracks and turned to give me its full attention. I had guessed right. The cat was German.

Still, it’s hard not to be miffed when someone has ignored you, even if they can explain it away with a language barrier. There was no one else I could have been talking to and the cat knew it. I lifted my chin and walked toward the house, satisfied with knowing that he was staring after me in wonderment. tabby-cat

I know the look well. I get it every time a Low German speaker with limited English hears me speak Low German for the first time. When they recover, they typically respond in English to show me how sophisticated they are. To which I answer in Low German with a broad smile and we’re both of us impressed, with ourselves at the very least.

The exception to this occurred one day when I pulled into a parking space by myself at McDonald’s in Aylmer. A moment later, a full-sized van pulled up beside me. A lady I’d never seen before rolled down the window and without hesitation, asked me in Low German where the Old Colony church was where a funeral was to be held that day. What could I do but tell her to head east and turn linjsch**** on Dingle Street? A smile, a “Dankscheen” and the van sped away with the last vestiges of my Canadian-born pride. Which leads me to one last point before sending you out to practice your English & Low German skills, and it’s true whether you’ve just arrived in Canada or you’ve lived here all your life: Store-bought clothes and Canadian airs might fool some people but you will never escape who you really are. It’s best not to try.



**an exclamation which translated literally is, “Pity yet one”. This sounds nonsensical in English but when uttered in surprise or dismay, its meaning is unmistakable.

***”Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?”



The Mennonite Name Game

Old Colony Mennonites are a curious bunch in that they raise huge numbers of children while limiting themselves to a few select names to call them by. My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bill had eleven sons: John, Willy, Pete, Abe, Dave, Isaac, Jake, Ben, Henry, Frank and Dan. As close as I can figure, they used up more than half of the names available to them – Corny, George, Aaron, Herman, Anton, Diedrich, Hans and Andy are all that’s left.

My friend was born Susanna Martens. When she was a teenager, she changed it to Suzen for fear of drowning in a sea of Susans, Susies Sues and Züssas, but she didn’t have it as bad as her four older brothers Jake and John. Their dad was a young widower and father to Jake, John and Liz when he met their mom, likewise widowed and mother to Helen, Jake and John, resulting in the overlap. Together, they happily grafted the braid with a Mary, Abe, Tina, Annie, Aggie, Susanna, and tied it neatly with a Martin.

This dearth of names makes it nearly impossible to distinguish one Pete or one Margaret from another Pete or johnny-automatic-coffee-and-pastryMargaret in conversation unless you add their last names. It’s easier if Pete marries Margaret because then you can say Pete ‘n’ Margaret and most people will know who you mean. Depending on the weather and availability of Manitoban knack sot (Low German for “sunflower seeds”) at any given social gathering, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter more than two Pete ‘n’ Margaret at the same faspa desch.

If you’re like Sarah Funk though, who wanted to marry Corny Wiebe but lost him to Eva Hildebrandt, people will always refer to you by first and last name to tell you apart from Sarah Reddecopp, Sarah Miller and Sarah Blatz who all work the same shift as you at the tomato cannery. You will be Sarah Funk everywhere other than your immediate family gathering, or worse, Funken Sush (The Funk’s daughter, Sarah), because if you can’t land a husband, you obviously haven’t matured into a separate entity from your parents and never will. This rule applies to everyone unmarried, male and female alike.

You’re title in society is no better. You’re not a single man or woman; you’re an “oola jung” (old boy) or “oola me’jal” (old girl), labels that carry subtle overtones of stunted maturity and social retardation. But since Eva was lucky enough to marry Corny, she gets “sche” appended to her new last name, which is pronounced shə, like the sound in “book”.  She is now Mumkje Knaltz Wiebsche (Mrs. Cornelius Wiebe), to the delight of the Hildebrandts if the Wiebes own a lucrative bucklejohn contract or cheese factory, and to the mortification of Funken Sush. After fifteen years of marriage, I still wrestle my pride at giving up my last name to become Mumkje Wallsche. Driedgers are rare as Mennonite surnames go, and when you find them, they’re mostly tall and good-looking. I preen a little when an old-timer at church or the frozen food aisle stops and hails me as Driedjasch Tien (The Driedger’s Tina). I can’t help it.  It’s hard to melt into obscurity with the Walls who number more than a hundred just in the Aylmer – Tillsonburg Canpages.

