The North Sea: Gateway to the World

Sunset on the North Sea

Ships sailing across the North Sea provided an important mode of transportation for goods, people and ideas when the people of Germany began trading with and venturing to foreign lands.

I had the opportunity to travel to Norderney, one of the seven East Frisian Islands in the North Sea.  One hour by ship from the mainland, this island is only 14 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide with a population of 6200.  Founded in 1797 by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, this island was Germany’s first North Sea resort.  Walking for hours on the beach, it was easy for me to see why – even with the cold November wind blowing. My host-mother, Hella, was born and raised on the island.  For two days we went to visit her family and celebrate her father’s 85th birthday. It was on this island that the differences in the various dialects of the German language became crystal clear.

On the ship to Norderney

Unlike in the United States where all people can understand each other’s English, the dialects in Germany are more extreme.  High German or Hochdeutsch and Low German or Plattdeutsch are the main dialects spoken, although certainly not the only ones.  High German is the official language of Germany taught in the schools now. Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into High German increased its standardization.  However, Low German still exists, especially among older generations in certain regions – as I clearly discovered on the East Frisian Island of Norderney.  Visiting with people on the island, I often felt like I did when first arriving in Germany – at a complete loss for understanding.

Windmill on the island of Norderney

Low German is as much another language as Swiss German and Austrian German is.  Prevelant on islands and harbors around the North Sea, Low German is a mix of languages – German, English and Dutch.  With the Netherlands bordering East Friesland in north Germany this language naturally was integrated.  The English ship that brought the tea drinking tradition to Norderney also brought a bit of the English language.  A few Low German courses exist in some universities, but it appears to me the language is being lost.  While all German children must learn another language in the school (usually English), they cannot understand or speak Low German.  It seems sad to lose a language, but then do we really know what the Germans were speaking 200 years ago?

People also emigrated from Germany via the North Sea.  Over 7 million people emigrated from Germany in the 18th,

International Student Organization from the University of Oldenburg in front of the German Emigration Center, or Deutsches Auswanderer Haus in Bremerhaven.

19th and 20th centuries from the port of Bremerhaven, across the North Sea to new lands.  My mother’s ancestors set sail from Bremerhaven in the middle of the 19th century for America.  With my host sister Lisa and the International Student Organization from the University of Oldenburg, Ivisited the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven.  This provided fascinating simulation of the voyage experienced by so many emigrants.

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