The closest count of living languages today across the globe is 7,358. Various languages with less than 100,000 speakers account for 90% of the world's languages, while less than 2,000 languages are spoken by 1,000 people, more or less. It is fascinating to know that more than a million people only speak 150 to 200 languages while 46 languages could each have only one speaker.
Plautdietsch is an exclusive language spoken by a select few. Plautdietsch, a variety of East Low German, is a Mennonite language. It is the exclusive language of the Mennonites, a religious group originally from Belgium and Holland. They fled these two countries in the 16th century to avoid persecution. Eventually they settled in Canada, the United States and in some Latin American countries.
Today, 80,000 Mennonites living in Canada and those who have settled in Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Paraguay speak Plautdietsch. In the United States, they are mainly in the city of Hillsboro in Kansas, in Reedley, California and the town of Corn in Oklahoma. Overall, about 300,000 Mennonites speak the language.
Plautdietsch belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. English, which is related to Dutch and German languages as well as French, Italian and Spanish, also belong to the Indo-European language family.
Current interest in the language
The Mennonites must have been an enduring group of people, since they were able to keep and maintain their own language and their cultural identity for several centuries despite having to settle in other countries.
Concerned groups are hoping that Plautdietsch speakers would increase despite the fact that this language is said to be unintelligible to speakers of other Low German dialects. There are also arguments on whether to classify it as a language or as a dialect.
Some believe that it is a dialect because Plautdietsch is primarily a spoken language and shares lexical and grammatical resemblance to other Low German varieties. It was intelligible to other speakers of Low German, that is, until the middle of the 18th century as it had contact with other Low German dialects used in the coasts of the Baltic and the North Sea.
On the other hand, others want to classify it as a language because of the various developments and shifts in its sound that are not common in other Low German dialects. It had borrowed many words from other languages that were adapted into Plautdietsch, which other speakers of Low German do not understand. Moreover, it already has many words with different uses. The rest of the Southern and Northern Low German speakers do not understand the idiomatic expressions of Plautdietsch.
Plautdietsch adapted some words from the regions where the Mennonites have settled. From the Ukraine and Russian regions, they call tomato bockelzhonn. Watermelon translates into arbus, erbus or rebus, while garlic becomes schisnikj. Settlers in North America use beissikjel for bicycle; heiwŠ for highway, and trock for truck. Mennonites in Latin American countries use burra instead of ÒburroÓ for donkey and the Mexican Spanish sandal called ÒhuaracheÓ becomes wratsch in Plautdietsch.
It is alarming to note that 90% of the living languages we have today are projected to become extinct by 2050. Younger Mennonites born in the United States and Canada only speak English. Homer Groening, the father of Matt Groening who created ÒThe SimpsonsÓ spoke Plautdietsch as a child, although his son does not speak the language. Cultural and economic globalization has something to do with this. Television, print media and Internet also figure significantly in language loss. Something should be done about this.
by: Bernadine B. Racoma
Editor, Day Translations, Inc.
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