The German Language and the History of Luxembourg
Multilingualism in ancient times
Luxembourg was not always as we know it.
A long time ago, the Treverians lived here in the region. They lived in wooden houses andcultivated their fields. There was no "city", but important trade routes ran through the area of today's Luxembourg.
Far from being country bumpkins, the Treverians were connected to the global economic life of their time: they traded in salt! That was a lucrative business. The salt is underground here in the region, and everywhere salt was needed in large quantities, for example for the preservation of food. After all, there were no refrigerators yet.
These Treverians are interesting from the point of view of multilingualism: it is not clear whether they belonged to the Celtic or the Germanic peoples. That is not the same. From the Germanic language group developed German, English and Dutch. Celtic plus Latin is the basis for today's French. The smart Treverian probably knew how to switch elegantly between "Germanic" and "Celtic".
We don’t know exactly how he spoke, because he didn't write down his thoughts. But one could say that the language in this region has always been on the borderline between what evolved over centuries into German and what evolved into French. Luxembourg is hardly conceivable without multilingualism.
Incidentally, it is not known what the Treverians called themselves. The Romans gave them this name when they appeared here at the turn of the millennium. The Trevirians were finally defeated by the Romans and disappeared from history. Not quite - a memory of them lives on: The Romans founded a city in 12 BC, which they called "Augusta Treverorum": Trier.
The Celtic-Germanic language of the Treverians, mixed with the Latin of the Romans, continued to exist. Many place names still show this today. This is how the language of the region developed: "Moselle-Frankonian". Scholars use this term to describe a German dialect that is divided into different variants. Luxembourgish is one of them.
Language and power
Language is a means of communication, but it can also serve the exercise of power. Whoever rules determines which language is spoken. The official administrative language was often the language of a conqueror. He made the laws. On the other hand, by banning a language, he could suppress the people who wanted to rebel against him. This can be observed in many regions and at all times.
The role of language as an instrument of domination has now been researched by historians - as has the function of language as a symbol of identity and resistance. Luxembourg is a good example: its regional language survived for many centuries and played an important role in the emergence of the modern state of Luxembourg. The rulers changed over the centuries: Romans, Franks, French, Dutch, Germans.
In addition to the languages of the rulers, the Moselle Franconian language continued to exist as the language of the common people. For a long time, no one thought of writing it. Only the "official" language used for administration and law was of any importance. This changed when the Luxembourgers developed a sense of national identity. After having been dominated, sold or divided up by larger countries many times in the course of history, they wanted to assert themselves as a state. An important symbol of their independence was: their language.
- Linguists are right when they say that Luxembourgish is a variant of the Moselle-Franconian dialect.
- Historiography helps to understand what significance their language has for today's Luxembourgers.
The long road to the modern state of Luxembourg
Let's go back 1500 years: The Romans are gone, the Franks begin to build their empire.
Luxembourg still does not exist as a "city" or a "country".
Siegfried was interested in the Bocksfelsen - we know this name: The Bocksfelsen is today in the centre of the city of Luxembourg. It had already served as a fortification in Roman times. Siegfried understood that this rock was ideal to build a castle on.
But the Bocksfelsen belonged to Maximin Abbey in Trier. Siegfried proposed a barter to the abbey - Bocksfelsen for other lands - and finally built his castle: Lucilinburhuc.
This name was also applied to the surrounding area, and the castle's inhabitants called themselves from then on: Counts of Luxembourg.
This castle changed hands several times in the course of the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, power was not bound to territories, but to persons. Therefore, it is still not possible at this time to speak of Luxembourg as a "country" with national borders in the modern sense. It "belonged" to this or that ruler.
Did the emperor speak German?
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Luxembourg counts played an important role in European affairs:
In 1308, Heinrich VII of Luxembourg was elected German king and crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
What language did he actually speak? One source says his mother tongue was French. An interesting note: language was a point worth mentioning. Did the source indicate that Heinrich’s German was not quite perfect?
A knowledge of German was probably indispensable for Heinrich. In his time, the German language had prevailed over Latin in the Holy Roman Empire, also in administration and public life.
(It is unlikely that Heinrich - as a member of the upper class - used the language of his subjects at his ancestral seat of Luxembourg).
Heinrich was the first of a total of three Luxembourgers to become German emperors. Incidentally, his son Johann was the one who founded the Schobermesse - but that's another story.
During this time, the Luxembourgers expanded their possessions, far away in the East: they acquired Bohemia (approximately the territory of today’s Czech Republic), and Emperor Karl IV of the House of Luxembourg founded the University of Prague in 1348, one of the oldest universities in Europe. It was also this Karl who made Luxembourg a duchy.
„Département des Forêts“
The course of history continued, Luxembourg once again became the plaything of geopolitics: after some back and forth, it belonged to the Spanish Netherlands for a while. ...
