What you need to know about Germany’s four minority languages

What you need to know about Germany's four minority languages
In Bautzen, Saxony, most street signs are bilingual in German and Sorbian. Photo: DPA
It’s easy to assume that the only official language of Germany is, well, German. But there are four other recognised minority languages you might hear spoken (or even spot on street signs) around the country.

There are four officially recognised national minority groups in Germany, these being the Danish, Sorbian, Frisian and German Sinti and Roma people. 

The languages of these groups, Danish, Upper and Lower Sorbian, North and Sater Frisian, and Romani, are also recognised minority languages. 

All of these communities have rich cultural histories which are preserved in part through their respective languages, meaning that traditions and oral history can be passed on to new generations. 

In 1992, Germany was one of the first countries to sign the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from the Council of Europe, which aims to preserve minority cultures in modern Europe, encouraging tolerance and diversity. 

A key challenge tackled by the charter is the preservation of minority languages for younger generations, for whom they are becoming less and less relevant.

Thanks to the charter, these minority groups now receive financial support at state and national level, in order to fund bilingual schooling and education on local cultural history. 

Here is an insight into each of the four languages: 

Upper and Lower Sorbian

If you’re in the eastern part of Germany, you might spot bilingual street signs which seem to feature Polish as the second language. Only it’s not. Cities such as Cottbus and Bautzen feature Upper and Lower Sorbian, which belong to the West-Slavic family of the Indo-European language group. Sorbian retains features of Old-Slavic which have been lost in many other languages. 

Upper Sorbian is closest to modern Czech and Slovak, while Lower Sorbian is closer to Polish.

The area in which most Sorbs live is Lusatia, which stretches from Saxony to Brandenburg. It is estimated that up to 60,000 Sorbian people live in this region today. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A traditional Easter ride in Bautzen, a city in eastern Germany.

Historically, Sorbian people have faced almost unrelenting persecution under the guise of Germanisation. Having lost their political independence in the tenth century, the Sorbian territory shrunk and its people were the targets of a policy intended to publicly eradicate their language and culture.

Furthermore, under National Socialism, the use of the language was banned, and the regime refused to recognise the Sorbians as a national minority.

Here’s how you would greet someone in Sorbian: Witaj (pronounced vi-tai)

Danish

Danish is a Germanic language belonging to the sub-group of North Germanic, or Scandinavian languages. Together with Swedish it forms the East Scandinavian branch.

It is estimated that around 50,000 people with German citizenship identify with the Danish minority group, the majority of these Danes living in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein.

The border between Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark is almost imperceptible, as many people in the area speak both languages and regularly cross the border. The highest proportion of Danish-speaking Germans can be found in the city of Flensburg, the districts of Nordfriesland and Schleswig-Flensburg and in the northern part of the Rendsburg-Eckernförde district. 

The 1955 Bonn-Copenhagen Declarations, which recognised the Danish minority in Germany and the German minority in Denmark, are seen as a model for how to recognise national and linguistic minorities in Europe. 

If you visit Flensburg, or the surrounding rural areas, don’t be surprised if you are met with a friendly Hej instead of the usual Hallo

North and Sater Frisian

Strolling along the wind-swept islands of Halligen, you’ll see street signs and even post offices featuring this West-Germanic language. It is estimated that there are between eight and ten thousand active speakers of these Frisian dialects in modern Germany. 

The North Frisian people mostly live on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, close to the German-Danish border. You will also hear the language spoken on the islands of Sylt, Föhr, Amrum, Helgoland, and the Halligen islands. Sater Frisian is spoken in the northwestern region of Lower Saxony.

Frisian dialects are rarely written down, meaning they are difficult to preserve for younger Germans of Frisian descent. Frisians first moved into what is now German territory in the eighth century and maintained their own political independence even up until the twentieth century, despite having no state of their own. 

In 2004, the state parliament in Schleswig-Holstein adopted an Act on the Promotion of Frisian in the Public Area, which aimed to encourage the use of the historic language in areas with large Frisian populations. The act paved the way for the installation of bilingual road signs and in public buildings.

 
 
 
 
 
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If you are planning a trip to Schleswig-Holstein any time soon, you may be greeted with a friendly Gurdai, pronounced gur-day. The greeting Moin also has its origins in Frisian. 

Romani 

It is generally believed that the Romani languages originated in India, as many aspects of the language spoken today are closely related to Sanskrit. Most Roma people living in Germany identify as Sinti and speak a language variant called Sinte Romani that is heavily influenced by German. The language is predominantly spoken, so there are very few written sources in Romani.

Across Europe, there are between eight and twelve million Sinti and Roma people, of whom up to 150,000 currently live in Germany. Many Sinti people in Germany migrated from southeast Europe after escaping serfdom in the late nineteenth century, or as part of the Gastarbeiter programme in the 1960s and 70s. 

READ ALSO: Roma and Sinti: Germans for centuries, but still considered outsiders

Almost all Roma people are bilingual and also speak the national language of the country in which they live, but through forced assimilation and persecution, many modern Roma have lost their connection to the historic language. 

There have been academic attempts to codify the Romani language, but these have generally been carried out without the guidance of Sinti and Roma communities. Many members of the community have spoken out against this, seeing it as an affront to the oral tradition of the language. 

There are hundreds of variations of Romani, but a common greeting you will hear is Sastipe, said sas-ti-peh. 


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