Endangered minority languages. A comparison of the Upper Sorbian and North Frisian cases

Seminar Paper, 2013

31 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Language loss
2.1. Historical overview
2.1.1. The Sorbian case
2.1.2. The Frisian case
2.2. Sociolinguistic aspects
2.2.1. The Sorbian case
2.2.2. The Frisian case

3. Language maintenance – Efforts and outcomes
3.1. Looking back – Language maintenance until 1945
3.1.1. The Sorbian case
3.1.2. The Frisian case
3.2. Contemporary initiatives
3.2.1. The Sorbian case
3.2.2. The Frisian case

4. Contemporary perceptions
4.1. The Sorbian case
4.2. The Frisian case

5. Conclusion

6. Works cited

1. Introduction

When I was a child, I spent nearly all summer weekends at a campsite[1] near Bautzen, Kamenz and Hoyerswerda – the central area of Catholic Upper Lusatia. I loved the car drive and was impressed by the bilingual street signs and the many crucifixes by the wayside. Both, the public display of religious symbols and the unknown language carried an air of exoticism which was very appealing to me. I knew from my parents that these villages we passed were Sorbian. What I did not know was that the language is endangered and that the existence of the Sorbian people is unknown to an extensive part of the German population.

I took these childhood memories as a starting point for exploring the history of the Sorbian people and their language. Following the example of many other linguists[2], this paper aims to take a comparative approach and look at the cases of Upper Sorbian[3] and North Frisian as two endangered minority languages in Germany. It will examine the historical context and sociolinguistic aspects to describe how the two languages became endangered. Past and present measures to maintain the languages shall be traced and contemporary perceptions of the Sorbian and the North Frisian people and their culture will be looked at. I consider this reflection particularly important as knowledge about and attitudes towards a minority culture and their speakers influence the public representation of this group. The paper will discuss how the aspect of folklore is one way to raise interest and awareness for a minority people, its language and culture but may affect revitalization efforts negatively. In this regard, the paper will also critically reflect on the role of majority speakers in shaping a stereotyped image of a minority culture and thereby creating and sustaining a difference in status and prestige rather than promoting support.

The two cases might be linguistically, geographically and historically very different. However, the fact that both are minority languages in Germany renders an interesting comparison. We will see how political efforts to protect an endangered language can be of differing extent and result in one country. Reasons for the similarities and differences of both minority languages are worth being discussed.

2. Language loss

2.1. Historical overview

2.1.1. The Sorbian case

From the 6th century onwards, Sorbian tribes settled in East German areas with the Milzener around Bautzen (Budyšin) and the Lusizer around Cottbus (Chośebuz) being the most important tribes (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:186). Near the end of the 10th century, these two tribes were the last to finally lose political independence (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:188). When Flemish and German settlers came to the area, assimilation processes started to work slowly but continually in the Western and central settlement areas and were intensified by first bans on the Sorbian language (Ibid.).[4] From a very early point on, the Sorbs had to fight against suppression and resentment but politics directed to Sorbian speakers differed over the decades and centuries:

The conditions for the maintenance of Upper Sorbian in the “Markgrafentum Oberlausitz” were quite favourable as the Sorbs could count on a more tolerant attitude[5] than in Lower Lusatia.[6] Even after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when 80% of the then 250,000 Sorbs were living in Prussian provinces (where language policy explicitly aimed at assimilation), the Saxon parts of Upper Lusatia were still treated tolerantly. One such act of tolerance was to allow reading and religion classes to be held in Sorbian on the basis of §28 of the Education Act from 1835 (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:189).

