Saterlandic, Part 2: Is Saterfrisian Endangered?

See part 1

See part 3

Written by Dyami Millarson

To get a picture of the level of endangerment facing Saterlandic, we ought to take three historical aspects into account: (a) the literary history of Saterlandic, (b) the demographic history of Saterland, and (c) the history of Saterlandic advocacy groups. Finally, we will take a look at the (historical) estimates of the amount of speakers of Saterlandic, we will make a preliminary attempt at a new 2019 estimate of the current amount of speakers and we will see what this entails for the current level of endangerment of Saterlandic.

Saterfrisian became a written language relatively late in the history of Germanic languages, whilst Saterfrisian was traditionally not written and relied on oral tradition since time immemorial, as we are wont to see with pre-literary languages. The first tentative start with writing Saterlandic was made in the 19th century. According to linguist Marron Curtis Fort (1988: Die ferläddene Súun, der bisher älteste saterfriesische Text, published in Jahrbuch für das Oldenburger Münsterland 20.), the first text that has been found thus far to be written in Saterlandic stems from 1812, is authored by Sixtus Ahlrichs and is religious in nature. (However, the first Saterlandic wordlist appeared in 1798, authored by Mauritz Detten as part of his Reisebeschreibung über Niederstift Münster im Jahre 1794, published in Neues fortgesetztes Westphälisches Magazin zur Geographie, Historie und Statistik.) The West Frisian nobleman, jurist, Frisian spelling and literary language advocate, proponent of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s work, translator of philologist Rasmus Rask’s monumental Danish grammar of the Frisian language and independent researcher of Frisian language, history and genealogy Montanus Hettema (1796-1873) and Frisian poet and clergyman Rinse Posthumus (1790-1859) published Saterlandic vocabulary, grammar and texts in 1836 in their monumental Dutch book Onze Reis naar Sagelterland (‘Our Journey to Saterland’), which describes their unforgettable 40-hour journey from Leeuwarden to Saterland by horse and cart.

Theologian and philologist Johann Friedrich Minssen (1823-1901), who was interested in recording local (1) fairytales, (2) riddles, (3) folktales, (4) customs and (5) sayings, published the first meticulous scientific work on the Saterlandic language Mittheilungen aus dem Saterlande in 1846, which included stories in Saterfrisian that were adopted from the Saterfrisian story-teller Hermann Griep (1800-1871). It was Minssen’s opinion that the aforementioned Hettema and Posthumus had made Saterfrisian too much like Old Frisian which they were ostensibly familiar with (although Saterfrisian is known to be a remarkably conservative language). Minssen was the neighbour of the elderly Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the father of the family who permitted Winston Churchill (1874-1965) to stay in their home for a month and the distant relative of the jurist Heinrich Georg Ehrentraut (1798-1866), who investigated the now extinct Insular East Frisian language of Wangerooge and documented this language extensively using a similar approach as Minssen.

The versatile and prolific philologist Theodor Siebs (1862-1941), who is the father of the standard pronunciation of German and made great efforts for documenting the Frisian languages and is the author of a monumental work on the language of Helgoland (which I plan to study next month) titled Helgoland und seine Sprache containing useful phonetic transcriptions, published a work with anonymous Saterlandic stories and anecdotes in 1893 in the Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde III under the title Das Saterland: Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Volkskunde. The ‘first Saterlandic poet’ and playwright Gesina Lechte-Siemer (1911-2007), who had as a young girl learned how to write Saterlandic by adopting the spelling of the cultural historian Julius Bröring (1867-1947) as observed in his Saterlandic wordlist that was published in his 1901 work Das Saterland: Eine Darstellung von Land, Leben, Leuten in Wort und Bild, second volume, and later became close with Margaretha Grosser (born 1934), had established herself as a pre-war pioneer in Saterlandic literature when her play Louts Hinerks Tjoue was published in 1934. She was firmly convinced that Saterlandic had to be preserved with the help of writing. I think it really sad that I cannot meet Gesina Siemer in person, but I hope to speak with Margaretha Grosser about her if I get the chance to meet her or to speak to her.

