Franconian languages

Map showing the areas in Europe where the Franconian languages and dialects are currently spoken. Legend:
  Low Franconian languages in the Netherlands, Belgium and France (French Flemish)
  Low Franconian languages in Germany (Meuse-Rhenish)

Franconian (German: Fränkisch; Dutch: Frankisch) includes a number of West Germanic languages and dialects possibly derived from the languages and dialects originally spoken by the Franks from their ethnogenesis in the 3rd century AD. The languages that evolved in the northern and eastern lands of Francia included Low Franconian, of which present-day Dutch is the primary member, the West Central German Rhine Franconian and Central Franconian dialects (including Luxembourgish), as well as transitional High Franconian German dialects. Linguists have different views about whether these languages and dialects have descended from a single Franconian proto-language, also known as Istvaeonic.

Three groups

Low Franconian

Low Franconian language area in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and France

Low Franconian, also called Low Frankish, consists of Dutch, Afrikaans, Limburgish, and their dialects, some of which are sometimes seen as regional languages. They are spoken in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, South Africa, Namibia, the western tip of Germany (in the West German Lower Rhine region, former Duchy of Cleves), Suriname, the Caribbean as well as in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

With a total of over 40[1] million speakers this is the most numerous of the 3 groups, as well as most spread globally and the only group that has members which are official, national and standard languages.

Sometimes, Low Franconian is grouped together with Low German rather confusingly as "Low German". However, since this grouping is not based on common linguistic innovations, but rather on the absence of the High German consonant shift and Anglo-Frisian features, modern scholars prefer not to group them together.[2] A transitional zone between Low Franconian and Central Franconian is formed by the so-called Meuse-Rhenish dialects (e.g. Low Dietsch, Bergish, and East Bergish) located in southern Dutch Limburg and in the German Lower Rhine (German: Niederrhein).[3]

Low Franconian dialects

Central and Rhine Franconian

Main article: West Central German
West Central German language area

The West Central German dialects of Central and Rhine Franconian are spoken in the German states of South-Western North Rhine-Westphalia, most of Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, northern Baden-Württemberg, southern Hesse, northern Bavaria, in the bordering French Moselle department, and in Luxembourg, as well as by the Transylvanian Saxons in Romania, and by the Pennsylvania Germans in North America. It is estimated that these dialects have about 17,000,000 native speakers[4]

High Franconian

High Franconian dialects are spoken in the area between Central and Upper German dialects. An estimated 2,500,000 people speak these dialects, most of them are located in the Franconia region of Bavaria.

Meaning of "Franconian"

As it applies to modern languages, Franconian is somewhat variable in meaning. It can refer to a West Germanic dialect continuum spoken in the Rhineland, including Dutch at one end and all the transitional dialects between Dutch and standard German, including it, which do not fully participate in the High German consonant shift or German diphthongization of long vowels.[5] This area follows the course of the Benrath and Speyer lines, a zone along which the two changes occurred along with other diagnostic changes. From a linguistics point of view the Rhineland is an intermediate zone where the Rhenish Fan is located, a zone where eight isoglosses converge.

Not all Dutch dialects are contained in the Rhineland; moreover, historical Franconian, which comprises other aspects of the language of the Franks, was spoken also in the lowlands. Dutch is spoken between the Rhineland and the North Sea. A second definition extends the range of Franconian to include the lowlands to the west, to the east all the way to Bamberg in East Franconia, and to the south as far as, and including, Alsace, far from the Rhineland. In all, in this definition, the Franconian language area consists of the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg), parts of France (e.g. the Dunkirk district and half of Lorraine), and West-Central Germany (around Aachen, Cologne and Trier), as well as all of the former Franconia.[6] In addition to these continental dialects, Franconian includes two overseas dialects: Afrikaans spoken in South Africa and the Pennsylvania German language spoken in North America.

The difference between a dialect and a language is often debatable. In general, a dialect is contained within a language, and is not identical to it, unless the language has only that dialect. The Franconian languages are considered dialects of German and Dutch even though often termed languages. The dialects are further subdivided into ranges under a common name, which may also be subdivided; for example, Flemish is a dialect of Dutch. It is further divided into East and West Flemish. Not all dialects of Dutch and German are Franconian. For example, in the case of German, excluded from the category "Franconian" are the high, or "Alpine," dialects of Swabia, Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, as well as the various dialects of Low German.

The word "Franconian" refers to a collection of dialects, and not to a language.[7] Languages have to be genetically related, unless they are defined as isolates; that is, a parent language descends into child languages, or reflex languages, which are defined on that account to be "related." Dialects are not necessarily related. For example, German and Dutch, which are closely related, descend from Proto-Germanic, a parent language. Dialects of German and Dutch at any stage of their development are not necessarily related to each other. The defining elements of the dialect might come from any language or be innovated. No dialect labelled "Franconian" has to be related to any other dialect of the same tag. For example, Old Low Franconian, ancestral phase of Dutch, is not related to the Franconian dialects of Old High German. Moreover, Middle Franconian is not related to Middle High German.

