Minority and regional languages in Germany

Have you ever wondered which languages are spoken in Germany apart from German and its dialects? You can find out it now!

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Estimated reading time:12minutes

Recently, I used to tell about Mireille, the Parisian lady who was very impressed and surprised that in France, more languages than French are spoken. Me too, I once sat in a course that dealt with this very topic. In that course, people were as well very surprised and confused and didn’t know an answer, when they were asked if we know which minority and regional languages are spoken in Germany. I myself was aware of one language. I won't tell you which one yet. My fellow students did not know any other language. How little we knew. Now I'll clear things up a bit and we'll go on a little trip to Germany and get to know a few autochthonous minority languages spoken there. 

First of all, I would like to point out the difference between allochthonous and autochthonous minorities. Allochthonous minorities arrived in a country in the last few decades. Autochthonous minorities, on the other hand, have often lived there for several centuries. Sometimes even longer than the majority. Of course, the distinctions can also be blurred here and the question arises as to how old is "old-established". 

Scientific discourse and blogs thrive on criticism and discussion, so feel free to comment. In this article, I will limit myself to the latter. In this little language journey that I would like to take you on, it is important to note that we will only spend a short time at each stop and will only touch on each language. Of course, there is much more to report and we could stay there for years to get to know and understand everything.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

Before we start our journey, however, I would like to provide you with a little information and briefly explain what the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of the Council of Europe is all about. I will describe it in more detail in another article. The Charter was signed in 1992 and aims to ensure that regional and minority languages are seen as a unique part of Europe's cultural heritage. It also wants to see cross-border cooperation and not political borders hindering the togetherness of language minorities. Regional and minority languages should also be protected from extinction and their use in law and education, as well as in public, social, cultural, multimedia and economic life should be expanded. This includes, for example, teaching and studying in the respective language. This should also be accessible to fellow citizens outside the minority. It is up to the individual states to decide which languages are to be included in the Charter. We will first look at the languages that have been included in the Charter by Germany, and then also those that have not.


Let's start our little journey in the north of Germany, where a Danish-speaking minority lives. It is spoken in South Schleswig (Danish: Sydslesvig), in the northern part of Schleswig-Holstein, on the border with Denmark, whose centre is Flensburg (Danish: Flensborg). About 50,000 people feel that they belong to this minority. In 1864, Denmark had to cede North and South Schleswig to Prussia after losing a war. In 1920, after a referendum, North Schleswig fell to Denmark and South Schleswig to Germany. Since 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany has legally guaranteed the minority their free confession.

Danish is a north Germanic, Scandinavian language. The strongest influence that Danish received through language contact was determined by Low German and North German in the years 1200-1500. At that time, trade flourished in Denmark and the two varieties were able to establish themselves as commercial languages. The fact that German still has an influence on the Danish language today is not least due to its geographical proximity. But German was also the lingua franca at the Danish royal court for a long time. Danish has a large number of dialects. The Danish-speaking minority has a large network of associations and institutions. These are financed by the governments of both states. For example, all Danish schools have been recognised by the state since 1955.


Frisian is regarded as a language and not as a dialect of German. It is a West Germanic language. North Frisian is spoken in the North of Schleswig-Holstein, on the west coast of the district of North Frisia and on the islands of Föhr, Amrum, Sylt and on the Halligen. There are 8,000 to 10,000 speakers. 

North Frisian has a large number of dialects, some of which differ greatly from each other. The main dialects are Mainland North Frisian and Island North Frisian. German has been the official and school language in North Frisia since the 17th century, while North Frisian has remained more of a family language. There are also numerous associations and organisations in North Frisia that strive to research and preserve the language. For example, there are Frisian hymnbooks, church services in Frisian, Frisian dictionaries, etc. 

Sater Frisian, a variety of East Frisian and the only variety still spoken here, is spoken by about 2000 people in the municipality of Saterland in Lower Saxony. This is the smallest minority language dealt with here and one of the smallest minority languages in the whole of Europe.  Already in the Imperial County of East Frisia, formed in 1464, Low German and not Frisian was the official language, as a result of which the latter was increasingly displaced. However, Sater Frisian was still so deeply rooted in 1950 that it was also learned by refugees. After that, however, teachers advised all parents and children to use German. The Seelter Buund is committed to the preservation and promotion of Sater Frisian. In Saterland, for example, there are bilingual place-name signs and teaching of the Sater Frisian language in kindergartens, primary schools and a secondary school. In addition, lessons take place in the form of study groups or elective subjects, as a result of which Sater Frisian is being read and written more and more. There are also seminars on Sater Frisian at the University of Oldenburg. Speakers of this language also speak Low German, although not the East Frisian dialect, but the Oldenburg dialect.

Low German

We stay in the north, but expand and look at Low German, whose status as an independent language or variety of German is disputed. It is, however, legally recognised as a regional language (that it is not always so easy to differentiate whether a variety is a language or a dialect can be read here, by the way). Low German itself, in turn, has a large number of dialects, some of which differ greatly from one another. The syntax is increasingly oriented towards standard German. It is spoken in a total of eight federal states: in Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, Schleswig Holstein and in the northern parts of Brandenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt. Its number of speakers is in sharp decline, but it is represented by all parts of the population living in the linguistic area. Once the general lingua franca in northern Germany, Low German has now become a family language. It was also very well developed in prose and poetry. 