1789: The French Revolution changes the whole of Europe. In the course of the Revolutionary Wars, Luxembourg became part of France. It was given the idyllic name: "Département des Forêts".
An important effect of this time is still noticeable today: Luxembourg law is based on the Code Civil, which Napoleon introduced in France. Even today, the laws in Luxembourg are written in French.
Modern Luxembourg is emerging
Napoleon’s era also passed.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna was held to restore the old order in Europe that had been shaken by Napoleon - for Luxembourg with the following result: it officially became a Grand Duchy, but was placed under the rule of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands.
In 1830, the Catholic southern provinces of the Netherlands revolted against the Protestant northern provinces and enforced the creation of their own state: Belgium. The Luxembourgers liked this and sided with the new Belgians. Of course, the Dutch could not accept this.
So the first London Conference took place in 1838 (there was later a second one): The francophone western half of Luxembourg was assigned to Belgium, and "the rest" had to remain with the Netherlands. As you can see, languages once again played a decisive role. The division took place along the language border. And now a "non-French" part of Luxembourg is beginning to take shape. Here, the Luxembourgish language could finally develop into a symbol of common identity.
Official languages German and French
At the same time, ordinary people continued to speak their Luxembourgish: the language spoken here in the region, but which played no role BESIDES French and German. It was only the ordinary people who used it, not the powerful.
„Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn“
In 1867 there was a geopolitical intrigue: Napoleon III had the idea of buying Luxembourg from the Netherlands to exchange it for other territories in a deal with German Chancellor Bismarck. Nothing came of it - except that the Luxembourgers felt united in their anger at this impertinence. Their indignation gave political clout to the refrain of a popular song: „Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn!“
In 1867, the Second London Conference determined that Luxembourg would continue to be governed by the Netherlands. It also became a neutral state (which did not last long).
Luxembourg was a rural area without much prosperity. As we know, that changed significantly. How did this come about?
The German Customs Union (Der Deutsche Zollverein)
The economy became more and more interconnected and became an international system. For a small country like Luxembourg, the question of economic survival arose. A partner was needed: France or Belgium? In 1921 a monetary union was formed with Belgium, which remained in place until the introduction of the euro.
In 1929, the year of the Great Depression, the Luxembourg Stock Exchange was founded.
At that time, the parliament decided on tax reductions for holding companies - the first signs that Luxembourg could specialise as a financial centre, which began around 1970.
And what about the steel industry? Luxembourg is still home to the world's largest steel group.
World War I and II - The occupiers speak German
First World War
During the First World War (1914 - 1918), Luxembourg was occupied by the Germans - in violation of its neutrality. They were mainly interested in the railway network and steel production and used Luxembourg as a deployment area against France. The Luxembourg government remained in office - but the Germans (along with their language !) had really discredited themselves.
Grand Duchess Charlotte came to the throne in 1919. It was a difficult time:
- During the First World War, Luxembourg had tried to maintain its neutrality, which was interpreted by some of the larger states in Europe as collaboration with the Germans. However, Luxembourg was dependent on good relations with its neighbours in order to continue to exist as a state. Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide (Charlotte's predecessor) seemed unable to cope with this situation.
- There were also social tensions and strikes due to food shortages. Some of the population turned against the Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide and proclaimed the Republic - a movement that was uncompromisingly ended by the French military.
In this desolate situation, the solution was seen in a referendum. All Luxembourgers were to decide how and by whom they wanted to be governed. They decided in favour of the monarchy and confirmed Charlotte as Grand Duchess - who was thus democratically legitimised. Incidentally, women also took part in the referendum, since women's right to vote had been enshrined in the constitution since 1919.
Second World War
In 1940, the German occupation begins: Charlotte rules from exile in Great Britain. Luxembourg was to be incorporated into National Socialist Germany (for example, Luxembourgers had to join the Wehrmacht).
As mentioned, language was also an instrument of domination.
French was to disappear. Luxembourgish was not directly forbidden, but public life and administration had to be in German. The Luxembourgers were supposed to become "German".
But they didn't want to. They made it clear that their mother tongue was not German, but: Luxembourgish!
On 10 September 1944, the occupation was ended by the Americans.
To commemorate this, the Luxembourgers named a street in their city centre: Avenue 10 Septembre.
Conclusion: No "German dialect"!
You can understand that the Luxembourgers do not want their language to be called a German dialect.
In general: after all their experiences, they were fed up with being pushed back and forth between their neighboring states.
An effective means of preserving their identity and also making it visible and audible is their language – and it should stay that way.
History of Luxembourg’s Monarchie
Economie: A History of Steel and Money
Culture, People and Region
Luxembourg – for kids
Activities with kids in Lux