Luxembourg: A linguistic Puzzle

The linguistic situation in Luxembourg is characterised by the fact that several languages are spoken and written at the same time in the same place. Names of streets, shops, travel tickets, hotel registries and menus are mostly in French (some street and place names are also added in Lëtzebuergesch). Newspapers printed in the Grand Duchy are mostly in German, but some cultural articles, many advertisements and social announcements are in French. In other countries too, several languages are spoken, but they almost always are limited to specific regions, to the exclusion of other tongues. In Luxembourg, the various languages are superimposed in an almost hierarchical manner. There is, however, a certain logic to the puzzle.

On all levels of society, only one language is used in oral communication: “Lëtzebuergesch”. This is the everyday spoken language of the people, and the symbol of the Luxembourgers national identity. Although of Germanic origin (around the 4th Century), ‘Lëtzebuergesch’ has sufficiently differentiated itself from its parent language, so as no longer to be readily understood by many a German. German native speakers might well recognise this or that word or construction used in Lëtzebuergesch -in the same way that a German from one region can ‘understand’ a dialect from another German region- but are often caught out by ‘non-Germanic’ words or turns of phrase.

‘Lëtzebuergesch’ is taught in schools and in language courses mostly addressed to the resident foreigners. Whilst it is an extremely practical and useful means of everyday conversation, it is a poor culture-bearer. As soon as a conversation reaches out into the higher levels of abstraction or refined sentiment, the limits of the vocabulary and grammatical constructions available are all too apparent and it becomes necessary to borrow from other languages.

This switch-over to foreign languages, namely French and German is a necessity in written communication. A number of attempts have been made to establish Lëtzebuergesch as a written language. The first real orthography for use in schools was set up in 1914 by the Education Minister Nicolas Welter, because this was when Lëtzebuergesch was for the first time taught as a school subject (Education Law of 1912). This system never became official, though a generation of Luxembourg schoolchildren became familiar with it, and the system was used by the Resistance in the second World War for the publication of their leaflets and later the newspaper D’Uni’on, which for about three years after 1945 was published entirely in Lëtzebuergesch. This became unmanageable, and they had to revert to standard German. At the same time as this was going on, the Education Minister Nicolas Margue commissioned Jean Feltes, a phonetician, to invent a new orthography for Lëtzebuergesch. This was, however, so far away from German that no guidance could be got from that language, and the new Lëzebuurjer Ortografi as it was called, even though it was made official under an Arreté ministériel of 5 June 1946, never became popular in schools, in spite of the fact that textbooks were prepared in which it was used, i.e. Lëzebuurjer Gedichter a Proosashteker fiir ons Schoulen. In 1950, a new dictionary of the Luxembourg language was commissioned under Joseph Tockert, Helene Palgen, and Robert Bruch. First they had to invent an orthography that was more transparent than that of Feltes, and closer to the German. Bruch did this, and it was used for all the volumes of the Luxemburger Wörterbuch, in a publication period which lasted from 1950 to 1978. When Bruch died in a road-crash in 1959, the work of the Dictionary publication was taken over by Henri Rinnen, who later became influential in the Actioun Lëtzebuergesch (1972ff). He of course wanted the dictionary spelling to be made official. This was done in 1976, when Feltes’ system was officially dropped.

From that time, Actioun Lëtzebuergesch actively promoted the new official spelling in its own publication Eis Sprooch, and elsewhere, wherever it could. Since the language law of 1984, this influence has grown, and now all signs, notices, etc appearing in Lëtzebuergesch have to be in this official orthography. If civil servants don’t know it, there are courses to teach them. It is no longer possible to write Lëtzebuergesch (for publication at any rate) in any old system invented by yourself. And this is what many Luxembourgers find annoying, that for the first time they can be found guilty of misspelling their own language, a burden other nations have suffered from for centuries.
As the above brief historical overview shows, neither the artificial creation of an official orthography, nor the efforts of the linguists have been able to displace German, which – thanks to its close relationship to the vernacular – is favoured by the popular classes, or French which by virtue of its evident quality and long tradition has been the means of expression of those who see themselves as the intellectual élite. This situation is reflected whenever the use of languages exceeds the requirement of daily conversation. French is used as much as possible; German where it is indispensable, in fact, whenever the less educated public has to be reached. That is certainly not to imply that a German speaker is less well educated, but many of those folk who grew up in Luxembourg during and immediately after the second World War somehow lost out on a French education, as only German was allowed during the War, and afterwards, well, there was a country to rebuild, and perhaps not so much importance was placed on learning foreign languages.

In this way French is the official language of the authorities. Parliamentary documents, proposed bills, procedures in court, administrative and judicial acts, are held and written in French, but the synoptic accounts of parliamentary debates (themselves carried out in Lëtzebuergesch or in French) are printed in German (Analytischer Kammerbericht) because they are distributed to all households in the country. Speeches at political rallies and other public occasions are in Lëtzebuergesch. Certain texts are multilingual, depending on the need to make sure that information is brought to all levels of the population. Thus for example, when a new law relating to rents (the equivalent of the British “Landlord & Tenant Act”) was brought into force, the texts of the new law were printed in the newspapers in 5 different languages, a page each. (Lëtzebuergesch, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish). The latter two were included, since many immigrants from these countries live and work in Luxembourg (some 36% of the country’s population, and a staggering 48% of the country’s workforce hold a foreign passport).
Historic tradition, economic necessity, and above all a genuine desire to counteract any linguistic (or other) imperialism on the part of the powerful neighbours have brought about this peculiar situation. Whilst this places a heavy burden on the educational system, it does however give the students a unique opportunity to learn many languages and thus gives access to many cultures.

From the second year of primary school onwards, French is added as a discipline to the general program of education which, at this stage is still taught in German. Over the years, however, and particularly in secondary education, French gets an ever bigger share until it completely replaces German as the language of instruction, German being limited to the specialised courses in German language and literature. English too, it should be added, is required as a compulsory language throughout most of secondary education, and students choosing language studies also have the option to add Latin and/or ancient Greek. (see also Luxembourg Schools)

It appears therefore that the Luxembourg intellectual is mainly orientated towards French cultural values through his education, the more so since he will most probably attend University either in Belgium or in France (attendance at German Universities is statistically in third place), although a Luxembourg University has recently been created. Tradition, natural sympathy and education all concur to put the Luxembourg élite within the French cultural orbit: French books and publications are widely read, written communication is mostly in French. Most of the Luxembourg periodicals aimed at the intellectual are almost entirely written in French, and so are the literary reviews and student magazines. The knowledge and understanding of German and the root relationship existing between German and the local dialect however, add a dimension of wealth and objectivity which make for a unique situation indeed.
Luxembourg is thus prepared to be widely open to foreign culture, especially because the small size of the country (999 square miles) and its population (399 239 inhabitants) hardly allow for a rich national cultural life of high standard.

An open-minded attitude to foreign culture permits Luxembourg to escape the narrowness of provincial thought and life. In fact, the intensity and diversity of cultural life in Luxembourg is surprising. The theatre season regularly brings to Luxembourg outstanding performances by the best companies of France, Germany and Belgium. The more popular cinemas play throughout the year the whole range of the international film productions in their original language. A favourable geographic location brings into the Luxembourg homes radio and television programs from France, Germany and Belgium in addition to the Luxembourg national ones. Satellite television with its worldwide network is very popular. The ASTRA ground control station is situated in the Grand Duchy.

The possibility to use several languages of high civilisation as cultural instruments is certainly an advantage, but there are also drawbacks. Lacking its own spiritual roots, the Luxembourg writer is almost doomed to a certain creative sterility because he can very seldom manage to really make his own a tongue that he learned at school and has only occasionally spoken. Critical consciousness of a foreign language is thus more common than partaking in its proper and peculiar imagination and sentiment.

It would seem that only the mother tongue, which one thinks and speaks, is really an instrument of original creation. And in fact, within the evident limitations imposed by the relative poverty of the local dialect, Luxembourg writers are creative, especially in lyrical poetry and local theatre which more often are spoken rather than written media. (See also: Edition Phi, the main publisher in Luxembourg for books on Lëtzebuergesch Literature and Theatre). Luxembourg writers in German are dealing with an instrument close to their mother tongue and familiar to all readers. Certainly “Luxembourg” high German seldom achieves the purity and exactness of genuine German, but the “Luxembourgisms” lend their works a local flavour which makes them somehow true and genuine. In that respect, the Luxembourger writing in French is less favoured. He faces the refinements and intricacies of a completely foreign language learned and cultivated in Germanic territory. He seldom reaches the higher realms of creativity, unless he expatriates himself into completely French surroundings. And the public moreover is likely to prefer the Paris literary production to his own. He is at his best as an often brilliant critic, essayist or scientific writer, where he can take full advantage of his unique participation in two cultural worlds of equally high standard.
As with all questions of languages, borders are not so easily drawn. Hence it should come as no surprise that the political boundaries of the Grand Duchy do not sharply delimit the situation depicted above. Indeed, in the surrounding areas of Luxembourg, many people have grown up with a variant of our Luxembourgish lingua: the “Platt” of Lorraine is similarly connected to middle-high German [Rhinefrankish, Moselfrankish and Lëtzebuergesch], yet the area (nowadays) is part of France; many inhabitants of the so-called “Areler Land” just inside Belgium also grew up speaking Lëzebuergesch, yet they are imbued with French all around them; … Since a lot of these adjacent regions are similarly – though perhaps not to quite the same extent – shaped by both German and French culture, the whole area around Luxembourg can truly be called a Franco-German Cultural Melting Pot.

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What language is spoken in Luxembourg? Cultural and linguistic guide


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