This shortage of names complicates other matters too. Announcing a death that’s occurred in the wider Mennonite community is never as simple as saying, “John Krahn died.” A hush falls as every head in the room turns to look at the speaker. “You mean my Schvoawa in Gnadenthal?” says Ben Guenther, rising from a game of Daum Brat.  “Or my Grootfoda in Tamaulipas??” cries Margaretha Zacharias nee Krahn, a borscht spoon frozen halfway to her lips. An inquest ensues to identify the deceased. This is achieved by tracing the lineage of every known John Krahn from his birthplace in Mexico to his migration from Saskatchewan, over the Russian steppes to the Chortitza River and clear back to Prussia. If Ben’s brother-in-souplaw and Margaretha’s grandpa prove exempt, shoulders slump in relief (presumably) and games and borscht resume.

Some people leave conservative churches to join more modern Mennonite sects while their family is still growing. The children’s names start out strong: Abrahams, Helenas and Johans march out into the world in quick succession before petering out in Tims and Rosies. Still other second-generation Canadians modify their own names in an effort to assimilate; Agathas become Angies, Cornys are Cors and tousled, barefoot Johnnys evolve overnight into coiffed and pretty Jons.

Nicknames are another means of telling one Friesen from another but you have to be careful to hear them correctly. I’d long heard tales about Stäla Friesen (a “stäla” is a thief or robber). I figured it marked him as a petty thief among his neighbours. Only a month ago did I learn that he was in fact Steila Friesen (“steil” means steep or upright), so named because his house in Mexico featured a steeply pitched roof in a neighborhood of flat roofs. I’ve never known what his real name was.

My Grandma Fehr always called my Grandpa “Heeya” (say it like you’re executing a karate chop with the accent on the first syllable), which means “Dear” or “Darling” but is only proper to say to your spouse. You don’t snuggle your favourite niece or nephew and call them Heeya…do not do it.

Other older couples call each other “Oola” (pronounced Owlah), which means “old one” but sounds affectionate when they say it, like, “You’re an old fart but I love you anyway.”

The scary ones are those who never call each other anything at all, except “mien Maun” or “miene Frü” (my man or my wife) when they’re obliged to mention them to other people. But this indicates a universal problem rather than anything inherently Mennonite.  Because we love and fret and dream and balk instead trusting God just like everybody does. Every John, Dick and Mary of us.


Feeling the High (German)

Sprechen sie Deutsch?  Yeah, me either.  That is, I speak Low German (in that language the question reads, “Räd’st dü Dietsch?”), but not High German.  I wish I did.  I’ve been listening to Peter Schilling this week who is even more talented, handsome and quietly self-assured in his fifties than he was in the freaky science-fiction phase of his career in the eighties.  The trouble is that he sings mainly in High German.  I can read the language but I don’t understand most of the words I’m reading (a small oversight on the part of my childhood Sunday School teachers).  I grasp only enough to make me even more curious to know what Herr Schilling is crooning about.

I long to study this austere, scholarly sounding language, but I need a reason beyond the ability to serenade the chickens with “99 Luftballoons” every morning.  How would I use my newfound knowledge?  What would I read; to whom would I write?  How would it be to the glory of God and the betterment of my fellow-man and me if I were fluent in High German?  I must try to compile a list of reasons.

1.  I could write Peter Schilling a fan letter in his mother tongue.

2.  As well as being an avid reader, my mother speaks and writes High German.  The next time she asks me why I never visit, I could say, “Mutter, ich weigere mich dies Sie besuchen mehr als fünf mal für jedes mal wenn sie mich besuchen.” (“Mother, I refuse to visit you more than five times for every time you visit me”, thank you online translator).  To see her jaw drop would be worth the two years it would take spent with my nose stuck in Die Mennonitische Post.

3.  I could understand what I’m singing when I attend the German worship service at church.  The message is preached in Low German, but we sing mainly High German songs.

4.  I could bake apfelstrudel.  Sure, you can get the recipe in English, but who knows what can get lost in translation and completely ruin an authentic apfelstrudel?  2 kg äpfel, 2 kg apples…it’s pretty dubious…right?  Hmm.

Maybe I’ll pass on the High German, for now at least.  Excepting number 3, I don’t think my reasons impress God or my fellow-man.  It’s okay though.  I’m not without other, more productive interests to pursue.  Besides, Peter Schilling could sing the classified ads backward and I’d still crank the volume.  Es is alle gut.

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