After a cautious start had been made by Gesina Siemer in the pre-war period, a distinct Saterfrisian literature developed particularly in the latter half of the 20th century. Almost no literature existed prior to the Second World War. The further literary history of Saterlandic is intertwined with that of the Seelterbund, which is an institution or advocacy group founded in 1952 for the preservation of Saterlandic language and culture. The Seelterbund, which existed in its initial form until 1977, advocated that Saterlandic be written and therefore supported the production and publication of Lesebouk foar Seelterlound (available on Wikisource) between 1953 and 1965. One of the founding members of the Saterlandic cultural institution Seelterbund (1952-1977), which gave a major post-war impetus for the development of a distinct Saterlandic literature, and ‘second Saterfrisian author’ Hermann Janssen (1888-1971), who was the second Saterfrisian in the 20th century after the first Saterfrisian modern literary author Gesina Siemer to realise the importance of writing in his own language and was highly motivated to write about the language and culture of the Saterfrisians, wrote Saterlandic articles for the since-1889 newspaper General-Anzeiger between 1953 and 1962 and thus made the most significant contributions to Lesebouk foar Seelterlound which consists of newspaper articles which made quite a thick book when bundled together, worked together with Piet Kramer and became known for the co-authored 1964 book Dät Ooldenhuus that I managed to get an antiquarian copy of, and he published the seasonal magazine Seelter Trjou between 1966 and 1972 together with Theo Griep (1916-2007) and Piet Kramer. I hope to learn more about Hermann Janssen if I talk with Pyt Kramer.

The speakers of Saterlandic did not know in the early 20th century that they were speaking Frisian and they rediscovered their roots thanks to the consequential 20th-century developments in advocacy and research regarding Saterlandic. 1977 is a year of importance, because it marked a huge change in the organisational structure of the advocacy for Saterlandic language and culture. Namely, the old cultural institution Seelter Bund (founded in 1952), which had not been very active for the last 15 years of its existence, was reformed into the new Seelter Buund in 1977. Saterfrisian was prohibited in schools in the post-war period somewhat prior to the Hippie Age (i.e., the prohibition was around the 1960s). The new Seelter Buund, however, protested this together with the language experts Pyt Kramer who hails from Frisia in the Netherlands and Marron Curtis Fort who is originally from the USA. It can be said that their protest was ultimately successful, for nowadays a lot has changed in German society and the German Basic Law, Article 3, paragraph 3, first sentence says that any discrimination (of the individual) based on language is prohibited. Theo Deddens (born 1934), who is the second Scharrel Frisian author of the 20th century whilst Gesina Siemer and Hermann Janssen wrote in their native Ramsloh Frisian, has written Saterlandic articles between 1977 and 1990 for the Münsterländische Tageszeitung based in Cloppenburg. He has written about 300 articles in total. One of the founders of the old Seelterbuund (1952-1977), municipal councillor and farmer Theo Griep (1916-2007), who was the first speaker of Scharrel Frisian to contribute to Saterlandic literature (starting from his involvement in the seasonal magazine Seelter Trjou as mentioned before), had a family history in Scharrel going all the way back to the 17th century and was by the 21st century the only local elder who was still intimately familiar with the local history of Scharrel, wrote several texts for Marron Curtis Fort’s Saterfriesische Stimmen (1990), worked on Seelter Seeken (1999) together with Pyt Kramer and published only one Saterlandic book titled Twiske Ticheläi un Baarenbierich (2002) on his own.

Noteable is the absence of Strücklingen Frisian authors in the Saterlandic literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, whilst a narrow majority of Saterlandic authors have been speakers of Ramsloh Frisian (particularly the earliest Saterfrisian authors were speakers of Ramsloh Frisian) and 2 have been speakers of Scharrel Frisian. The prolific Ramsloh Frisian children’s book writer Margaretha Grosser (born 1934), who is a vocal and dedicated advocate of the transmission of the Saterfrisian language, has even given Saterfrisian courses to children and adults at her own home and has been highly fruitful in the writing of her native tongue after her retirement in 1989 because she was of the opinion that Saterfrisian should not only be transmitted orally but ought to be written as well and has contributed Saterlandic articles to the Münsterländische Tageszeitung since her retirement in 1989 after Theo Deddens had stopped contributing articles starting from 1990, has written and translated more than 20 works such as Dööntjen un Fertälstere uut Seelterlound (volumes 1 & 2, published in 1992 & 1993 respectively), Die littje Häwelmon (1993), Sienke Koodiegel fertäld (1994) which is a bright yellow booklet I managed to buy online from a Dutch lady whose daughter had had the intention to learn Frisian as spoken in the Netherlands when she studied in Leeuwarden but was unaware this book was written in Saterfrisian, Geschichten, Gedichte un Läidere fon Sunnerkloas tou Kööntje (2001), Die litje Prins (2009), Die stöäwelde Bolse (2015) and Oo, wät fluch is Panama (2016). She has produced mainly short works, which usually have no more than 60 pages. I calculated that if she produced 21 works from 1992 to 2016 and these contain a total amount of 1119 pages, then the average page count of her books is 53 pages. Margaretha Grosser is the first Saterfrisian I have ever heard speaking Saterfrisian due to her YouTube video teaching Saterfrisian which was originally produced for a local TV series about Saterfrisian.