Historical views of the linguistic concept and meaning of "Franconian"

"Franconian" is an English word. Continental Europeans use the equivalent of "Frankish", from the original Latin Franci, with the same meaning; for example, the German for Old Franconian is alt-Fränkisch. The Dutch linguist, Jan van Vliet (1622-1666), uses Francica or Francks to mean the language of the oude Francken ("Old Franks"). According to van Vliet, Francks descended from oud Teuts, what is today referred to in English as the Proto-Germanic language.[8]

Old Franconian

German stem duchy of Franconia, about 1000

The name "Franconian", an English adjective made into a noun, comes from the official Latin name of an area (and later stem duchy) in the Middle Ages known as Franconia (German: Franken). If being in the territory of the original Franci is a criterion of being Frankish, it was not originally Frankish, but Alemannic, as the large Roman base at Mainz, near the confluence of the Main and the Rhine, kept the Franci and the Suebi, core tribe of the Alemanni, apart. When the Romans withdrew, the fort became a major base of the Ripuarian Franks, who promptly moved up the Main, founded Frankfurt ("the ford of the Franks"), established a government over the Suebi between the Rhine and the Danube, and proceeded to assimilate them to all things Frankish, including the dialects. The Ripuarian Franks at that time were not acting as such, but were simply part of the Frankish empire under the Carolingian dynasty.

Franconian is the only English single word describing the region called Franken by the Germans. The population considered as native is also called Franken, who speak a language called Fränkisch, which is dialects included in German. In the Middle Ages, before German prevailed officially over Latin, the Latinizations, Franconia and Francones, were used in official documents. Since Latin was the scholarly lingua franca, the Latin forms spread to Britain as well as to other nations. English speakers had no reason to convert to Franken; moreover, "Frankish" was already being used for French and Dutch. Franconian was kept.

The English did not have much to say about Franconian until the 18th century, except that it was "High Dutch," and "German." In 1767 Thomas Salmon published:[9]

The language of the Germans is High Dutch, of which there are many dialects, so different, that the people of one province scarce understand those of another.

"Province", as it was applied to Germany, meant one of the ten Reichskreise of the Holy Roman Empire. Slingsby Bethel had published a description of them in a political treatise of 1681,[10] referring to each of them as a "province," and describing, among them, "The Franconian Circle." Slingsby's language development goes no further than "High Germany," where "High Dutch" was spoken and "the lower parts of Germany," speaking, presumably, Low Dutch. Salmon's implicit identification of dialects with Reichskreise speech is the very misconception found objectionable by Green and Siegmund:[7]

Here we are also touching upon the problem of languages, for many scholars ... proceed from the assumption that they were ethnic languages/dialects (Stammessprachen) ... the very opposite goes for the Franks ....

In the mid-19th century, a time when the Germans were attempting to define a standard German, the term. alt-Fränkisch made its appearance, which was an adjective meaning "old-fashioned." It came into English immediately as "Old Franconian." English writings mentioned Old Franconian towns, songs and people, among other things. To the linguists, the term was a windfall, as it enabled them to distinguish a Stammsprach. For example, in 1863 Gustave Solling's Diutiska identified the Pledge of Charles the Bald, which is in Old High German, as Old Franconian.[11] He further explains that the latter is an Upper German dialect.

By the end of the century the linguists understood that between "Low Dutch" and "High Dutch" was a partially altered continuum, which they called Middle, or Central, German. It had been grouped with Upper, or High, German. This "Middle" was between low and high, as opposed to the Chronological Middle High German, between old and new. In 1890 Ernest Adams defined Old Franconian as an Old High German dialect spoken on the middle and upper Rhine;[12] i.e., it went beyond the limits of Franconia to comprise also the dialect continuum of the Rhineland. His earlier editions, such as the 1858, did not feature any Old Franconian.

Old Low Franconian

After the English concept of Franconian had expanded to encompass the Rhineland in the 1850s and 1860s, a paradox seemed to prevent it from spreading to the lower Rhine. Language there could not be defined as High German in any way. In 1862 Max Müller pointed out that Jacob Grimm had applied the concept of "German" grammar to ten languages, which "all appear to have once been one and the same."[13] One of these was the "Netherland Language, which appears to have been produced by the combined action of the older Franconian and Saxon, and stands therefore in close relation to the Low German and the Friesian. Its descendants now are the Flemish in Belgium and Dutch in Holland [sic]." Müller, after describing Grimm's innovation of the old, middle and new phases of High German, contradicts himself by reiterating that Franconian was a dialect of the upper Rhine.

