I am standing in one of the many fine pastry shops that dot the city of Luxembourg. It is a Saturday morning and the shop is bustling; I am here to pick up a tray of petit fours that my grandmother has ordered for her ninetieth birthday morning tea, to be attended, amongst others, by the mayor of Bereldange (in Luxembourgish, Bereldeng).
After five minutes, I manage to catch the eye of a woman at the counter.
“S’il vous plaît?” she asks me.
“Bonjour,” I respond. “Parlez-vous allemand?”
“Oh. Parlez-vous anglais?”
Lëtzebuergesch, or Luxembourgish in English, is a language in danger. In UNESCO’s 2010 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Luxembourgish, there referred to as Moselle Franconian—a nod to the wide river that marks out the southeastern border with Germany—is listed as vulnerable. This means that “most, but not all children or families of a particular community speak the language as their first language, but it may be restricted to specific social domains (such as at home).” The UNESCO reports that there are approximately 390,000 Luxembourgish speakers, mainly living in Luxembourg and small regions of France, Germany and Belgium.http://unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger
“While the official languages of Luxembourg are listed as French, German and Luxembourgish, you only need to spend a couple of days roaming the streets of Luxembourg to realise that the lingua franca is French.”
While the official languages of Luxembourg are listed as French, German and Luxembourgish, you only need to spend a couple of days roaming the streets of Luxembourg to realise that the lingua franca is French. French is what is spoken in restaurants and shops. The majority of written documentation, including legislative texts, are in French, and occasionally German. Traditionally, school classes are taught in German or French, but recently Luxembourgish has been introduced to the school curriculum. Luxembourgish is spoken in the homes of families with Luxembourgish heritage and in parliamentary debates. It is a requirement for many public service positions—a fact that my mother claims is a barrier against non-Luxembourgish EU citizens living in Luxembourg getting lucrative public service jobs.
The explanation for Luxembourg’s multilingual status lies in the history and geography of this tiny country nestled between France, Germany and Belgium. The river Pétrusse, a tributary of the Moselle, carves a deep ravine through the capital city of this otherwise flat land. The “old town” sits atop a series of fortifications built into sheer cliffs that made Luxembourg, throughout history, a defensive military stronghold.
The co-existence and mingling of two ethnic groups (one Romance and the other Germanic) meant that, for centuries, both French and German have been commonly spoken in the area. This mixing also provided the environment for the evolution of Luxembourgish. Luxembourg has a long history of Roman, Austrian, French and German rule; it wasn’t until 1815 that Luxembourg declared independence from the French Empire and became the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. While grand ducal decrees during the 1800s determined free choice between French and German, in practicality, the majority of administrative matters have, for the past centuries, been undertaken in French. This precedent can be traced back to fourteenth century French rule under the Duchy of Lorraine and Luxembourg and survived subsequent rule by the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
The young Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide was on the throne during WWI when the German Empire invaded Luxembourg. Marie-Adelaide issued a formal protest and tried to maintain Luxembourg’s internationally recognised status of neutrality throughout the war, but decided not to resist the occupying army and developed cordial relations with many high-ranking German officials. Following the war, many Luxembourgers saw these actions as a betrayal and Marie-Adelaide was forced to abdicate in favour of her sister, Charlotte.
During WWII, Luxembourg was occupied by the Nazis and Grand Duchess Charlotte went into exile in London. Many Luxembourgers escaped to France, including my grandparents, who rode their bicycles hundreds of kilometres (the train line was bombed halfway) to Avignon. Of the Luxembourgers who stayed behind, some were sympathetic to the Nazi cause, but many were forced to contribute to the war effort against their will. Those who resisted were shot.
“The Nazis created a culture that preferenced “High German” (German), with Luxembourgish being considered an inferior dialect.”
The Nazis created a culture that preferenced “High German” (German), with Luxembourgish being considered an inferior dialect—a view that was, in part, reinforced by some Luxembourgers themselves. In France, my grandparents and other Luxembourgers who escaped were treated with suspicion due to their German-sounding language.
My grandparents returned to Luxembourg toward the end of the war to find that Nazi soldiers had slept in their bed, which was infested with lice. A stray bullet had smashed through one of the windows and left a small hole in a wooden cabinet in the dining room. After WWII, a distrust of Germans remained in Luxembourg, and lasts to this day amongst the older generations.
The pervading anti-German sentiment spread to language. Many older Luxembourgers understand and speak German, but they prefer to speak French over German. As a German speaker with only rusty French (I understand Luxembourgish much better than French, but can’t speak it), I am sometimes eyed with disdain in my mother’s country, until it is explained that I was born in Switzerland.
A desire for a national identity separate to the German State—and a rejection of the thinking that was encouraged under occupation—led to a push to formalise Luxembourgish into a national language. This required the development of a standardised written form of the language. Prior to the immediate post-war period of the 1940s, written Luxembourgish was considered a dialect without standardised spelling rules. Instead, everyone could write Luxembourgish however they wished. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Ministry of National Education released numerous dictionaries, pamphlets and texts reflecting the creation of standardised spelling rules for Luxembourgish and the progressive refining of the written language.Kaplan, Robert B., Richard B. Baldauf Jr, and Nkonko Kamwangamalu, eds. Language Planning in Europe: Cyprus, Iceland and Luxembourg. Routledge, 2016.
The past decades have seen a shifting demographic. The percentage of foreign residents and border-crossing commuters has increased, spurred on by economic growth and the multilingual status of Luxembourg. A STATEC report from 2012http://statistiques.public.lu/fr/actualites/population/travail/2013/03/20130315/20130315.pdf puts the proportion of foreign residents living in Luxembourg at 47% of the population. Luxembourgish citizens account for only 29% of the labour force; the percentage of total cross-border workers is 44% (mainly from Belgium, Germany and France), while the remaining 27% of the labour force are foreign residents.
The modern face of Luxembourg’s language debate pits preserving Luxembourgish against preserving multilingualism, both in the name of national identity. Some draw a connection between the squashing of Luxembourgish under historical Nazi-German occupation to the current “overrunning” of the language as a result of changing demographics—a logic which is often used to argue for more restrictive foreign policy.
Others argue the very opposite: that it is Luxembourg’s multilingual nature that lies at the centre of its lingual national identity. In Luxembourg, multilingualism has produced students that speak many languages, and arguably, has contributed to Luxembourg being the country with the largest foreign workforce and highest GDP per capita in the world.
“The struggles to preserve the language mirror the struggles of a small country that has often been at the whim of its much larger neighbours.”
One thing is undeniable: Lëtzebuergesch is a part of the national identity. The struggles to preserve the language mirror the struggles of a small country that has often been at the whim of its much larger neighbours. Just as Luxembourg has survived and adapted to change in the past, there is hope for the future of Luxembourgish.
There is a current push to increase the use of Luxembourgish as an administrative language. Nowadays, many street signs bear Luxembourgish directions and names, and some jobs now require employees to speak Luxembourgish as well as French. While a changing demography means that only one third of children entering kindergarten in Luxembourg speak Luxembourgish as their mother tongue, students leave school speaking, reading and writing the language.
When my grandmother passed away in 2014, my mother sat down to try and write her obituary for the newspaper. My mother had never learnt to write Luxembourgish at school and the final piece had to be given a thorough checking by several relatives, and even had errors in the parts that had been copied directly from previously published obituaries. Tomorrow’s students won’t have this problem.