Humor and Translation: Preserving Plautdietsch

By Mark Herman 

Plautdietsch is one of the world’s many endangered languages of limited diffusion, but its demise has been stemmed by the efforts of a single person: Jack Thiessen.

Plautdietsch (also called Mennonite Low German) is a cluster of dialects spoken by some 300,000 Mennonites, a religious minority originally from the Netherlands and Belgium. They fled their homelands in the 1500s to escape persecution, eventually resettling in Lower Prussia. Later, many Mennonites migrated to Russia and the Western Hemisphere, with relatively large numbers going to Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Paraguay. Most settled and many still live in rural communities, incorporating some Dutch, Russian, English, Spanish, and Portuguese words into their own language. Their numbers have been increasing in Canada due to emigration from Mexico and Paraguay, and in Germany itself due to emigration from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

According to historian and translator Jack Thiessen, “Mennonites are a migratory people who are only really at home in one country, and that is the country of their language.” One way to keep that language and Mennonite culture alive, in Thiessen’s Manitoba and around the world, is via Thiessen’s Mennonite/English dictionary 1, finally back in print.

Thiessen, now 89, is Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Winnipeg. He has dedicated his life to preserving Plautdietsch. and first started working on his dictionary 65 years ago while studying for his doctorate in Germany. “I’m called to do it,” he says. “I cannot explain it any other way. I like it, I discovered that I’m good at it, and I can trace the origin of most words.” In 1977, he published his first version; a second followed in 2003. But about eight years ago, the University of Wisconsin Press decided to stop printing the 556-page 25,000-word dictionary, leaving the book and the future of the language uncertain. The publisher returned the copyright to Thiessen and sent him files, assuming they were the files used to print the dictionary. They weren’t. Half of the files were unedited and many of the entries had to be redone.

That is when Ernest Braun, an amateur Mennonite historian, and Gerhard Ens, a professor at the University of Alberta, stepped in. “You couldn’t buy it [the dictionary] anywhere,” said Braun. “I thought, it was really a shame that a monumental work would be gone forever.” And so Braun and Ens worked for more than six months to make the dictionary publishable and find a new publisher. The revised edition, put together, proofed, and properly formatted, was reprinted and placed in bookstores in early 2019, published by “Friends of Jack Thiessen.” Finally, later in 2019, a fifth edition for the European market, with only Plautdietsch to English (but adding Hochdeutsch to Plautdietsch), was published in Germany.2

The newly reprinted dictionary is one of three Low German dictionaries currently in print, but, according to Braun, “only Thiessen’s evokes the entire way of life that Low German is for Mennonites.” The book includes a concise history and grammar of the language, and has entries ranging from Äajdatjs (lizard) to Resse’rieta (prankster) and Zyreen (siren).

“I was really touched and very moved by the fact that these fellows did what they did,” says Thiessen. “Those two got together and did a wonderful job, committed a lot of time, money and, above all, expertise.”

Thiessen has also published books in Low German, including Mennonitische Namen/Mennonite Names 3, co-authored with Victor Peters; Plautdietsche Jeschichten 4, a collection of short stories; and Yiddish in Canada: The death of a language5. Finally, Thiessen is a translator, with, among other works, both The Little Prince/Dee tjliena Prinz 6 and Alice and Wonderland/Dee Erläwnisse von Alice em Wundalaund 7 to his credit.

Here is an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland, with the original English first, followed by Thiessen’s Plautdietsch:

“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw around, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

“Enn dee Rejchtung,” säd de Kaut, endem sie ähre rajchte Poot rommweifeld, “wohnt een Hootmoaka: enn enn dee Rejchtung,” endem see mett de aundre Poot weifeld, “doa wohnt een Moats-Hos. Kaunst dissem ooda janen beseatje: dee send beid verretjt.”
“Oba etj well nich mett verretjte Mensche vetjeare,” meend Alice.
“Oba doafäa kaunst Du nuscht,” säd de Kaut, “wie send hiea aula verretjt. Etj sie verretjt. Du best verretjt.”
“Woo weetst Du, daut etj verretjt sie?” fruag Alice.
“Du mottst verretjt senne,” säd de Kaut, “sesst weascht du nich hieahäa jekohme.”

