Em Winta fleiji de dreeiji Bläda enni Lofft romm. (In the winter the dry leaves fly around in the air.) – This is what they would say in a certain remote village in northern Kazakhstan. And the language wouldn’t be Kazakh and not even Russian. Mennonites speak their distinct variety of Low German – one that comes from the Vistula delta and has evolved into a language known now worldwide as Plautdietsch.
A distinct ethno-confessional group which is currently present all around the world, their identity shaped in the times of Reformation which saw major changes in the Northern European Christian cultures. Not every such movement was accepted by the state and many of the Mennonites, a peace-loving group inspired by Menno Simons of Frisia, had to flee their motherland and look for new places to settle. As they came from the Low Countries, Mennonites had a certain experience with farming on reclaimed polders – a technology very much wanted in the Vistula delta in Poland. Polish cities extended their invitation to them and Mennonites began the wave of Olędrzy settlers in the 16th century.
When they arrived in Poland, Mennonites spoke Dutch, Frisian, and a westernmost variety of Low German. It was only here that influenced by local Low German speakers, they accepted the Low Prussian dialect for their daily communication and increasingly chose (High) German instead of Dutch for formal purposes – and they would keep these two languages ever after.
Allowances made by the Polish king released Mennonites of military service which let them stay true to their pacifist beliefs. However, soon the situation changed as Poland’s Prussia (the region where they lived) fell to the Kingdom of Prussia (a neighbour state). Whereas in theory Prussian Kings confirmed the Mennonites’ licence for pacifism, military duties were at the time linked to plots of land. If anyone in the developing community of Mennonites bought a plot of land from a non-Mennonite, they took over the military duties as well. It was then that they were invited by the Russian Empress (two Prussias and a Russia in one story – my English-speaking friends get confused when I talk about this) to settle within her territory. The Russia of the day encompassed much wider territories, so while they first settled in today’s Ukraine, with time some of them reached even Kazakhstan.
For a few dozen years things looked good in Russia but then in 1874 they were obliged to military service there as well so many of them looked for their place somewhere else.
Today, Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German) is spoken mostly in the Americas – from Argentina and Brazil through Belize and Mexico up to the two northernmost countries: the USA and Canada (and there are more). Of course many Mennonites left behind in the countries of their world pilgrimage, and thanks to this Mennonite expats from the former Soviet Union brought the language to… Germany.
If you want to hear some Plautdietsch actually spoken, see it written or basically learn more, try the following links: