Netherlands (slightly) move forward in recognition of Low Saxon

New agreement between Dutch government and provinces opens door to boost support to preserve severely endangered language

Acte de signatura de l'acord. Al mapa dels Països Baixos es destaca, en groc, el domini lingüístic del baix saxó.
Acte de signatura de l'acord. Al mapa dels Països Baixos es destaca, en groc, el domini lingüístic del baix saxó. Author: Lenus vd Broek / SONT
The government of the Netherlands and five provinces signed earlier in October an agreement that opens the door to boost official support for Low Saxon, a minoritised language spoken in the north-east of the European country. The covenant strengthens a slight recognition that Low Saxon already enjoyed, and makes it possible —though it does not guarantee it— a place for the language in some schools.

Groningen, Twente, Overijssel, Gelderland and Friesland are the five provinces that signed the covenant. The area where Low Saxon is spoken spans the entire territory of the first three provinces and the northern half of the fourth. In Friesland, the linguistic panorama is more diverse, as in most of its territory the local language is Frisian, not Low Saxon. But in the south-east of Friesland a variant of Low Saxon is spoken, which is why two municipalities in that area —Ooststellingwerf and Weststellingwerf— also signed the document.

The covenant urges the parties to “preserve and promote” Low Saxon, although the deal has some weak points. One of them is the fact that the Dutch government —which holds most power in the education system— will not allocate any money for the promotion of Low Saxon. This is a key difference as regards Frisian, as in this case the government does financially contribute to sustain it in schools, radio and television.

Thus, the five provinces and the two municipalities will need to find themselves, in their own budgets, the resources to promote Low Saxon. The covenant allows them to reach agreements to introduce Low Saxon in schools, but —again unlike Frisian— it will not be considered an official subject, nor will it be used as a vehicular language.

Recognition important as a symbol

Even though such limits will exist, pro-Low Saxon umbrella organization SONT has welcomed the covenant, given that it brings a landmark recognition of the language by the Dutch state. SONT has been working since the 1990s to advance recognition of Low Saxon by lobbying authorities on the issue.

The group underlines the fact that, in the deal, the Dutch government explicitly recognizes that Low Saxon is “an essential, independent and full-fledged part” of the linguistic system in the Netherlands.

This fact is relevant because it contrasts with official attitudes that used to be common case just a few decades ago. The use of Low Saxon was discouraged and the language was underestimated, which helped to discredit it. The very fact that Low Saxon constituted a language of its own was also put into question.

This began to change in 1996 thanks to the recognition of Low Saxon by the Dutch government in a European instrument, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, in 1996. But SONT also sought the approval of a domestic Dutch document, separate from European bodies, where the government explicitly supported the existence and value of Low Saxon.

Low Saxon as a cross-border language

SONT holds the view that Low Saxon is closely related to linguistic varieties spoken in northern Germany, which are usually referred to under the name of Low German —in contrast to High German, which is the base of Standard German. According to many linguists, Low Saxon and Low German make up one single language.

The issue becomes more complicated as in fact, from a historical and dialectal point of view, Dutch too is a part of the Low Saxon-Low German continuum. But since it has a clearly differentiated standard variety, Dutch is most often regarded a separate language.

Estimates of pro-Low Saxon groups say some 1,5 million people speak the language in the Netherlands, while some 3 millions in Germany speak Low German. Still, intergenerational transmission of Low Saxon is very feeble. In a 2011 study, it stood between 1% and 2%. This, combined with an almost complete lack of role in schools, greatly threatens its survival.