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The Brandenburgish Language Landscape

The Brandenburgish linguistic landscape is the result of various settlement and integration processes that reach back far into the past. Even if Low German is the essential foundation, there are also influences from Dutch, Germanic, Slavic, East Middle German, French, and other languages.


The Germanic Peoples

We have evidence of the first human settlements in the Brandenburg area from 10,000 years ago, consisting of weapons, harpoons, and axes. The territories of the Germanic peoples were settled during the time from 1000 BCE to 400 CE, as excavations of Germanic settlements have shown, for example near Königs Wusterhausen. We can see traces of their existence in the names of rivers, such as the Spree, Havel, Dosse, or Nuthe. Around the beginning of the Common Era, the Elbe-Germanic Semnones occupied the Havel-Spree region, while the Langobards held the Altmark and the Burgundian areas east of the Oder River. Large portions of the Semnones wandered southwards beginning in the first century CE.


The Slavs

In the sixth/seventh centuries, West Slavic tribes, such as the Obotrites, the Wilzians (Lutizes), and the Hevelli invaded the area left by the Germanic peoples between the Elbe and the Oder rivers. Numerous names of places, meadows, and waterways testify to the Slavic presence in this area. For example: Beeskow from Old Sorbian bezk ‘elderberry'; Prenzlau from Old Polabian Premislav  ‘Location of Premislav', Lausitz from Old Sorbian lozia, lug, log ‘marshland'; Pulsnitz from Old Sorbian polzati  ‘creeping, flowing slowly.' We can assume that there contacts between Germanic groups that remained behind and the new Slavic occupants. A series of Germanic meadow and river names testify to this, such as Spree from *sprewjan ‘to spray' or from *spreu  ‘to sprinkle, spread, spray’; Havel from *hafa ‘sea,’ which was adopted by the Slavs (Sprewanen, Heveller). After an eventful, centuries-long history, the Sorbs of Lower Lusatia, who still exist today, are a minority group in southern Brandenburg who have exercised linguistic influence over the area. 


German Settlement

The period beginning in the tenth century was shaped by the efforts of German feudal lords to extend their sphere of power into the areas occupied by Slavs east the Elbe and Saale rivers. In 928/929, King Heinrich I conquered the Hevelli border fortification of Brennaburg (Brandenburg). Under Otto I, Margrave Gero subjugated the Wends in 940. The major Slav uprising of 983 initially put a stop to the expansion of the feudal nobility, winning back areas in the north such as Havelberg and Brandenburg.

At the instigation of Saxon princes, armies under Duke Heinrich the Lion and the Ascanian Margrave Albrecht the Bear (1147–1170) conquered in 1147 the areas occupied by the Obotrites and Wilzians (Lutizes) (Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Pommern). This gave rise in the twelfth century to a relatively large territory (Altmark, Brandenburg, Prignitz) to which successors added the Uckermark, Barnim, Teltow, Stargard, and Lebus, as well as parts of the later Neumark and Upper Lusatia. The extensive territorial expansions of the Askanian Margraves of Brandenburg were secured by agricultural settlement and the systematic establishment of cities under German law. A powerful settlement movement continued well into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in which Saxon, Friesian, Flemish, Dutch and Franconian farmers, merchants, and craftsmen were brought into the territory, bringing with them new forms of commerce such as the Hufenverfassung (a system for the division and classification of land), the three-field system of crop rotation, and rounded jar ceramics.

The most important linguistic influence turned out to be the Elbostfälisch dialect, which, due to its position adjacent to the Middle German language area, already contained elements of Middle German.  This resulted overall in an integration of linguistic features from very different landscapes, and three factors are particularly important here: the membership of Berlin and other Brandenburg cities in the Hanseatic League; the participation of the Slavic peoples in land development; and the influx of Dutch settlers in the Brandenburg region.

The membership of Berlin and other cities in the Hanseatic League, and the contacts that this brought with merchants from North German and Westphalian cities, represented a bulwark for Low German language elements in Brandenburgish.

The fact that Slavs continued to be involved in land development is attested to by “documentation identifying certain villages as villae slavicales. This permits us to conclude that the residents of these villages were still purely Slavic at the time at which the villages are mentioned in the documentation” (Teuchert 1964, 161). Place names also testify to the fact that Slavic settlers stayed on in areas brought under German control, such as Wendisch-Rietz, Wendisch-Buchholz, Wendisch-Gottschow, and Wendisch-Pankow.

In addition to geographical proper nouns, there are also several generic names, related with how people live, that come from Dutch, which exercised an influence above all in the center of Brandenburg. Examples of geographical proper nouns are: Fläming from the Latin Flamingia ‘land of the Flamingi, the Flemish,’; Flemingorum is also the name of a bridge in Jüterbog; Upstall for a ‘fenced paddock for grazing cattle on elevated land near water’; Erpel, spoken erpel, which comes from ie. *erb(h) ‘dark red, brown,’ ‘male duck’; Färse, spoken vaerse, veerse, verse, ‘young female cow’; Hinne, spoken Hinne, ‘the one who goes with a rooster.’ Place names, such as Brück and Niemegk, which were brought from Flanders, remind us of the Flemish settlers.Examples of generic names are: Schüppe, spoken scoppe, from the Dutch Schop, ‘spade’; Spade, spoken spade, comes from ie.*sp(h)e ‘long, flat piece of wood’; Stulle, from the Dutch Stull, ‘lump of butter, chunk, piece, lobe’, so that we assume it comes from ‘clumps, chunks of bread’; Kanten, spoken cant, ‘rim, edge, piece of bread ’, Buchte, from the Dutch bocht, ‘bend, bay, den’; Spind(e), spoken spende, spinde ‘distribution of food to the poor, what is distributed, alms, pantry, larder, food cupboard, closet.’


The Mark Brandenburg under the Influence of its Various Ruling Houses – Initial Destruction and Resettlement

During the rule of the Wittelsbach family (1324–1373) and the Luxembourgers (1373–1411), the Mark Brandenburg was no longer viewed as a minor administrative possession. Brandenburg was hit harder than other territories by invasions and raids by neighboring princes, cessions and land sales, pledges and sales of feudal rights. The Nuremberg Burgrave Friedrich I inaugurated Hohenzollern rule in Brandenburg in 1411. In 1415, Friedrich I was enfeoffed with the Mark, which included the Altmark, Prignitz, Havelland, Zauche, Teltow, Barnim, Lebus, Sternberg, and part of the Uckermark. Under Hohenzollern rule, the territory was expanded again by reconquering the Neumark, wresting the dominions of Peitz and Cottbus from Bohemia, and acquiring the lordship of Ruppin.

The influences of Eastern Middle German, especially Upper Saxon, are important for language development in the Mark Brandenburg. This linguistic exposure arose from trade relations between the Mark and the Wettin-Meissen (Upper Saxon) region, which developed in this time into an economic and cultural center. The land and water connections that led from Middle Germany into the Mark were instrumental in this regard.


Incipient Renunciation of Low German and Orientation towards High German

The downfall of the Hansa – Berlin left the League in 1518 – led Berlin and other Hanseatic cities towards the economic, cultural, and political life of the High German region. Upper Saxon gained influence on (written) language development, even if Low German remained preserved as the foundation of the language.

It was not just intensive trade relations that facilitated the absorption of Middle German language elements into the Low German region; members of Brandenburg’s upper class who attended the universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg, as well as the hiring of clergymen and chancery clerks of High German descent, also played a part.

The Reformation and Luther’s translation of the Bible at the beginning of the sixteenth century had a supporting effect, even if it was indirect. Even though Joachim II first enforced the Reformation in Brandenburg in 1539, this still played a role in the decline of Middle Low German as a written and printed language.

The conflicts between political-confessional power groups – between the Union and the League – led to the Thirty Years’ War (1618­–1648). Of the Mark’s 8,000 villages, only half of them were inhabited at the end of the war; the rest were desolate and empty.


New Waves of Settlers Come into Brandenburg

But Brandenburg-Prussia was able to recover more quickly from the ravages of war than its neighbors and enjoyed an economic boom in the second half of the seventeenth century. Elector Friedrich Wilhelm brought craftsmen, manufacturers, and merchants from abroad to revive the economy. Dutch silk and damask weavers moved to Potsdam, for example, where a Dutch faience industry was also founded.

Friedrich Wilhelm’s rule also saw the issuance of the Edict of Potsdam (1685), which granted the Huguenots and others who fled France religious freedom and the right of establishment in the Brandenburg-Prussian state. The linguistic traces of the Huguenots can be heard especially in Berlin and in the Uckermark; for example: Pansch  from the French Panse ‘belly, abdomen’; Schwieten from the French suite ‘jokes, stupidities’; Budike from the French boutique ‘a grocery store, restaurant, pub.’

Other settlers from abroad were brought into the country in the course of Friedrich the Great’s colonization policies, including for example cloth-workers from Silesia as well as Bohemian weavers and spinners. Several new settlements rose up. In Potsdam-Babelsberg, the colony of weavers and spinners was named nowa ves (‘New Village’) in the colonists’ language. 


Industrialization and its Effects on Dialects

The industrialization that began in the nineteenth century was an important development for language development in Brandenburg as well as the entire Germanophone world. The development of new production branches and processes based on scientific research led to an industrial expansion throughout the entire country. The character of work also changed in this context. The new conditions of communication were influenced by the movement of the rural population into the cities to find work. The multitude of new work tools and techniques for the modern organization of work were lacking names and descriptions, which were created in the course of their invention and implementation. There were no correspondences for these terms in the dialects, and dialects could no longer meet communicative requirements. Increasing numbers of speakers were forced to avoid using their own dialect at the workplace, shifting their dialect usage increasingly into the private and familial sphere.


After the Second World War

During the Second World War and after its conclusion, there were observable developments that fostered the decline of dialect usage that had already begun earlier. In this context, the following facts are important: the state of Brandenburg was a transit area and destination for settlers; the development of industry and the new construction of large industrial facilities – for example the steel and milling factories in Brandenburg and Hennigsdorf, the large power plants in Trattendorf, Vettschau and Lübbenau, and the textile plant in Cottbus, among others; the emergence of a new form of mass communication in television; the almost exclusive orientation towards standardized language in classroom instruction, as well as the spatial division of work and living, which demanded greater mobility from people.


Communication on the basis of dialect therefore became increasingly diminished. Recent efforts, however, have sought to create greater prestige for Low German as a regional language, in Brandenburg as well.

© Elisabeth Berner