Low German or Low Saxon (Plattdüütsch in Low German) is a Germanic language spoken by about 5 million people world-wide. Most people living in northern Germany and eastern Netherlands (the Low Saxon language spoken in the Netherlands is considered a different language called Dutch Low Saxon, more information at Dutch Low Saxon phrasebook) use it as a second language. The language that will be treated on this page is thus the Low Saxon dialect spoken in northern Germany. Low German is an official dialect, historically, it used to be the first language of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages, and thus it had a certain prestige that came to vanish during the 16th century. Low German has also had a significant influence on such Scandinavian language as Danish, and even more Swedish. It also had a certain influence on the development of the modern Dutch language as well as on High German.
Low German is not a unified language, but rather an 'aggregate' of similar dialects having a common origin and common intelligibility, but sometimes showing few phonological and lexical differences. It took time to provide Low German with an efficient writing style, several were proposed and used. The 'SASS writing style' (Sass'sche Schrievwies), first proposed in 1935 by German linguist Johannes Sass, has now officially been recognised and is the most used one. It is the writing system that used on the Low German wikipedia and on official writings in Low German.
Since Low German is no unified dialect, it sometimes differs from one dialect to the other. However, the Low German dialects from western Germany are the easiest to understand, as they show a certain level of uniformity. Eastern dialects are often harder to understand, and they often contain more High German words or general influence. The Plautdietsch language, spoken in former Prussia, is a daughter-language of Low German, but is still understandable if you speak Low German.
Another, even bigger, hardship if you're trying to practice your Low German is the fact that most people in Northern Germany, whether Low German-speakers or not, will be more inclined to speak either English or High German with a stranger, rather than a dialect.
Situation within Low German dialects, and relation to other languages
Within the Low German speaking area (that is to say, the north of Germany, especially the Länder of Westphalia and Lower Saxony), there are often differences between the dialect people speak. A word can be the same when written, but pronounced in two different ways. Low German dialects from the West are however considered to be 'purer' than those from the eastern Germany, especially the dialect from Hamburg and Bremen. These two cities were historically - and are still nowadays - at the heart of the Low German historical speaking area. East-Frisian Low German (Oostfrees'sch Plattdüütsch - Ostfriesisches Plattdeutsch in High German) is the direct descendant of the Old Saxon language, the historical ancestor of Low German and sister language of Old English (Anglo-Saxon).
Low German's ancestor Old Saxon was the language of the Saxon tribes that didn't go to England. With genetic - and linguistic - insight, it is the English's closest sister language (with Frisian). However, 1,000 years of evolutions of both languages got the English and Low German to differ significantly. Loads of similarities remained though, but no mutual intelligibility is possible with long speeches between both languages. Only small couple of words can be recognised sometimes, or words pronounced differently such as "he drinkt en Glas Water" which corresponds to English "he drinks a glass of water" and which should sound relatively understandable to an English-speaker.
like 'ts' in "bits" before 'i' and 'e'; like 'k' in "kid" else
like 'd' in "dog"
like 'ph' in "phone"
like 'g' in "go" at the beginning of a word, within a word or at the end of it, 'g' is pronounced either like a kind of mild 'sh' (after e, i, ä, ö and ü) or like a guttural sound similar to Spanish 'jotta'-sound (after a, o, u)
like 'h' in "help"
like 'y' in "yoga"
like 'c' in "cat"
like 'l' in "love"
like 'm' in "mother"
like 'n' in "nice"
like 'p' in "pig"
like 'q' in "quest" (always with "u")
like 'r' in "arm", like 'r' in "feather". Terminal Rs are almost silent but with the hit of an "r" sound. Rs beginning a word or syllable are rolled as in Spanish
like 'z' in "haze"
like 't' in "top"
like 'f' in "father" at the beginning of a word, and like "v" in "victory" elsewhere
like 'v' in "victory", never like 'wh' in "whisky"