Saxony’s famous dialect doesn’t have the greatest reputation. In surveys on the popularity of German dialects, Saxon routinely lands in last place. Opinions about dialects and accents, however, are inextricably linked to stereotypes about the people who speak them. The Saxon dialect, then, is a victim of historical circumstances. Here, we dig into Saxon, what it sounds like and why it’s perceived the way it is.
Where Is Saxony?
One look at a German dialect map will quickly make clear that, as it so often happens, our preconception of a Saxon dialect doesn’t quite match with the linguistic definition. In linguistics, the Low German dialects are classified as “Low Saxon,” that is, the platt dialects that are spoken in Northern Germany. This actually has nothing to do with the state of Lower Saxony. The name comes from the Saxon tribe, who in the first century lived in the northwestern region of what is now Germany, and to the east of what is now the Netherlands.
The fact that nowadays a few other areas bear the name Saxony, even though descendants of this tribe don’t primarily live there, is due to a dynastic name migration. The title Duke of Saxony (Herzog von Sachsen) was first bestowed on a prince who lived outside of the old Saxon people’s territory in 1180. With later princes, the title migrated further and further geographically. So, due to the importance of this title (which was associated with the honor of an Elector, or Kurfürst), the name Saxony was also transferred to the Princely states and ultimately to their residents. For purposes of distinction, the Saxon that’s spoken in the state of Saxony is called Upper Saxon, and it belongs to the East Central German dialects.
And there’s more: If someone is talking about “Anglo-Saxon,” that’s something entirely different: this refers to the Anglo-Saxons, the cultural group that inhabited modern-day Great Britain many years ago. Anglo-Saxon is sometimes used to refer to the English-speaking world.
Are you sufficiently confused about the different “Saxon” dialects yet? Well, let’s try to express it a bit clearer.
Does Saxon Count As A Dialect?
Since dialects are defined as closed language systems, the Upper Saxon dialect has been considered extinct for 100 to 150 years. The manners of speaking that many hearers today would call Saxon are actually regional colorations of Standard German, i.e. regiolects, or Regiolekte.
Unlike a dialect, a regiolect has discarded or reduced inconsistent dialectal peculiarities in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, in favor of national or standard language elements. Perhaps that is why non-Saxons perceive the Saxon regiolect so strongly — because it stands in stark comparison to the Standard German.
What Does Saxon Sound Like?
There are many deviations within the regiolects in Saxony. In the Upper Lusatian dialect, for example, a rolled “American” sounding [r] can be heard, which very few would define as “Saxon.” What is thought of as “extremely Saxon” outside of Saxony (and especially in the former West) is actually the is the Meissen and thus the Thuringian-Upper Saxon dialect.
In the typical Thuringian-Upper Saxon pronunciation, the jaw is firm, the lips don’t move as much, and the tongue stays far back in the mouth. This results in a darker and more rounded pronunciation of vowels and a softness to the consonants [p], [t] and [k], which sound like [b], [d] and [g]. In addition, Saxon has a melodious intonation of sentences, which causes hearers to describe it as “French-sounding.”
Why Are Saxon Dialects Unpopular?
Here at Babbel, we believe in approaching languages positively. This means, among other things, that we treat different languages and language variants equally. Incidentally, the majority of today’s linguists agree with us, as they have long since stopped working in a normative and prescriptive manner. Because when you look at it logically, language…well, language isn’t logical. Language is convention, historically determined and thereby also a product of language changes. Therefore, there can be no such thing as a language that is inherently “right” or “wrong,” or “better” or “worse.”
If you’re skeptical, think about the following: Long ago, Saxon — particularly the Meissen — was considered the gold standard of German. It was the language of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. The legendary author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was even sent to study in Leipzig by his father, so that in addition to studying law he could learn to speak Saxon. With the fall of Saxon powers after the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the rise of Prussia, the Saxon lost so much prestige that the dialect died out.
Today, many associate Saxon disparagingly with the “provincial” speaking style of the Ossis (former East Germans) –– somewhat ironic, because it is quite narrow-minded (some might say “provincial”) to lump all speakers of a certain dialect together negatively. As such, we invite you to think more positively about all language and dialects. For if it did not exist in all its diversity, the German language wouldn’t be the same.
This article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.