Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Baltic German - a dialect that is about to die

My first language as a child was a very obscure dialect of German, Baltic German. This was the only language I could speak until I started kindergarten. At the peak maybe 100 000 people spoke this language as their first language. I grew up in this language and did not know I was the final generation that would speak this dialect. In fact I had no idea I was speaking a dialect at all.

Baltic German is in accent very similar to standard German, the most noticeable difference is that it is a drawl, my aunt Sabine von Schulmann has one of the strongest accents. I have heard Hessian, Bavarian, Austrian and other German Dialects and could hear the strong difference in accents to standard German. It is because of this that I had always assumed that I simply spoke standard German. It took me until I was in my 30s to understand how much of a dialect I had.

My German vocabulary is about 4000 to 5000 words I use on a regular basis, of that about 500 of them are words only used in Baltic German. I had never understood why many Germans looked at me oddly when I spoke, it turns out it had to do with the fact that I used words they had never heard. I finally understood when I read 1001 Wort Baltisch by Berend von Nottbeck in about 1999.

Turns out I not only spoke Baltic German, I spoke the Estonian variety.

A simple word like 'ets' (meaning a bit, the standard German is 'etwas') is one I use all the time, turns out it is not used in Germany. A lot of my vocabulary around food is pure Baltic German - Falscher Hase to Zakuska our world of food is our own.

I was born in Vancouver in 1965 and spent the first years of my life in a purely Baltic German environment. By the time my brother Nik came along four years later, my parents had moved out to the 'burbs and there was a lot more English around us.

Those of us born in Canada between 1950 and 1970 are the last generation of people born that speak this dialect. Most Baltic Germans after the war ended up in Germany, but the people born there were very heavily influenced by the German around them. Those of us born in Canada only knew the German of our parents from the Baltics. Our parents continued to speak the way they did before they were ethnically cleansed from the Baltics in 1939. We only spoke with other people that spoke the same dialect and therefore preserved it for one more generation.

Being one of the youngest people to speak a dialect and knowing that it will die out with my generation means I understand the issues and urgency aboriginal people feel with their one languages. Going back hundreds of years, all of my ancestors spoke the language I do but I children do not speak it. I live with the fact that my children can not speak my mother tongue, that they would not be able to understand the first words I said in this life.

I do not get the sense that a lot of the other people of my generation understand where we are at and what we are losing. I know my parents generation know what they are losing, but for them it was much more than the language, it was the very houses and land they had been part of for generations.

The death of Baltic German is also the death of a unique worldview. The Baltic Germans were a minority, but a well to do minority. As a people they were not stand offish or looking to separate themselves from the world. As a group the Baltic Germans were not very nationalistic at all. They were a people that did not connect ethnicity with the nation. They were a melting pot of people from all manner of backgrounds. They were some of the most unGerman Germans around. This worldview is being lost as the final pieces of the people and culture die.


Anonymous said...


I am interested in German dialectology, and am disappointed in the lack of literature on Baltic German. Do you know of any good sources?

Jonathan Gress
Philadelphia, PA, USA

Bernard said...

Drop me a line at bernard at

Kathrin Winkler said...

Geburstagskringel....kummelkuckel usw. We will be witnesses to the last generation of goggelmoggel....Interesting to read your comment on a dying dialect, Bernard, there are still a few of us around !

Asni said...

Really? Geburtstagskringel is a Estonian-Baltic word? Makes sense, on consideration. Hmm, Goggelmoggel, Falscher Hase ... Piroggen?

I've known for a long time that my mother's cooking was different (I grew up in Berlin, mother born Pärnu 1936, left 1939 like most) - also the fact that we used to have a big Easter Feast involving Gelbbrot, Pas'cha, Piroggen and Leberpastete each year. But I never realized or thought about the fact that the words were not standard German! I never spoke the Baltic dialect myself (neither did my mother, really, I think) - but am currently introducing proper Easter celebrations in New Zealand. :D

It also took me until a couple of years ago, and seeing some photos of people from Pärnu, to realize where I got my face from, and why I always thought I looked weird, among Germans.

Nice to know there are others out there. :waves from Wellington: :)

Estonian said...

If you know at least a bit of your own history, then you should know that you are a descendent of most inhumane and brutal colonists and slave keepers in Europe. And you are sad that your "world view" is dying???

Anonymous said...

Fuck off, Estonian. The Livonian Order was brutal, but the German settlers that came to the Baltic were certainly not.

Anyways, interesting article! I am very interested to read this. :-)

Pauls said...

I am a Latvian and I am very interested in Baltic German story, because I feel in my self German blood line. I think- Latvia is not acknowledging its history and the large German part in it. I am very sorry - we do not have Baltic Germans any more.

Bernard said...

50 years of the Soviets certainly has made the Baltic Germans look a lot better!

As my father said in 1995 when we were in Estonia, the time of the Baltic Germans is over and there is no place for us any longer in Latvia or Estonia.

Pauls said...

I think, that ethnically we are the same people. Latvians are different from old balt tribes what lived in the territory of present Latvia. I do not think, that it is appropriate to compere the German speaking Knights who implicated Christianity in Latvia and soviets, who almost destroyed Latvians.

Bernard said...

In both cases the ethnic majority was oppressed by a foriegn minority. The Russians - under the guise of the Soviet Union but who are we kidding, the Soviets were the Russians - managed to create more damage and ill will in 50 years than the Germans managed in centuries

A said...

I am walking on the old streets of Medieval Reval and I am thinking what colorful life filled this city centuries ago. I do not have any Baltic German roots, I am a mix of Estonian, Swedish, Polish, Russian and Belorussian blood and one part of my heart belongs to Baltic German culture.
I am sad that most of Estonians don`t want to see the richness of Baltic German culture... but it was one of the finest and exeptional examples in Europe!

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

My grandmother's family the Steldts came from Riga,and they had relatives in Libau. My dad learned german from his mother,as grandpa, whose family were Bavarian, didn't speak german to my dad or his brother, my Uncle Tom. Daddy said grandpa felt that since they were americans, they should speak english.
However , he could speak german and several other languages. My dad spoke german with a Berliner accent, but there might have been a few words of baltic German mixed in possibly. It's a shame that dialects disappear.The same goes for the german spoken here in Texas around the new Braunfels and other areas. Loved to go visit that part of the world some day.Don't know if the Steldts and their allied families the Krebs and Lilienschilds are still living there Holly DollytsB

Bernard said...

The family names are not ones I am connected with so I do not know them well.

There really are no Baltic Germans that remained in the Estonia and Latvia after 1944. After 1918 there was a large exodus, though many remained. In 1939 the vast majority were resettled and the final handful between 1941 and 1944. My parents knew of a single Baltic German still in Tallinn in 1960, a distant cousin of my father. They visited him when they went to Tallinn in 1960

David Robertson PhD said...

Hi Bernard,

How wonderful! I didn't know you were a speaker of Baltic German. It seems to me the linguist Ilse Lehiste may have written about a similar dialect; I'll have to check. Really great to read your post, as I've recently discovered a bit about German dialectology via a book on Texas Alsatian.

Klahawiam, naika nim:

Dave Robertson

Benzel59 said...

First thank you for your most interesting article on the Baltic German dialect. Like you, I was always told by my Mother, that she and subsequently I, spoke only Hochdeutsch. My Father was Latvian so in our household both languages were spoken (obviously Latvian of the 40's and Balten Deutsch). My Mother's family comes from Frauenburg (in Latvian - Saldus), where my grandparents owned businesses and property. Are there more Baltic German organizations in the US? I am already somewhat involved in the Latvian community in the States and have been back to Saldus to see the property where the family home once stood.

Nancy said...

Hallo Bernard,
Was fuer einen interessanten Artikel. Es hat mich sehr betroffen. Ich werde dieses Buch "1001 Wort Baltisch" bestellen. Meine Kollegin in Deutschland damals haben immer gesagt ich haette einen komischen 'R'/Akzent.

Uebrigens, ich bin auch Baltin,(halb), Familie Mutterseits aus Riga, usw., Wappen 'verstaubt' in eine Ecke im Hause meine Mutter, und noch merkwuerdiger, bin deine Altersgruppe und wohne in Cowichan Valley.

Wenn Du interesse hast Kontakt aufzunehmen, Du kannst mich emailen: nancywilsonbecerra at