Reevaluating diglossia: data from Low German



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Ever since Ferguson published his seminal paper “Diglossia” in 1959 it has been the subject of much discussion. There has been wide agreement among researchers (Fishman, 1967; Britto, 1986; Hudson, 2002) about the necessity of the concept of diglossia in sociolinguistics as a term that defines two varieties of the same language spoken in the same language community. Yet, in spite or maybe because of the general acceptance of Ferguson’s concept it has been more often modified, redefined, and extended than almost any other idea in sociolinguistics. In fact, as Kaye (2001: 121) points out, no other topic has generated such prodigious research in sociolinguistics over the last five decades. Much of the discussion centers around the fact that the concept of diglossia is used rather liberally in sociolinguistics and is often extended to language situations that are not truly diglossic in the Fergusonian sense. Furthermore, diglossic research of the past and present has not yet produced a definite, contemporary theoretical outline of diglossia (Hudson, 2002: 2), thus leaving the field open to both new impetus and overuse. The purpose of this work is to reassess Ferguson’s original definition of diglossia by examining the results of a sociolinguistic field study on Low German (Platt) that I conducted in spring 2003 in the Grafschaft Bentheim (northwest Lower Saxony). Different researchers, such as Sanders (1982), and Stellmacher (1990) have pointed out that the coexistence of Low German and High German in many communities in northern Germany constitutes a diglossic situation that corresponds closely to Ferguson’s four original case studies. Although Low German research has gone to great lengths to document the many different varieties of Platt in northern Germany, there does not yet exist a comprehensive, contemporary sociolinguistic study in this field. Moreover, no study on Low German has ever extensively taken the concept of diglossia into account. This dissertation discusses how the results of my 2003 survey on Platt fit into diglossic theory but also how they diverge from it. In fact, diglossia in my target area, the Grafschaft Bentheim, is quite a unique phenomenon because several of Ferguson’s original nine rubrics diagnostic of diglossia either do not apply to the Grafschaft Bentheim or they have been reversed there. The relevance of a sociolinguistic field study on Low German becomes clear if one considers that the only major study in this field (GETAS study 1984) dates back more than two decades and has been the subject of much controversy due its methods of evaluation. My 2003 study is also one of the first attempts, both in Low German and diglossic research, to address the language competence and language attitudes of three different speaker groups: (1) Platt speakers (L-speakers, 88 participants), (2) Non-Platt speakers (H-speakers, 35 participants), and (3) children and young adults (573 participants). Most studies in diglossic research are exclusively concerned with speakers of the Low Variety (e.g. Britto, 1986) and thus often give an incomplete or slanted representation of the respective speech community. By including three different speaker groups my 2003 survey presents a more complete and representative, overall picture of the current sociolinguistic situation of Platt than other surveys. This study also goes beyond Low German research and diglossic theory by setting the massive erosion of Platt into the context of the world-wide erosion of minority languages and by discussing ways and means to revitalize the language. In fact, the alarming pace at which Platt has been eroding in the last couple of decades makes this work not only relevant but necessary to the fields of sociolinguistics, in particular diglossic studies, Low German research, and studies in endangered languages.