It is an important symbolic development in the 21st century that the preservation of Saterfrisian language and culture has taken a physical form. Seelterfräisk Kulturhuus (‘Saterfrisian Cultural Home’), which is a community centre located in Scharrel belonging to the Seelter Buund, was completed in 2013 after the renovation of an old train station from 1906 which had commenced in 2012 and the grand opening of the repurposed building was celebrated in the same year. The train track of the old train station itself is still visible near Seelterfräisk Kulturhuus. I find it a matter of good taste to use the historical train station as a centre of Saterlandic culture and language, not only considering the nostalgic relationship that the Saterfrisians themselves may have with this stylish train station from 1906 due to all personal memories of the historical meetings and events that took place there but also considering the purpose of the Seelter Buund to preserve the Saterfrisian historical culture. Seelterfräisk Kulturhuus, which has a board of the radio station Ems-Vechte-Welle on its front, houses a library of Saterfrisian books and a radio studio which is used for broadcasts in Saterfrisian. Important cultural meetings have been held in the Seelterfräisk Kulturhuus. For instance, Marron Curtis Fort, who also published in 2003 his own Saterfrisian translation of the New Testament and Psalms of the Bible that I am currently using for practising my East Frisian reading, presented his new Saterfrisian dictionary in February 2015 in Seelterfräisk Kulturhuus.

The Saterlandic-speaking population was originally shielded from the outside world by impenetrable marshland and other natural barriers, religious endogamy, and a culture of trade and self-reliance. The speakers of Saterlandic were the overwhelming majority in the pre-war era. The Saterlandic language community survived WWII relatively intact. Saterland was, however, hit hard by the aftermath of the war. Waves of High German-speaking migrants, which had been expelled from their homes, came to Saterland. All the households of Saterland were required to house as many of them as possible. The majority of the migrants did not integrate with the local culture, and they habitually spoke High German with each other. High German gradually became the dominant language of daily communication from 1945 onwards, as this was the language of the newcomers. Only a minority of the migrants integrated with the local culture and learned to speak Saterlandic. It soon became apparent to the indigenous Saterlandic community that many of the refugees would stay permanently, because they could not return home. Consequently, the entire community soon switched to High German and the majority of the parents soon desired their children to learn to speak High German. While Saterlandic had been vigorous prior to the war, it suddenly found itself endangered in the face of growing High German influence and prestige and it did not help that Saterlandic was prohibited at school prior to the Hippie Age. This led to increased language consciousness among its fluent speakers and resulted in the emergence of a distinct Saterlandic literature in the post-war era as we saw earlier. While speakers of Saterlandic had been unaware prior to the war that they spoke a Frisian language, they had started to rediscover their Frisian roots after the war, and were aided in the quest for soul-searching and rediscovery of their Frisian roots by Pyt Kramer and Marron Curtis Fort. This confirms that trauma experienced by a community leads to increased language consciousness, and this consciousness may ultimately help the language to be transmitted to the next generations or at least to be preserved in one form or another such that unlimited future attempts at revitalisation are made possible.