After somewhat over a generation a formal solution had been universally accepted: Franconian had a low phase. An 1886 work by Strong and Meyer defined Low Franconian as the language "spoken on the lower Rhine."[14] Their presentation included an Upper, Middle and Lower Franconian, essentially the modern scheme. Low Franconian, however, introduced another conflict of concepts, as Low Franconian must mean, at least in part, Dutch. Here Strong and Meyer are anachronistic on behalf of consistency, an error that would not have been made by native Dutch or German speakers. According to them, "Franconian ceases to be applied to this language; it is then called Netherlandish (Dutch)...." Only the English ever applied Franconian anywhere; moreover, Netherlandish had been in use since the 17th century, after which Dutch was an entirely English word. The error had been corrected by the time of Wright's An Old High-German Primer two years later, in 1888. Wright identifies Old Low Franconian with Old Dutch,[15] both terms used only in English.

Old Frankish

Main article: Old Frankish

Before it acquired the present name "Germanic", "Germanic" was known as "Teutonic". The Germanics were literary witnesses in history to the alteration of their early Germanic speech into multiple languages. The early speech then became Old Teutonic. However, this Old Teutonic remained out of view, prior to the earliest writings, except for the language of the runic inscriptions, which, being one or two words and numbering less than a thousand, are an insufficient sample to verify any but a few phonetic details of the reconstructed proto-language.

Van Vliet and his 17th century contemporaries inherited the name and the concept "Teutonic". Teutones and Teutoni are names from classical Latin referring to the entire population of Germanics in the Proto-Germanic era, although there were tribes specifically called Teutons. Between "Old Dutch" (meaning the earliest Dutch language) and "Old Teutonic", Van Vliet inserted "Frankish", the language of the Old Franks. He was unintentionally ambiguous about who these "Old Franks" were linguistically. At one point in his writing they were referred to as "Old High German" speakers, at another, "Old Dutch" speakers, and at another "Old French" speakers. Moreover, he hypothesized at one point that Frankish was a reflection of Gothic. The language of the literary fragments available to him was not clearly identified. Van Vliet was searching for a group he thought of as the "Old Franks", which to him included everyone from Mainz to the mouth of the Rhine.

By the end of the 17th century the concept of Old Frankish, the ancestor language of Dutch, German, and the Frankish words in Old French had been firmly established. After the death of Junius, a contemporary of Van Vliet, Johann Georg Graevius said of him in 1694 that he collected fragments of vetere Francica, "Old Frankish," ad illustrandam linguam patriam, "for the elucidation of the mother tongue."[16] The concept of the Dutch vetere Francica, a language spoken by the Franks mentioned in Gregory of Tours and of the Carolingian Dynasty, which at one end of its spectrum became Old Dutch, and at the other, Old High German, threw a shadow into neighboring England, even though the word "Franconian", covering the same material, was already firmly in use there. The shadow remains.

The term "Old Frankish" in English is vague and analogous, referring either to language or to other aspects of culture. In the most general sense, "old" means "not the present", and "Frankish" means anything claimed to be related to the Franks from any time period. The term "Old Frankish" has been used of manners, architecture, style, custom, government, writing and other aspects of culture, with little consistency. In a recent history of the Germanic people, Ozment used it to mean the Carolingian and all preceding governments and states calling themselves Franks through the death of the last admittedly Frankish king, Conrad I of Germany, in 919, and his replacement by a Saxon.[17] This "Old Frankish" period, then, beginning in the Proto-Germanic period and lasting until the 10th century, is meant to include Old High German, Old Dutch and the language that split to form Low German and High German.


Germanic is so diverse as to defy attempts to arrive at a uniform Germanic ancestor. Max Müller finally wrote in the lectures on the Science of Language, under the heading, "No Proto-Teutonic Language:"[18]

"We must not suppose that before that time [7th century] there was one common Teutonic language spoken by all German tribes and that it afterwards diverged into two streams — the High and the Low. There never was a common, uniform Teutonic language; .... This is a mere creation of grammarians who cannot understand a multiplicity of dialects without a common type."

Historical linguistics did not validate his rejection of the Tree model, but it did apply the Wave model to explain the diversity. Features can cross language borders in a wave to impart characteristics not explicable by descent from the language's ancestor. The linguists of the early 19th century, including Müller, had already foreshadowed the Wave Model with a concept of the "blend" of languages, of which they made such frequent use in the case of Germanic that it was difficult to discern any unblended language. These hypothetical "pure" languages were about as inaccessible as the Proto-Germanic Old Frankish; that is, pure guesswork. Dialects or languages in the sense of dialects became the major feature of the Germanic linguistic landscape.

