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HIGH AND LOW GERMAN

Low German Recordings

Reuter Guild ImageMost Wisconsin Germans were Low German-speaking, though a sizable percentage also had a good knowledge of the High German standard, which was reinforced not only by clubs like the Plattdeutscher Verein, but also German-speaking churches. Although most speakers of Low German in Europe have been literate in High German only, a number of people have produced original literature in Low German and other dialects. Germany’s most famous dialectauthor was Fritz Reuter (1810–1874). Born in Stavenhagen, Germany, Reuter wrote a large number of novels in his native Low German, thereby contributing significantly to the prestige of all German dialects as legitimate vehicles for literature. Mark Twain, who drew heavily on dialect in his own writings, mentions Reuter’s works in “A Tramp Abroad.”

Because of the large representation of Low German-speakers across Wisconsin, especially people whose ancestors came from Pomerania, many of the MKI’s archival recordings are of Low German dialects. The earliest of these were made by Prof. Lester W. J. “Smoky” Seifert (1915–1996), born in Juneau, Dodge Co., WI, in the 1940s, a third-generation Wisconsinite.

Smoky Seifert ImageProf. Seifert conducted interviews with many speakers of the Oderbrüchisch dialect, which he himself spoke natively, along with High German and English. He was a professor of German at the UW–Madison and a leading figure in German-American linguistics, not only because of his research on Wisconsin German, but also Pennsylvania Dutch, on which he wrote his doctoral dissertation. Many of the MKI’s other interviews were made by by Prof. Jürgen Eichhoff, now retired from the UW–Madison and living in Wiesbaden, Germany. Prof. Eichhoff grew up in Hamburg and, like Prof. Seifert, learned both Low and High German natively.

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Last Updated: October 27, 2010