German MPs sound out the Middle Ages: Parliament is urged to preserve the ancient language of 8 million people

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The Independent Online
RENATE BLANK, a Bavarian MP, looked increasingly confused, and eventually begged for mercy: could at least some of the debate be conducted in a language she could understand?

There was laughter, but no mercy. Yesterday's hour-long debate in the German parliament continued to be largely in the plattdeutsch dialect - language, if one is being politically correct - which, it is claimed, is spoken by more than 8 million people in northern Germany.

The debate needed special authorisation to be conducted in the more-or-less alien tongue. To add to the confusion, there was even one contribution in Sorbian, an entirely foreign language, of which - as Angela Stachowa cheerfully acknowledged when she finally broke into German - none of the other deputies probably understood a word, though they listened politely, and clapped at the end. Sorbian, halfway between Czech and Polish, is spoken only by 40,000 in south- eastern Germany.

An all-party group of 90 MPs had demanded that plattdeutsch, which sounds less German than Dutch, be treated as a fully-fledged language in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. The Bonn government is wary of this demand since, according to the terms of the charter, a fully-fledged language is entitled to special funding to ensure its preservation - for example, in schools. Bonn has suggested instead that plattdeutsch be given halfway-house treatment: recognised, but not promoted.

A Christian Democrat MP, Wolfgang Bornsen, the main proponent of the platt motion, pointed out that it was, in the Middle Ages, 'the commercial, official and working language of northern Europe'. He bewailed the fact that it had thus dwindled from being a 'world language' to a 'second language, in northern Germany'.

Certainly, even some of the MPs from northern Germany seemed less at home with the platt than they would have liked us to believe, as they carefully delivered their plattdeutsch speeches. But the stenographers, at least, were well-prepared. The team of the day was made up of north Germans only, who scribbled unceasingly, with a plattdeutsch dictionary at hand in case the going got really tough. The debate will be published in bilingual form, as a one-off exception to the parliamentary rule.

Elsewhere in Europe, demands for improved language rights have become a regular prelude to civil war. It is not thought, however, that tanks will be sent into Hamburg in order to crush the platt movement. Instead, the optimists claim that this is a way of creating a more unified Germany. On either side of the old West-East German border, there are millions of speakers of platt. In many respects, the two sides are still divided. Linguistically at least, however, the citizens of north-east and north-west Germany are (more or less) one.

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