Luxembourg’s submerged language comes to the surface

Thanks to my former colleague Alan Fisk. He has kindly allowed me to post this article he wrote for a magazine in about 1993.


In the streets of the city of Luxembourg, all the signs and public notices are in French. Buy a newspaper, and it will be mainly in German.

Here and there, messages written in another language pop up, looking vaguely like a mixture between Dutch and Danish. “Haalt Är stad propper” (“Keep your city clean”) urges a litter bin. “Eis Praïsser si korrekt” (“Our prices are fair”), promises a shop window.

The conversation around you is neither in French nor in German, but in Lëtzeburgesch, the everyday language of the people of Luxembourg, or Lëtzebuerg, as they call in it in Lëtzeburgesch.

Luxembourgers are used to outsiders finding their language practices to be bizarre. “To foreigners, the linguistic composition of this small country is at very least a curiosity,” says Lex Roth, an expert on his nation’s language.

Article 1 of the country’s language law, passed in 1984, states that “The national language of the Luxembourgers is Lëtzeburgesch”, but then Article 2 goes on to say that legislation is to be written in French, and that only the French-language version is to be considered the official text.

Even though the legislation will be published only in French, parliamentary debates are conducted in Lëtzeburgesch. Meanwhile, the newspapers will be discussing the same legislation, but in German. This is because less educated people find written German easier to understand than written French. In primary schools, and in the early years of secondary schools, teaching is mainly in German, but in the final years of secondary school the teachingis in French. Outside the classroom, of course, the pupils and teachers will be talking in Lëtzeburgesch.

Luxembourg, like Belgium, sits astride the boundary between the Latin and Germanic areas of Europe, and it is easy to understand why the Luxembourgers should have cultivated a knowledge of the languages of their powerful neighbours, both of whom have occupied Luxembourg more than once, and both of whom have tried to annexe it. The Luxembourgers have nevertheless maintained their independence, expressed in their national motto “Mir wölle bleiwe wat mir sin” (“We want to remain what we are“).

Luxembourgers use French and German not because they are forced to, but of their own free will. They write in French and German for particular purposes because it suits them to, not for the convenience of foreigners. It does not mean that they do not revere their own language.

Lëtzeburgesch is closely related to the local dialects spoken in the adjacent parts of western Germany, and is still spoken in the neighbouring Belgian province of Luxembourg, which was part of Luxembourg proper until it was annexed by Belgium in 1839 Just as written English temporarily disappeared from view in the Middle Ages, written Lëtzeburgesch was hidden until about 1820, when a group of poets and authors began to produce their works in Lëtzeburgesch rather than in French or in German. The best-known of these was Michel Lentz, who composed a song, the “Feierwon” (“the Steam Engine”) to celebrate the opening of the first railway in Luxembourg in 1859. As well as lauding this technical achievement, the “Feierwon” expressed deep patriotic sentiments, and was used as an unofficial national anthem for many years.

Just before the First World War, another nationalist writer, Dr Lucien Koenig, began writing patriotic songs under the pen-name “Siggy vu Lëtzebuerg”. There is a statue to his memory in a public park in the city of Luxembourg. At about the same time as Siggy vu Lëtzebuerg was writing, the government made the teaching of Lëtzeburgesch compulsory in primary schools. It was not taught in secondary schools until 1945.

Because Lëtzeburgesch had not been written until the 1820s, writers and academics have been working ever since to codify it and arrive at an agreed vocabulary and spelling. They have avoided the problems created in similar situations in Norway and Greece, when enthusiastic revivers of the languages refused to compromise with each other, so that there are now two competing standard forms of Norwegian and Greek.

Today, there seem to be signs that the use of Lëtzeburgesch is increasing. For the last few years, coins have borne the name “Lëtzebuerg”. In church, services and sermons are more and more in Lëtzeburgesch rather than in German, which was previously the general rule. For more than 20 years, an organisation called Actioun Lëtzeburgesch has been working to promote the language, and helped to bring about its recognition as the national language inthe 1984 language law. Actioun Lëtzeburgesch also founded the first Lëtzeburgesch language courses for foreigners.

Television programmes are largely in Lëtzeburgesch, but the multi-lingual Luxembourgers enjoy their ability to switch over to programmes in French or German whenever they want. They continue to develop the use of Lëtzeburgesch, and resent foreigners who do not know that it exists, or who disparage it as being just another German dialect. In their willingness to use other languages, while delighting in their own, the Luxembourgers may be the most linguistically advanced people in Europe.

©Alan Fisk


My own post on languages in Luxembourg is at https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/05/languages-in-luxembourg

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