Flensburg forgot about Petuh

By Miguel Duran de Barbozza and Bobbie van der List

The Northern German city Flensburg is known for its multilingual character. Since Flensburg is just on the border with Denmark most of the people speak both Danish and German. As a result the town dialect of Flensburg, better known as Petuh, was born. To what extend is the dialect still present in the border city?

Flensburg is a vibrant place when it comes to variety of languages and dialects. Walk inside a restaurant, shop, or gas station and you’re never sure in what language or dialect a conversation takes place.

With two languages and five official dialects one could say the city is quite multilingual. Although Petuh isn’t officially recognized as a minority dialect; the Petuh culture is rooted in the Flensburg society.

Petuh is a mixture of German, low German, Danish and Southern Jutish. Although many expressions come from the town dialect of Flensburg, today not many Flensburg inhabitants seem to be aware of its existence.

A dialect not worth translating

Neither is there an archive or organization, which makes an effort to preserve the typical Flensburg dialect. The ones that do speak the old town dialect, can be seen as a very small minority.

In that regard professor Elin Fredsted has written an interesting report about the town dialect called ‘Language contact and bilingualism in Flensburg in the middle of the 19th century’ and is Head of the Institute of Danish Language and Literature at the University of Flensburg . To understand the importance of the dialect today, it’s evident to go back to the roots of this Northern German ‘sprache’.

The earliest document found about Petuh was written in the 16th century, 1531. The humanist Christiern Pedersen translated books from Latin and Greek, low German and Danish.

Interesting however was his refusal to translate the back then unknown town dialect of Flensburg. In one of his documents he warned against the ‘unintelligible from Flensburg, in which Danish and German were mixed.’

Renate Delfs is a Petuh symbol in Flensburg

500 years later that same remark is often repeated when people talk about ‘Petuh’. ,,People say that it’s wrong German, but it’s not. The Petuh is related to our history. Back then children didn’t just learn German, nor Danish in the right way. They heard both languages, since Flensburg is a border city.”

That’s how Renate Delfs (86) thinks about the dialect. She has written two books about the town dialect of Flensburg – Eine ungewöhnliche Liebeserklärung an Flensburg and Ohaueha, was’n Aggewars. Moreover she has become a symbol for the dialect and emphasizes the dialect is a very important part of the Flensburg identity.

In the 1970’s she was asked to talk with a Petuh accent on the local radio. Just for fun. Because the reaction of listeners were so enthusiastic a publisher asked her to write a book about the typical Flensburg accent. She sold 4000 copies, which was a huge success for a book that’s about a rather small dialect.

Although the first documents that showed the existence of the town dialect of Flensburg, the best known part of the dialect are the Petuhtants. Those were ladies in the late nineteenth century who used to go on ferry’s and went on the Flensburg fjord – which is a natural border between Germany and Denmark.

Petuh itself is literally a translation of the French word partout, meaning a pass that gave the women the right to go on the ferry boats for the whole summer.

Delfs turns her head to the right and looks through the window of the restaurant across the harbor. She points at a steam boat. ,,That was my own first personal experience with Petuh. My mother took me with her on the steam boat Alexandra. It only cost 26 Deutsche Mark to use the ferry from April until September.”

The Alexandra steam boat is the only remaining boat which the Petuhtants used in the 19th century

,,I was sitting on a bench, when a woman told a 6 year old boy to stand up so she could sit down. She used a very strong Petuh dialect. It was not done to sit on the seats of the Petuhtants back then.” Not that long after her first ferry ride she met a lady in a fabric, where her father worked. ,,She was speaking in exactly the same strong dialect.” From that moment on Delfs was fascinated about the Petuh dialect.

Delfs doesn’t use the dialect that often, only when asked by relatives on birthday parties. She seems to be annoyed because of some misconceptions concerning Petuh. ,,Many Germans don’t know that Petuh is a playful way of mixing German and Danish. It’s not wrong usage of German.” Usually the language is used in a humorous context, Delfs explains.

Hilskje Rudolph confirms that Petuh nowadays is mostly used in a humorous context. Rudolph is an actress and Frysian language Specialist. Just two months ago she was on stage in the Deutches Haus to do the new year conference called ‘Die Petuhtanten’ for city hall employers.


Unlike Renate Delfs she says that Petuh is still being used in Flensburg today. Many popular expressions originate from Petuh language. ,,I believe that people who really are from Flensburg must at least know what Petuh is.”

She has been in charge of translating many official documents for the Parliament that were written in Petuh and helped the Green Party with Petuh texts. ,,I think it’s important that there will be an official organization that can archive the Petuh history in Flensburg, or can deliver the same services I give.”

However, she does understand why there is so little knowledge for the mixed dialect. ,,I wouldn’t talk in Petuh when I’m ordering something in a restaurant. On the street you wouldn’t hear people talk in Petuh, like I do on stage. Then I use the traditional town dialect of Flensburg from the 19th century.”

The community trying to preserve the dialect isn’t big. A part from Renate Delfs and Rudolph, there are two other persons who can properly use the Petuh dialect on stage.

Besides that there are many people performing with a Petuh dialect, but don’t use the language correctly. Renate Delfs is worried about that. ,,Some people think they can just change some words and make it seem like that’s Petuh. In fact, that’s just wrong German.”

There seems to be a lack of knowledge about the dialect. Both Rudolph and Delfs immediately start to talk about professor Fredsted as the one and only authority on the field of the town dialect of Flensburg. ,,She’s the only one who lectures about Petuh during her linguistic lectures.”

The language is a nation’s most sacred property

In her report mentioned earlier (Language contact and bilingualism in Flensburg in the middle of the 19th century) she underlines the importance of archiving a dialect like Petuh.

She writes that ,,the interest in language as a symbol of national identity also found influential representatives among intellectuals of these region.” She refers to a professor of law at the university of Kiel in 1837, called Christian Poulsen and born in Flensburg. He wrote a small book in Danish: ‘the Danish language in the Duchy of Schleswig’.

His main point was that the language of a people and a nation is its most sacred property. Professor Fredsted agrees with him on that.

And there’s a reason for the fact why people called Petuh the Flensburg town dialect. It is still used in social reunions and private environments.

Last week something special happened with Hilskje Rudolph’s mother, who is dement. ,,She hadn’t spoken for hours, and out of nothing she started to talk in Petuh dialect. It was so special.” It was just as if Rudolph was standing on stage, because it isn’t that common to use the concentrated Petuh dialect. ,,You would probably only be able to use that with people in senior homes!”

Many typical expressions had already been settled in the daily usage of the Flensburg town dialect, not allowing some German citizen from the Southern part of the country to understand the meaning of this result of language merging.

One of the most important factors of the settlement of this dialect was because of the special location of the Flensburg fjord. Back in the 19th century Danish products were way cheaper than German products. Thus the Petuhtants bought their products on the Danish side of the border. Ironically that’s the different way around nowadays.

Petuh success basically relied on the back and forth going ferry’s between the German and Danish side of the fjord. 11 years ago the ferry’s were forced to stop sailing, because the expenses were too high in relation to the profits.

Renate’s fascination for the Petuhtants still lives on, although there aren’t any left. When asked about if she misses the ferry rides, she’s very clear. ,,I don’t miss them at all. Back then the dialect was also associated with the two wars Germany and Denmark fought in the 19th century. I’m happy to live next to a Dane now and go to a Frysian doctor.”

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