In advance of the foundation of the German Reich, anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic discourses arose and Prussia welcomed pseudo-theories portraying Slavs as a primitive and lazy people. Accordingly, the Sorbian culture was labelled as backwards and something undesirable (Glaser 2007: 104). After 1871, the Prussians went on implementing their idea of a strong and homogenous German nation-state by successfully imposing a ban on Sorbian in schools in 1875. Consequently, in the late 19th century, almost the entire Sorbian population was bilingual (Glaser 2007:105). At the beginning of the 20th century, anti-Sorbian policies throughout the Sorbian area of settlement got increasingly aggressive and, unsurprisingly, saw their climax under Nazi rule. Sorbs were declared to be “Wendish-speaking Germans” and a “Wendenabteilung” was established to monitor the process of assimilation (Glaser 2007:105-106). In 1937, after the complete gleichschaltung failed, the Domowina[7] and the Maćica Serbska[8] were forbidden to continue their work. Additionally, the works of libraries and archives were confiscated (Ibid.). Furthermore, names had to be germanised, schools were forced to promote “Germanness” and Sorbian teachers were arrested or evicted (Glaser 2007:106). With Sorbian printing and publishing houses shut down and a general ban on speaking Sorbian in public and in school, preconditions for undermining the transmission of the language were established.

Summing up, the Sorbs have lived through a long history of suppression and persecution. Contemporary efforts to recognise Sorbian as a language worth being fostered need to overcome a long tradition of negative trends.

2.1.2. The Frisian case

The county of North Frisia is situated at the West coast of the German federal state Schleswig-Holstein which was almost entirely abandoned by its original population and became the new home of the North Frisians who left their original area of settlement between Ijsselmeer and Weser (Walker 1996:3). They settled on the islands Föhr, Amrun, Sylt, Helgoland and expanded to other areas around (Ibid.).

North Frisian is one of the three branches of the Frisian language.[9] As early as the 16th century, Low German expanded from south of the Frisian language area and was used as official language in administration, churches and schools whereas North Frisian continued to be spoken within families and the villages (Pech 2012:45). In the 18th and 19th century, High German increasingly took over the role as a lingua franca leading to the present situation Pech calls “natürliche Mehrsprachigkeit”, i.e. Frisians usually speak Low and High German in addition to North Frisian (Ibid.).

Until 1866, North Frisia was part of the Danish Kingdom (Århammar 2000:146). Already under Danish rule, there was an order to stop Frisian lessons (Pech 2012:46). Under Prussian rule, there was no systematic language promotion either. The idea of cultivating the minority language or even establishing a Frisian school model was against the idea of a united German nation state (Pech 2012:108). However, until World War I, some schools on Sylt were allowed to teach in Frisian due to a special permission (Pech 2012:46).

After 1918, the government continued to deny the North Frisians the status of a national minority (Pech 2012:100) but allowed the introduction of one Frisian “Lesestunde” per week and a work group for teachers of Frisian in 1928 (Walker 1996:20). Giving in to these wishes cannot be appreciated as granting minority rights for allowing Frisian in school on a minimal basis rather served the purpose of securing political and social peace (Pech 2012:107).

In addition to the unfavourable political situation, the North Frisian movement itself was split: Some Frisians considered themselves as inseparable part of the German Reich and other Frisians considered themselves as belonging to an autonomous West Germanic tribe and correspondently claimed the independence of a Frisian people in terms of the recognition of the North Frisians as national minority (Pech 2012:99).

Under the Nazi government, education in Frisian was looked after half-heartedly although minimal support was maintained in order to not lose North Frisia to the Danish who were attempting to regain influence (Pech 2012:172-174). Again, North Frisian matters were considered from a political and ideological point of view. From 1937 on, the Nazis sanctioned North Frisian ambitions to be seen as an independent people with increasing severity but continued to cherish “harmless” folklore. Customs and rites were strengthened but misused for propagandistic purposes (Pech 2012:172-173). Frisian lessons almost completely ceased during and after World War II (Walker 1996:20). Education matters only slightly improved when in 1947, under the federal government of Schleswig-Holstein, Frisian lessons were resumed on an optional basis. Since then, there has not been a new agreement on the juridical position of Frisian in schools (Walker 1996:21).

Until well into the 1970s, politicians did not pay much attention to Frisian matters. In fact, only since the 1980s, there has been a growing awareness of the North Frisian language, its culture being endangered, and the necessity of state protection (Pech 2012:230).

History shows that North Frisian, unlike Upper Sorbian, was neither used regularly in school nor in church – two institutions essential to language maintenance and cultivation. Furthermore, the history of North Frisia has been shaped by the German-Danish rivalry and only little attention has been paid to North Frisian matters (Walker 1996:13). With regard to the different majority cultures exercising power over the North Frisian minority, there has never been a genuine interest to support neither the minority culture nor its language. But also the split of the Frisian movement was hindering the sustainable promotion of the North Frisian language and culture, inducing a highly unfavourable development – the results of which we can still observe today.

2.2. Sociolinguistic aspects

In addition to political reasons, sociolinguistic and linguistic aspects play an essential role for language shift and language loss. These aspects were also discussed in the context of the Euromosaic Study conducted by the European Commission:

Mit der Studie wurden die sozialen und institutionellen Faktoren bestimmt, die für den Gebrauch einer Sprache sowie für eine stärkere Nutzung von Bedeutung sind. Als wichtigste Einflussfaktoren wurden dabei die Familie, die Bildung und die Gemeinschaft sowie der institutionelle und rechtliche Rahmen identifiziert. Weitere Beweggründe für den Gebrauch einer Sprache bildeten unter anderem das „Prestige“ sowie der Wert einer Sprache für die soziale Mobilität und die kulturelle Reproduktion.

(European Commission: Euromosaik-Studie)

This chapter will explore some of these aspects in order to deliver a more detailed perspective onto the cases of Upper Sorbian and North Frisian.

2.2.1. The Sorbian case

The advancement of German-Sorbian bilingualism in the late 19th century was also a result of infrastructural changes. In 1820, agricultural reforms were imposed on the peasants and many were forced off land and moved to bigger towns or cities. Given that an urban environment enforces linguistic assimilation much more rapidly, language shift became the norm for a large number of Sorbs (Glaser 2007:105). From the 1850s on, effects of the industrialisation became noticeable. Coal mining replaced agriculture and the expansion of transport systems brought many workers from outside who were attracted by working opportunities in the glass and textile industry (Ibid.). Many Sorbs were employed in the industrial sector, too, and were therefore exposed to an increased amount of German communication. Bilingualism quickly advanced to German monolingualism in the successing generation (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:189). With a large number of immigrants and exiles settling in the Sorbian region, soldiers being positioned there and Sorbs forced to move because whole villages were destroyed in order to exploit coal deposits, Sorbs were gradually outnumbered by Germans and linguistic substance got lost (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:191).

As Sorbian village life transformed, the role and extent of the oral tradition also shifted. One example are young women who spent the nights spinning and thereby acquired storytelling skills and a repertoire of folk songs and fairy tales (Glaser 2007:194). These traditional occasions for language use became fewer or ceased completely. Accordingly, Glaser finds:

By far the strongest theme ... is a loss of ʻcommunityʼ and the danger that this poses to the maintenance of stable selves. Community is perceived to have declined not only in the spatial, structural sense of the 19th-century Gemeinschaft, but as an experience and catalyst for collective action. Widespread concern about this loss is a response to the fact that the original conceptual cores of ... ʻSorbiannessʼ have been severely eroded or discredited ... (242)

Already at the beginning of the 20th century, political efforts to assimilate the Sorbs resulted in a very negative self-conception among them: German was associated with modern life whereas Sorbian was connected to tradition, religion and folklore (Glaser 2007:105). The prestige loss of Sorbian was also due to the structure of Sorbian lessons at school which only used folk songs and fairy tales and other items of folklore to teach the language and culture (Ibid.). This unsatisfying situation can again be explained with the teachers simply not having any other texts at hand as the subject lacked the instructive material and methodology of other comparable school subjects.

