A Brief History Of The Transylvanian Saxon Dialect

The Transylvanian Saxon dialect is a rather old and conservative dialect of the German language that was mainly spoken in Transylvania, Romania prior to 1989, before most of the Transylvanian Saxons emigrated abroad (it is still spoken there but in considerably smaller numbers than it used to be).

In Transylvanian Saxon, the dialect is known as ‘Siwweberjesch Såksesch’  (often simplified as ‘Såksesch’), whereas in standard German/Hochdeutsch it is known as ‘Siebenbürgisch-Sächsisch’ or as ‘Die Siebenbürgisch-Sächsische Sprache’ (literary, the Transylvanian Saxon language). It is by no means directly related to Low Saxon or other Saxon dialects spoken in the Saxon lands in contemporary Germany (i.e. Niedersachsen/Lower Saxony, Sachsen-Anhalt, or Freistaat Sachsen/The Free State of Saxony).

It instead pertains to the Mosselle Franconian group of dialects (which in German is known as ‘Moselfränkisch’) comprising, aside from the Transylvanian Saxon dialect itself, three more dialects, namely Luxembourgish (endonym: ‘Lëtzebuergesch’; perhaps the most important of all), Lorraine Franconian, and Riograndenser Hunsrückisch (Hunsrik). The Mossele Franconian group of dialects is part of the greater West Central German dialect family. Aside from the Mossele Franconian group, Transylvanian Saxon is also related to some Zipser German dialects, as spoken in Spiš/Zips, north-eastern Slovakia and a little bit in southern Poland, comprising 14 villages in the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.

The picturesque Transylvanian Saxon village of Meschen (Romanian: Moșna) from Kreis Hermannstadt (Sibiu county), southern Transylvania. Image source: www.reversehomesickness.com

The picturesque Transylvanian Saxon village of Meschen (Romanian: Moșna) from Kreis Hermannstadt (Sibiu County), southern Transylvania. Image source: www.reversehomesickness.com

All these four German dialects originated in Rhineland, Lorraine, and Saarland. Because of its isolation from the rest of the German dialects, the Transylvanian Saxon dialect is one of the most archaic dialects of the German language, with a long standing history at the crossroads of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. Developing itself isolated from the other German-speaking areas since the middle part of the 12th century, the dialect preserves many archaic linguistic features of the German language as it was spoken during the High Middle Ages (i.e. Mittelhochdeutsch).

Its history starts in the 1140s/1150s, when the first arrivals of the predominantly German-speaking Western European craftsmen, miners, and traders of mixed German, Flemish, Walloon, and Frankish origins made at the demands of King Géza II of Hungary are documented to have taken place in Weinland (i.e. Wine Land) and Altland (i.e. Old Land or Olt Land), two ethnographic regions located in the proximity of the towns of Mediasch/Mediaș and Hermannstadt/Sibiu respectively, in south-eastern Transylvania, modern day central Romania.

After the first waves of German and Western European settlers established a series of villages with fortified churches as well as several consolidated urban trading centres in south-eastern and north-eastern Transylvania, it must be mentioned that most of the urban dwellers used Standard German, while the rural Saxon communities preserved varied local dialects (which differed in lexis and pronunciation) that will later on evolve into the Transylvanian Saxon dialect proper.

Quite many linguistic features of the Middle High German (endonym: Mittlehochdeutsch) were thus preserved almost intact from the time of the Saxons’ arrival in Transylvania, these being either inexistent or very rarely used in the German dialects spoken in contemporary Germany, Austria, or Switzerland (or Liechtenstein as well, pun intended here, naturally). Furthermore, the Transylvanian Saxon dialect can be divided into two main groups, more specifically southern Transylvanian Saxon (as spoken, naturally, in southern Transylvania) as well as northern Transylvanian Saxon (as spoken, naturally, in northern Transylvania).

A detailed map of the German dialects and their geographic distribution in Central and Eastern Europe. Transylvanian Saxon is coloured in green and partly depicted in southern Transylvania to the south-east of the map. The other German dialect in Romania, depicted in the south-western part of the country (i.e. in Banat) is Banat Swabian which is different from the Swabian dialect spoken in south-western Germany. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A close analysis on the dialect’s lexis can reveal its composition as follows:

  • German-based words that are either different in form or sense from their counterparts in Hochdeutsch (i.e. literary German);
  • Words that are specific only to other similar German dialects;
  • German-based words that have disappeared in the meantime from both standard German and all of its dialects;
  • Specific Transylvanian Saxon words (i.e. internal constructions);
  • Borrowed words from both Romanian and Hungarian (stemming from the longtime interethnic contacts in the same geographic space for centuries).

In standard German, the word for Saxon is ‘Sachse’ (singular; Sachsen plural), while in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect is Sox(e) (singular; ‘Soxen’ plural), which is an archaic form. Below you can read a sample text dating back to the 17th century:

‘Foater auser dier dau best em Hemmel, geheleget verde deing numen, zaukomm aus deing rech, deing vell geschey aff ierden, als vey em hemmel, auser däglich briut gaff aus heigd, ond fergaff aus auser schuld, vey mir fergien auser en schuldigeren. Feir aus nèt en fersechung, saunderen erlüs aus von üvvell. Denn deing ess dat rech, dei krafft, ond dei herrleget, von ieveget zau ieveges, Amen.’

‘Our Father’ in Transylvanian Saxon, from a 1666 manuscript. Image source: www.de.wikipedia.org

Estimated number of Transylvanian Saxon speakers worldwide


Currently, the number of native speakers of the Transylvanian Saxon dialect is estimated at 200,000 (the vast majority of them now live in either Germany, Austria, the United States, Canada, or elsewhere in the world).

To this date, in Romania, only a few of them decided to remain. The 2011 Romanian census counted roughly 36,000 ethnic Germans still living in Romania, yet this figure does not specify the precise number of those who speak Transylvanian Saxon as their native dialect.

Of these 36,000 ethnic Germans currently residing in Romania, aside from the Transylvanian Saxons, there are also other German-speaking groups such as Banat Swabians, Bukovina Germans, Sathmar Swabians, Zipser Germans, or Transylvanian Landlers. Below you can watch and listen to two video samples of the Transylvanian Saxon dialect:

Place names


Below you can find a list comprising the names of some of the most significant historical German-speaking settlements in Transylvania:

  • Mediasch – Medwesch/Medveš (Romanian: Mediaș);
  • Schäßburg – Schäsbrich/Scheeßprich/Šesburχ (Romanian: Sighișoara);
  • Mühlbach – Melnbach (Romanian: Sebeș);
  • Bistritz – Nîsner-Bistritz/Nîzn/Bästerts/Bîsterts (Romanian: Bistrița);
  • Kronstadt – Kruhnen/Krűnen/Krînen (Romanian: Brașov);
  • Klausenburg – Kleusenburch (Romanian: Cluj/Cluj-Napoca);
  • Hermannstadt – Härmeschtat (Romanian: Sibiu);
  • Heltau – De Hielt/Hilt/Helt (Romanian: Cisnădie);
  • Michelsberg – Mächelsbärch (Romanian: Cisnădioara);
  • Rennmarkt – Reen/Ree/Rę/Rî/Rîn (Romanian: Reghin).

Trivia


The Transylvanian Saxon dialect varied and varies from village to village, analogous more or less to how English accents and dialects vary in the United Kingdom, and particularly, in England, on average on a radius of approximately 5 miles, as they say. In addition, the dialect has been mostly in use more by the rural dwellers than the urban dwellers. Even in the towns and cities, the newly settled rural dwellers from the countryside spoke more Transylvanian Saxon than standard German, i.e. Hochdeutsch, before preferring Hochdeutsch to Transylvanian Saxon later on, naturally. The standard language was therefore more in use by the town and city dwellers, in the passage of time. Last but not least, below you can watch a word comparison between Transylvanian Saxon and Old English by Leornende Eald Englisc on YouTube:

Documentation sources and external links:

Liked it? Take a second to support Victor Rouă on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

2 Responses to A Brief History Of The Transylvanian Saxon Dialect

  1. Susan Guip says:

    Hi Victor,

    Your website is wonderful and interesting, your appreciation for culture really shines through! I enjoy the Transylvanian Saxon articles especially. I am writing to see about getting rights to a photo that you used in this article. It is the photo of Meschen/Mosna and it is credited to the website of http://www.reversehomesickness.com. We would like to use that photo for a book of Memoirs that our society (Alliance of Transylvanian Saxons, Cleveland, Ohio) is putting together. We tried to reach the people at this website with no luck and now wondering if you had any kind of contact or knowledge of them or the auhor currently or this specific photo? Any information or guidance you could give would be greatly appreciated. Sincerely, Sue

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello Susan,

      First of all, thank you so much for your beautiful and grateful comment as well as for your time and readership on The Dockyards! I am very grateful for it! Secondly, I do not know the specific author of the photograph, very much unfortunately, but I think you can still use the photograph as long as you credit that respective website, as I did. Best of luck with your book and your association for Transylvanian Saxons in the United States. All the best and many blessings!

      Sincerely and respectfully,
      Victor Rouă – Webmaster at The Dockyards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.