Historically, Alsace and Lorraine have been notorious subjects of dispute between Germany and France. As a result, the linguistic history of the regions is very interesting. For centuries, speakers there have been swinging back and forth between the German and French languages and their dialects. In this article, we’ll take look at the pendulum of languages in Alsace-Lorraine.
Before we start, a few points of order. For the sake of brevity, in this article we will consider the regions together. It is, of course, impossible to detail a long and eventful history of two areas in a single article. Here we’re going to focus on a linguistic overview, including which languages have been spoken in Alsace-Lorraine during which periods of time, what historical events shifted language policy and which languages are spoken in Alsace-Lorraine today.
Defining The Terms Of Alsace-Lorraine
Alsatian or Alsatian German refers to the Upper German spoken widely in Alsace, in particular the Alemannic and Franconian dialects. Alsatian is not a linguistic dialect group in and of itself, but rather a collective geographical term for the Upper German vernaculars that are spoken in the Alsace region.
In Alsace, the German dialects are generally more widely spoken than in Lorraine, where the French language and its dialects remain dominant. In a survey commissioned by the Office for Language and Culture in Alsace, 43 percent of residents in the Alsace region answered that they spoke Alsatian German, 33 percent answered that they had a basic knowledge of it and 25 percent had no knowledge of the Alsatian dialects.
The Lorraine Dialects
Similar to the Alsatian, the Lorraine dialects refer to a collective geographical term for the Central German dialects spoken widely in Lorraine, in particular the Rhine Franconian and Moselle Franconian dialects, to which the Luxembourgish language also belongs. The Lorraine dialects shouldn’t be confused with the Lorrain language, which is sometimes considered a dialect of French and sometimes considered its own language (dialects and languages don’t always have hard boundaries).
The southern, central and western regions of Lorraine traditionally belong to the French-speaking world. The northwest region, on the other hand, has traditionally been part of the German-speaking world. The German-Lorraine dialects, however, have been in decline since the end of the Second World War and are threatened with extinction.
In this article, for the sake of simplicity we will combine the German dialects in Alsace and Lorraine under the term Alsace-Lorraine.
A Historical Overview Of Alsace-Lorraine
Antiquity and the Middle Ages
The Celtic language was established in Alsace-Lorraine around 600 BCE. This was supplemented or replaced by Latin during the Roman period (ca. 60 BCE to ca. 400 CE). With the migration of peoples, Germanic dialects also entered the region and spread. In the Middle Ages, Alsace in particular was a predominantly German-speaking area. These Germanic dialects — particularly Alemannic and Franconian — are grouped together today under the term Alsatian.
The present-day regions of Alsace and Lorraine belonged to the East Franconian Empire (later the Holy Roman Empire) after the Treaty of Meerssen in 870. The regions remained German for almost 700 years until 1552, when the French king obtained sovereignty over the diocese and the city of Metz with the Treaty of Chambord.
About 100 years later, in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, the areas finally became a part of France. At the same time, France was granted the former Habsburg territories in Alsace. Most of Alsace-Lorraine was gradually annexed under Louis XIV in the second half of the 17th century. While the region had gradually become French, at least politically, it remained culturally influenced by German. The majority of the population continued to use German or their respective Germanic or Romance dialect in everyday speech. French, however, was the official language of administration, business and diplomacy.
The 19th Century
Despite the defeat of Napoleon, Alsace and Lorraine remained in France. The German-speaking inhabitants of the country — who in spite of French rule had largely remained connected to German culture before the French Revolution — increasingly oriented themselves towards France and Paris. Given that there was no general requirement that school be held in French, however, German remained the vernacular language in Alsace and German Lorraine.
The modern era was linguistically turbulent in Alsace-Lorraine, because language was now being used as a political means to mark one’s affiliation with France or the German Empire.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, parts of Alsace-Lorraine were annexed to the German Empire. The demarcation essentially followed the language boundary. That is, where it was strategically convenient. Suddenly, 200,000 people who spoke French as a native language — some 15 percent of the population of Alsace-Lorraine — found themselves belonging politically to Germany, just as the German-speaking residents of the same region had once suddenly found themselves in France.
With the passage of a March 1872 law, German became the official language of the region. This wasn’t as rigorous as one might assume, however. Yes, German was generally the official language of business, but in parts of the country with a predominantly French-speaking population, public notices and decrees had to be accompanied by a French translation. The new German administration also adapted to the language barriers in other ways. For example, in 1873 a law was passed that decreed that in areas where German was the vernacular, it would be the exclusive language of instruction in schools. In areas with an overwhelmingly French-speaking population, instruction would be conducted exclusively in French.
Additionally, the French names of locations in the French-speaking areas were retained. Some place names were Germanized in 1871, because it was suspected that an older Germanic form of the same name was behind them. This renaming was reversed when it turned out to be historically untenable.
Nevertheless, a decline in the French was palpable. In 1900, 11.6 percent of the population of the Empire spoke French as a native language. In 1905 that declined to 11 percent, and in 1910 further to 10.9 percent. The largest section of the French-speaking population lived in the Lorraine district. Here, 22.3 percent of the population was native French speakers in 1910. The only area with a majority French-speaking population in the year 1910 was Château-Salins (68.4 percent).
The World Wars
At the end of the World War I, Alsace-Lorraine returned once again to France. The language politics came sharply to a head, and were now strongly directed against the German language and the Alsatian dialect. French became the mandated and exclusive language of both business and school. At times, speaking German was even forbidden under penalty of law.
In 1919, a total of around 200,000 Germans from Alsace and Lorraine were expelled, with only around half able to return in the following months after American pressure on the French government.
The pendulum of restrictive language politics swung once again in the other direction, ever more strongly, during the occupation of Alsace-Lorraine by the National Socialist regime between 1940 and 1944. The Nazi government relocated and persecuted French residents without German roots. The hacking away of personal freedom in the name of Germanization went so far as to require French first names be converted to their German versions.
The ruthless Nazi policies hurt the German-speaking population after the end of World War II. Lingering resentment promoted the region’s return to France and the disintegration of the Standard German language in Alsace. The wish to include German in addition to French as the official language of government and business, present until 1940, hardly existed anymore.
Indeed, the French government’s policy of linguistic assimilation fell on fertile ground. French was seen as stylish, and the German dialects vanish. The majority of the population born after 1970 no longer speaks them at all.
Contemporary Languages In Alsace-Lorraine
Today, Alsace is shaped by bilingualism, with French is the official language of government, commerce and school instruction. The German dialects and Standard German are still spoken, albeit in sharp decline and mostly used by older generations and people in rural areas.
According to a 2001 study, 61 percent of the population of Alsace described themselves as speaking Alsatian. Among young people, only 25 percent answered that they occasionally used the regional language in conversation. Even more dismal for German, only around five percent of incoming schoolchildren had demonstrable skills in the language.
The Future Of German In Alsace-Lorraine
Contrary to what one might assume due to the declining number of speakers, the dialects in Alsace-Lorraine are currently in an interesting phase. They may soon be considered their own language. The Alsace-Lorraine dialects have been decoupled from Standard German. There are tendencies towards their own standardization, and since 2003, there has been an attempt through Orthal (Orthographe alsacienne) to unify and standardize the Alsatian spelling, meaning to create its own written language distinct from Standard German.
Recently, both private initiatives and the government have also been involved in supporting bilingual education in Alsace-Lorraine. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of students attending bilingual schools or kindergartens has risen. Who knows what language will dominate in Alsace and Lorraine in 50 years: French, a German dialect or a different language entirely?
A version of this article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.