Closely linked to the aspect of prestige is the question on the quantitative representation of Sorbian in the education sector. Glaser writes that in the 1950s, there was bitter opposition to Sorbian classes in some areas as parents were afraid, their children`s German would suffer (Glaser 2007:112). The falling demand for Sorbian classes still noticeable today can be also traced back to changing perceptions about the economic usefulness of Sorbian language skills, falling birth rates and school closures (Glaser 2007:117). Madlena Norberg points out another problem in Sorbian-medium education and demands not to give in to the idea that some subjects cannot be taught in Sorbian (39). Accepting Sorbian as a language of equal status compared to German would raise the prestige among both Sorbian and non-Sorbian speakers. Unfortunately, German has almost entirely replaced Sorbian in the context of “youth-specific leisure activities” (Elle 1999:161 qtd. in Glaser 2007:117). This finding could be interpreted as a result of the limited representation of Sorbian in the media and in the education sector. Accordingly, there is the relatively widespread notion of Sorbian being unfashionable to raise one`s children with – an aspect that adds to rising intermarriage rates since the 1950s and thus furthers the undermining of the intergenerational transmission of Sorbian (Glaser 2007:114). Sadly, the area of and around Lusatia is popular for the Neo-Nazi movement and anti-Sorbian incidents do happen (Glaser 2007:120). The already low cultural pride is lowered further through such incidents and Sorbian gets into a vicious circle of prestige loss and decreasing use of the language. Accordingly, Glaser finds:


[1] Waldbad Niesendorf

[2] Marti, Roland: Probleme europäischer Kleinsprachen – Sorbisch und Bündnerromanisch. München: Verlag Otto Sagner, 1990; Dinkelaker, Bärbel: Lebensbedingungen europäischer Kleinsprachen . Untersucht in Rückzugsgebieten des Kymrischen, Nordfriesischen und Rätoromanischen. Frankfurt a. Main et al.: Lang, 2002; Glaser, Konstanze: Minority Languages and cultural diversity in Europe: Gaelic and Sorbian Perspectives. Clevedon et al.: Multilingual Matters, 2007; Gorter, Durk and Jasone Cenoz: “Multilingual education for European minority languages: The Basque Country and Friesland.” International Review of Education 75. 5 (2011): 651-666; Pech, Edmund: Ein Staat – eine Sprache? Deutsche Bildungspolitik und autochthone Minderheiten im 20. Jahrhundert. Die Sorben im Vergleich mit Polen, Dänen und Nordfriesen. Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 2012.

[3] The reduction to Upper Sorbian is made here as no comprehensive observation can be offered within the limits of this paper. However, the two varieties cannot always be discussed separately and descriptions of the Lower Sorbian case are given whenever considered helpful for the argumentation. Taking a closer look on the cases of Lower and Upper Sorbian also promises valuable insights into deviant developments within one language group and thus offers interesting opportunities for further research.

[4] 1293 in Bernburg/ Saale, 1327 in Altenburg, Leipzig and Zwickau and 1424 in Meißen (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:188).

[5] “Am günstigsten waren die Bedingungen für den Erhalt des Sorbischen im Markgraftum Oberlausitz, wo die evangelischen Landstände angesichts der von ihnen befürchteten Rekatholisierung in der Sprachenfrage eine tolerante Haltung einnahmen” (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:189).

[6] Lower Lusatia got under rulers who followed a rather repressive policy reflected in the confiscation or destruction of all Sorbian books and the ban on using the Sorbian language in church services and school (Spieß/Steenwijk 2000:188). The consistent exercise of these hostile policies throughout the centuries caused the speakers of Lower Sorbian to have severe problems in maintaining their language and culture up to today.

[7] The umbrella organisation of all Sorbian associations.

[8] A society promoting the scientific work and research conducted by Sorbian authors and scientists.

[9] All Frisian languages belong to the group of West Germanic languages and are closely related to English (Walker 1996:6). Furthermore, there is West Frisian spoken by around 400,000 people in the province of “Westfriesland” in the Netherlands and East Frisian or Saterland Frisian used by a very small community of speakers and thus very endangered – only about 2,000 people still speak the language near Oldenburg in the county of Lower Saxony (cf. Walker 1996:6).

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Endangered minority languages. A comparison of the Upper Sorbian and North Frisian cases
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Seminar: Multilingualism
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ISBN (Book)
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minority languages, Sorbian, North Frisian, endangered languages, language conservation, language maintenance, Upper Sorbian, Lausitz, Sociolinguistics
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Thérèse Remus (Author), 2013, Endangered minority languages. A comparison of the Upper Sorbian and North Frisian cases, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/275634


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