The umbrella organisation for all institutions dealing with Low German is the Institute for Low German in Bremen. In addition, there are numerous institutions in the individual federal states. Low German is part of research and teaching at the universities of Hamburg, Kiel, Oldenburg and Rostock. One Low German custom is the singing on St Martin's Day, when children go from door to door, singing and finally asking for a small gift. They also sing in Low German.


We leave the north and head to Lusatia to get to know the Sorbian language.

Readers living in Germany may know the legend of Krabat, the sorcerer. If they don't know the legend, then perhaps the novel of the same title by Otfried Preußler. In any case, the story takes place in Lusatia. In Preußler's novel we read that Krabat, the Master and the other journeymen speak Wendish. Wendish is an antiquated term for Slavic. Preußler is referring here to Sorbian. Those who are not familiar with this may know other Sorbian customs, such as the artistic traditional Sorbian Easter eggs. 

Sorbian is a West Slavic language and thus related to Polish, Kashubian, Czech and Slovak. It is still spoken in Upper and Lower Lusatia, in the federal states of Saxony and Brandenburg. Today there are still about 60,000 Sorbians, of whom only about half still actively speak the language. The fact that the Sorbian-speaking area was once more extensive can still be deduced from field and place names. Discrimination against Sorbians and language bans have been known since the 13th century, which reduced the size of the area. During the Reformation, religious texts were recorded in Sorbian for the first time. The two standard written varieties of Sorbian are Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. In addition, there are numerous dialects that are recorded in the Sorbian language atlas. The Domowina is an umbrella organisation that includes several Sorbian associations of different kinds. In addition, Sorbian is the language of instruction in numerous primary schools. Classes are held either in Sorbian or bilingually. There is also the possibility of learning the Sorbian language. There is also an Upper Sorbian and a Lower Sorbian grammar school in each of the language areas. In addition, the language is taught in a child-oriented way in several day-care centres. Research institutions include the Sorbian Institute in Bautzen and Cottbus, as well as the Institute for Sorbian Studies at the University of Leipzig.

Cultural institutions and the availability of media are important for the preservation of the Sorbian language. For example, the Domowina publishing house in Bautzen produces books, newspapers and magazines in Upper and Lower Sorbian. There are also Sorbian radio and television stations. Both the Upper and Lower Sorbian languages are endangered.


We continue our journey through Germany and look at the minority represented throughout the country, namely the Sinti*zze and Rom*nja, of whom about 70,000 live in Germany. This number refers to those Sinti*zze and Rom*nja who have been living in Germany for centuries. There are also Romany-speaking Rom*nja in Germany who have immigrated from the Balkan countries, among other places. Romani is an Indo-Aryan language. It is assumed that the language is the direct descendant of a dialect related to the colloquial basis of Sanskrit. The individual dialects of Romani differ greatly in some cases and can certainly be counted as separate languages in terms of distance. However, there is little expansion. It was not until the 20th century that attempts were made to standardise Romani. It has always had influences on the language of the majority, just as the language of the majority has always had influences on Romani. In Germany, there is the Zentralrat deutscher Sinti und Roma e.V. (Central Council of German Sinti and Roma) on the one hand, and the Sinti Allianz Deutschland e.V. (Sinti Alliance Germany) on the other. It is important to the Zentralrat deutscher Sinti und Roma that the language is protected by means of the Charter, but also that the minority can decide for itself how it does this. Protection and promotion must never be used against the interests of the minority. At the time of the Nazi regime, anthropologists had gained the trust of the Sinti*zze and Rom*nja by learning their language. Afterwards they wanted to destroy them. For this reason, among others, the Sinti Allianz does not want people outside the minority to have access to their language. Language and culture are cultivated in the families. It rejects state measures. It also emphasises that the Sinti*zze are an individual minority.

Languages that were not included in the Charter and are hardly spoken any more

So far, our journey has only taken us to the languages that Germany has included in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Now I will briefly look at two languages that are hardly spoken in Germany and were not included there. Let's start with Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. It is a West Germanic language that used the Hebrew alphabet for writing. It is hardly spoken in Germany, but in other parts of the world. Many European countries include Yiddish the Charter. Another language that should be briefly mentioned here is Yenish. It is a recognised minority language in Switzerland, which is the only state that included Yenish in the Charter. The origin of Yenish is not entirely clear. As a language it is very heterogeneous. It is also disputed whether it is a variety of Rotwelsch. The Yenish as a group are also heterogeneous. It is hardly ever spoken. A German town with a Yenish culture is Singen am Hohentwiel, where an estimated 800 Yenish people live. The Yenish are still socially marginalised.


We end our journey with many questions: Should Yiddish and Jenisch be in the Charter? What about Plautdietsch, the language of the Russian Mennonites (or is this just a variety of Low German? Is it autochthonous?)? Which languages are perhaps no longer allochthonous? What can we do to preserve the languages? Based on the views of the Sinti Allianz, however, the question also arises as to whether we are allowed to do this at all. Are we simply allowed to determine what happens to the minority languages? The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages focuses on connecting different parts of the population and wants to make languages accessible to people outside the minority. Is it not arrogant and looking down from above to determine this? At what point is dealing with the language and culture of a minority cultural appropriation? What do you think?








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Photo credit: Bianca Ackermann via Unsplash



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