To assess the current situation in 2019, we need to know how many speakers of Saterlandic there are and what percentage of the population they are. It is cited in various places that the number of speakers ranges between 1500 and 2500 or some variation of that, but these numbers are unreliable because they have not been adapted to the current year of 2019. Moreover, we are dealing with an endangered language which is chiefly spoken by elderly and therefore the number of speakers ought to be adapted to 2019. Dieter Stellmacher, who did the last extensive scientific investigation into the amount of speakers of Saterlandic, says in his 1998 book Das Saterland und das Saterländische (of which I own a copy) that there were 2225 speakers of Saterlandic in 1995, which is now almost a quarter century ago. Pyt Kramer himself claims, unfortunately at some unspecified date (which I may right or wrongly presume to be after Stellmacher’s study), in an article published on the website of the Fryske Beweging that there are 2000 speakers of Saterfrisian, which is more than ever before according to him, and that they make up 25% of the population of Saterland, which is less than ever before according to him (mirroring the aforementioned figure in an interview of 20 August 2018 by Geert Veldstra in Friesch Dagblad, Pyt Kramer put the number of speakers between 1500 and 2000 and said it is the smallest recognised language of Europe). He ends his article on a positive note, citing various advancements and saying that children are learning Saterfrisian at school. This is all well and good, but I doubt there are many children who speak it fluently. Historical experience with endangered languages in general, as is mentioned by David Crystal in his 2001 book Language Death (pp. 136-8 in 2001 edition; pp. 181-4 in 2014 edition), is sufficient to be highly skeptical of the idea that traditional education alone can save an endangered language. Furthermore, it stands to reason that a situation, where Saterfrisian lessons are given at school, is always preferable to a situation, where Saterfrisian is banned at school. However, if historical experience with other languages tells us anything, then we ought to know that traditional education cannot be entirely relied upon to bring a language back from the path towards extinction. The New Zealand-invented language nests and other real-world language immersion groups (and similar online community-building immersion groups such as represented by ourselves who believe in the new possibilities offered by the Digital Age) are the only existing models so far that have proven to work against widespread language shift and may possibly even reverse it. My doubt here that children can actually speak Saterlandic fluently is confirmed by a short nature documentary in Saterlandic featuring a few children speaking Saterlandic, but I noticed immediately that it seemed highly scripted, whereas the elder speakers displayed authentic fluency. We can conclude safely that Saterlandic is a language chiefly spoken by the elderly and that the transmission of the language to the next generations is proving highly problematic. Claims of huge increases in amount of speakers as result of traditional education methods is highly dubious due to the limitations of traditional education and such claims, although inspired by understandable well-intended desires for language revitalisation, should raise alarms to anyone who is intimately familiar with the scientific literature on endangered languages and language revitalisation. Placing blind faith in education to save a language is, therefore, scientifically unwarranted, whereas proven to be highly successful methods such as the language nest model do exist. These immersion methods are still highly untraditional, but they do usually pay off and therefore deserve to be traditionalised for the sake of language conservation.

A 2017 Mercator article concedes my scientific doubt with regards to the effectiveness of education in the field of language-saving:

“So far there are only two so-called Sater Frisian schools. Until now, the schools can decide themselves which subjects they want to teach in Sater Frisian. The Landesschulbehörde zur Förderung der Sprachbegegnung und des Spracherwerbs provides 265 hours per school year for teaching the minority language. In primary schools, it is part of the mandatory subjects whereas in secondary education it is optional. Sater Frisian is also used in school projects, theatre productions or other kinds of public school events. There is no research done yet on how successful the project is.” (The added emphasis is mine.)

Ethnologue, which is often relied upon in literature for providing an estimate of speakers of endangered languages, cites a number of 2000 speakers according to a 2015 source by A. Remmers. I find this an incredible figure, because that would mean the figure has not changed much for 20 years, which is extremely unlikely considering the fact that the fluent speakers of Saterlandic are mainly elderly who were born before the war. The generation that was born during the war would have been exposed from a very young age to the High German of the migrants. This is also an image that was confirmed when I reviewed the birthdates of the Saterlandic literary authors; there is a notable absence of very active writers who were born during or after the war. All this confirms my suspicion that there are practically no fluent speakers from the post-war era (and this becomes apparent in the literary history, for there seem to be no speakers from the post-war era who would be sufficiently comfortable in Saterlandic to write in the language). All people born before the war would now be well into their 80s and 90s and may even have reached the centenarian age, and therefore this group would already have exceeded the German national average life expectancy age of around 80. This means that the majority of fluent speakers of Saterlandic would still have only a few years (at most one or two decades in a few exceptional cases) to pass on their fluency successfully. This also means that we can expect the true number of fluent speakers to be around 500 in 2019, and to drop significantly as we progress towards 2030. The figure of 500 is just a guesstimate based on the reality that the majority of the fluent speakers of Saterfrisian must have been born in the 20s and 30s of the previous century. Further research is needed, but my guesstimate of 500 gives us a more realistic figure to work with currently, which assumes that Saterlandic is in a dire stage where it is threatened with the complete extinction of fluency within just a few years. I can say with confidence that I do not believe the amount of fluent speakers to be higher than 2000, and I even have reasonable doubts that the number would be higher than 1000 fluent speakers in 2019, which is why I guesstimated that the total number of fluent speakers of Saterlandic would rather have been reduced to around 500 in the last 2 decades. Indeed, this is intellectual speculation, for I have not yet visited Saterland myself. I do, nevertheless, not expect to encounter a very good situation, and I predict my guesstimate will not be far off the mark. I believe it will be similar to the situations I have encountered in 2018 in the Netherlands with the three Frisian languages, for all of them turned out to have a lower number of fluent speakers in 2018 than I had anticipated while I previously relied on figures from more than a decade ago, which taught me not to trust such figures at all and to adjust them to the current year.

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