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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

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.

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

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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DISCOVER GERMANY

10 unmissable events in Germany this October

From dazzling light shows to quirky food festivals, October is a jam-packed month in Germany. Here are some of the events you won't want to miss.

10 unmissable events in Germany this October

Oktoberfest, Munich Teresienwiese, September 17th – October 3rd

As possibly the world’s most famous beer festival, Oktoberfest needs no introduction – and for those who didn’t make it to Bavaria in September, there are still a few days left to catch it at the start of the month.

If you make it on the last bank holiday Monday, you can catch an especially rowdy party atmosphere as professional rifle shooters mark the end of the fest. But any other day at the Wiesn is an experience to remember, with live music and singing in all the tents, delicious Bavarian beer and a gigantic funfair for the most adventurous visitors.

And for those who can’t make it down to Bavaria at short notice, the Hofbräuhaus beer halls around the country celebrate their own mini-Oktoberfests with dancing, singing, live music and of course a crisp litre or two of Hofbräu. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

German Unity Day Celebrations, Erfurt Old Town, October 1st – 3rd 

Marking the day when West and East Germany were formally reunited back in 1990 – a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Tag der Einheit (Unity Day) is a truly special bank holiday in Germany. 

Each year, a different German city takes it in turn to host the annual Bürgerfest (citizen’s festival) in honour of Germany’s national day. This year, the Thuringian capital of Erfurt will be putting on an action-packed programme of political and cultural events all weekend. To start with, Germany’s five constitutional bodies – the Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal President, Federal Government and Federal Constitutional Court – will be represented with large information stands on the theme of “Experiencing Politics”. And for those less keen to take a deep dive into the workings of government, each of the 16 states will have the best of their culture and cuisine on display. 

There’ll also be live concerts, performances and a light installation representing German reunification over the weekend, making a visit to scenic Erfurt well worth it. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart, September 23rd – October 9th 

If you want to experience big folk festival but want to steer clear of the tourist crowd in Munich, look no further than Oktoberfest’s Swabian sister, the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. 

First launched in 1818, the festival has become a mainstay of the autumn calendar in Baden-Württemberg, and it’s an event that is fiercely proud of its Swabian roots. If you go, you can sample some of the best local beers and wines around, as well as other traditional Swabian delicacies. You can also go on rollercoasters and other fairground rides, hear trumpeting Oompah bands and get dizzy on the world’s largest mobile Ferris wheel. 

Weimar Onion Market, October 7th – 9th

Nobody can say that Germans don’t make the most of their seasonal produce – and Weimar’s historic Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) is no exception.

The Zwiebelmarkt tradition dates back as early as the 15th century, when traders would come to the bustling town of Weimar to sell their wares. Over the years, the onion market days became a major social event where locals would also gather to eat, drink and barter. These days, you’ll still find all things onion-related at the onion market, from arts and crafts to culinary treats. But there’s also a funfair, live music, beer tents and family friendly activities to boot.

Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival, August 26th – December 4th

If you’re a fan of all things autumnal, look no further than Ludwigsburg Palace, which becomes home to the world’s largest pumpkin exhibition each year from late August to early December. 

It may sound novel, but a walk around the grounds of the palace will show you that in Ludwigsburg, the pumpkin artists certainly don’t do things by halves. Not only can you see incredible sculptures made from around 450,000 pumpkins in total, but you’ll also see a jaw-dropping 600 different varieties of pumpkin there as well. And if you work up an appetite while soaking up the exhibition, you can also sample some delicious pumpkin-based dishes, from soup to Maultaschen.

Pumpkin exhibition Ludwigsburg

Balu and Mowgli from the Jungle Book at the Ludwigsburg pumpkin exhibition. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Filmfest Hamburg, 29th September – October 8

Though it tends to get overshadowed by the show-stopper Berlinale, film buffs who can’t wait until February will enjoy a trip to its Hanseatic sibling: Filmfest Hamburg.

Running throughout the first week of October, the Filmfest brings together the best of contemporary cinema from around the world at a range of venues around the city. This year, the festival is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, so there’s bound to be a truly special atmosphere at the event. 

You can find the full programme in English here.

Berlin Festival of Lights, October 7th – 16th

Each year in the middle of August, the familiar sights of the German capital are bathed in colourful light and transformed each evening into weird and wonderful artistic creations.

This year, the theme of the world famous light festival is “Visions of the Future” as artists explore the question: What will our future look like?

The fruits of their labours can be seen around the city each evening from 7-11pm, after it gets dark. Organisers says there will be a big focus on sculptures this year – as well as the usual large installations – as they seek to reduce their electricity use by 75 percent. 

Berlin cathedral at Festival of Lights 2018

Berlin cathedral lit up in colourful lights at the 2018 Festival of Lights. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Frankfurt Book Fair, October 19th – 23rd 

The world’s largest book fair is returning to Frankfurt this October with the theme of “translation”, exploring the idea of translating ideas into new languages, mediums and contexts.

Alongside the sprawling trade fair and conference, there will also be a packed schedule of literary events where people can hear reading and talks by popular authors. You can find out all about the exhibitors at the book fair this year and what’s on at the conference in English on the Frankfurt Book Fair website

Deutsches Weinlesefest, September 23rd – October 10th 

The picturesque wine-growing regions of western Germany hold wine festivals throughout the year, but the Wine Harvest Festival – or Weinlesefest – is by far one of the biggest.

Fittingly enough, the festival is held in Neustadt an der Weinstraße, a pretty little town located along the famous Wine Route. For the few weeks of the festival, this sleepy little town hosts an enormous wine parade and around 100,000 wine-loving visitors. Head there on the 7th to see the crowning of this year’s Palatinate Wine Queen and sample some Rhineland wines out of a dubbeglas, a big glass that holds a whopping 50cl of wine. As always, drink responsibly! 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

Halloween at Frankenstein’s Castle, October 21st – November 6th 

If the name of Frankenstein’s Castle sounds familiar to you, it should do: apparently, Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein, could well have been inspired by the castle when she visited the nearby town of Gernsheim in 1814. 

These days, however, the castle is known for something slightly different: in 1978, American airmen set up an annual Halloween festival at the castle, and the spooky tradition has continued to this day.

Halloween at Frankenstein Castle

A blood-curdling character at Frankenstein Castle’s Halloween Festival in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

If you want to enjoy what’s been described as one of the most spectacular Halloween experiences in the world, it’s well worth booking tickets to go up to the castle in late October. In the weeks around Halloween, the 1000-year-old castle is transformed in a phantasmagoria of monsters and evil beings lurking in the shadows.

Every year, the organisers of the festivals pull yet another technical trick out of their sleeve to ensure that visitors are more spooked than ever. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you think you can handle the adrenaline, it’s bound to be an action-packed night. 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?

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