Old Dutch

A second term in use by Van Vliet was oud Duijts, "Old Dutch", where Duijts meant "the entire Continental Germanic continuum". The terms Nederlandsch and Nederduijts were coming into use for contemporary Dutch. Van Vliet used the oud Duijts ambiguously to mean sometimes Francks, sometimes Old Dutch, and sometimes Middle Dutch, perhaps because the terms were not yet firm in his mind.[19] Duijts had been in general use until about 1580 to refer to the Dutch language, but subsequently was replaced by Nederduytsch.

English linguists lost no time in bringing Van Vliet's oud Duijts into English as "Old Dutch". The linguistic noun "Old Dutch", however, competed with the adjective "Old Dutch", meaning an earlier writing in the same Dutch, such as an old Dutch rhyme, or an old Dutch proverb. For example, Brandt's "old Dutch proverb", in the English of his translator, John Childe, mentioned in 1721:[20] Eendracht maekt macht, en twist verquist, "Unity gives strength, and Discord weakness," means contemporary Dutch and not Old Dutch. On the frontispiece, Childe refers to the language in which the book was written as "the original Low Dutch". Linguistic "Old Dutch" had already become "Low Dutch", the contemporary language, and "High Dutch", or High German. On the other hand, "Old Dutch" was a popular English adjective used in the 18th century with reference to people, places and things.

See also


  1. The total of speakers of all Low Franconian dialects and languages, based on Ethnologue gives a number of over 40 million speakers: 22 million Dutch speakers, 16 million Afrikaans speakers and the various dialects of these 2 languages (Flemish for example, has 1 million speakers) creates a number around, and probably over 40 million speakers.
  2. Glück, H. (ed.): Metzler Lexikon Sprache, pages 472, 473. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler, 2000 (entries Niederdeutsch and Niederfränkisch)
  3. Welschen, Ad : Course Dutch Society and Culture, International School for Humanities and Social Studies ISHSS, Universiteit van Amsterdam 2000-2005.
  4. When taking all West Central German dialects as listed by Ethnologue the number 15.350,000 appears, 2 dialects have no speaker data, however considering the area in which they are spoken and the demographics of the area as well as comparable dialects an estimate of about 4,000,000 can be made.
  5. Harbert, Wayne Eugene (2007). The Germanic Languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge / New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 15–17.
  6. "Franconian". Webster's Third New International Dictionary and Seven Language Dictionary. Volume I: A to G. Chicago et al.: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1986.
  7. 1 2 Green, D. H.; Siegmund, Frank (2003). The continental Saxons from the migration period to the tenth century: an ethnographic perspective. Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology. 6. Suffolk: Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress / Woodbridge. p. 19. There has never been such a thing as one Frankish language. The Franks spoke different languages.
  8. Dekker 1998, pp. 245–247.
  9. Salmon, Thomas (1767). A New Geographical and Historical Grammar: Wherein the geographical part is truly modern; and the present state of the several kingdoms of the world is so interspersed, as to render the study of geography both entertaining and instructive (new ed.). Edinburgh: Sands, Murray, and Cochran, for J. Meuros. p. 147.
  10. Bethel, Slingsby (1681). The Interest of the Princes and States of Europe (2nd ed.). London: J.M. for John Wickins. pp. 152–153.
  11. Solling, Gustav (1863). Diutiska: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Literature of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Death of Göthe. London: Tübner. pp. 14–16.
  12. Adams, Ernest (1890). The elements of the English language. London: George Bell and Sons. p. 17.
  13. Vaughan, Robert; Allon, Henry (July 1, 1862). "The Science of Language". British Quarterly Review. 36 (71): 218–220. In this review Vaughan and Allon are paraphrasing from Max Müller's Science of Language lecture series, German language, later translated and published in English.
  14. Strong, Herbert Augustus; Meyer, Kuno (1886). Outline of a History of the German language. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey. p. 68.
  15. Wright, Joseph (1888). An Old High-German Primer. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 1.
  16. Breuker, Ph. H. (2007), "On the Course of Franciscus Junius' Germanic Studies, with Special Reference to Frisian", in Bremmer, Rolf H. Jr.; Van der Meer, Geart; Vries, Oebele, Aspects of Old Frisian Philology, Amsterdam Beiträge zur ãlteren Germanistik Bd. 31/32; Estrikken 69, Amsterdam: Rodopi, p. 44
  17. Ozment, Steven (2005). A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. New York: HarperCollins. p. 49.
  18. Müller, F Max (1899) [1891]. The Science of Language, Founded on Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution in 1861 and 1863. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. pp. 247–248.
  19. Dekker 1998, pp. 255–256.
  20. Brandt, Gerard; Childe, John (Translator) (1721). The history of the Reformation and other ecclesiastical transactions in and about the Low-countries: from the beginning of the eighth century, down to the famous Synod of Dort, inclusive. In which all the revolutions that happen'd in church and state, on account of the divisions between the Protestants and Papists, the Arminians and Calvinists, are fairly and fully represented. Vol II. London: T. Wood. p. 346.


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