Since no standard dialect exists, the dialect utilized in Thiessen’s translation is that agreed upon by linguistic experts in Marburg, by Dr. Heinrich Siemens of the Tweeback Publishing House, by the Prussian Dictionary lexicographers, by Thiessen himself, and lastly by their counterparts at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, notably Joseph Salmons and Mark Louden, who have all, in the course of half a century, forged and fashioned a standardized version of the language. Word spellings followed the predominant Sass orthography of Northern Germany. Some of the translations of names and wordplay owe something to the German translation of Antonio Zimmermann.

I will close the column with a poem written by Dieter Fromm, a student of Thiessen’s in Germany:

Alle Menschen finden’s schicklich
Denn Coca Cola ist erquicklich.
Es erquickt in Dur und Moll
Und finden Coca Cola toll!

A literal translation is:

Everybody finds it proper/fitting/seemly
Because Coca-Cola is refreshing.
It refreshes/revives in major [musical key] and minor [musical key]
And they find Coca Cola mad/wild/crazy/great.

Here is my attempt at a verse translation, preserving and extending the musical metaphor:

Equatorial or polar,
All are refreshed by Coca Cola.
Praised in major and in minor,
Naturally there’s nothing finer.


1 Mennonite Low German Dictionary / Mennonitisch-Plattdeutsches Wörterburch, revised edition, by Jack Thiessen (The Friends of Jack Thiessen, 2018).

2 Plautdietsches Wörterbuch / Mennonite Low German Dictionary, 5th edition, by Jack Thiessen (Bonn, Heinrich Siemens, Tweeback Verlag, 2019).

Mennonite Names / Mennonitische Namen, by Victor Peters and Jack Thiessen (Marburg, Germany: Elwert Verlag, 1987).

Plautdietsche Jeschichten, by Jack Thiessen (Bonn: Tweeback-Verlag, 2011).

Yiddish in Canada: The Death of a Language (Leer: Schuster-Verlag, 1973).

Le petit prince [The Little Prince], by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated into Plautdietsch by Jack Thiessen as Dee tjliena Prinz (Nidderau, Naumann-Verlag, 2002).

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, translated into Plautdietsch by Jack Thiessen as Dee Erläwnisse von Alice em Wundalaund, including the original illustrations ty John Tenniel (Cathair na Mart: Evertype, 2010).


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3 Responses to "Humor and Translation: Preserving Plautdietsch"

  1. Margarite Heintz Montez says:

    Your article speaks of Mennonite communities, but is this also the Plattdietsch that farmers spoke until after WWII? If so, there is a larger community that speaks this language, some of my aunts still speak it amongst themselves at home, though my generation and younger do not speak it at all. If you walk around the Alstersee in Hamburg there is a sign in Plattdietsch that my Oma used to proudly point out to us kids every time we passed it.

    I would very much like to know if Plautdietsch and Plattdietsch are one and the same, or two different dialects.

  2. Radhika, Y. says:

    HI! I read this article out to my husband whose background is part Mennonite (great-grandfather came from Odessa) and part English. However, his father lapsed considerably and joined the RCMP (Mounties) and well, my husband married me, an immigrant from India. The words I have collected over the years are: Napoleanplatz, Plumamoos (dish), Paska bread. We have a Mennonite cookbook at home although my taste for spice means that Indian foods prevail.

  3. Vern Greenway says:

    Our daughter just got married in the Lichtenauer Mennonite Church which was moved to the Steinbach Mennonite Heritage Museum. It was originally located at Ste. Elizabeth, Manitoba, and was constructed 1929/30.

    At the front of the church is a wooden plaque inscribed with a Plautdietsch verse from a Mennonite bible which reads (forgive the likely transcription typos?):

    Einen andern Grund Eann niemand legen auber dem, der gelegt ist, weldjer ist Jesus Christus.
    1. Kor. 3, 11

    Translated, it is 1 Corinthians, 3,11: For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ.

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