Artwork © Clover Robin, courtesy of The Bright Agency.
Most people know that Luxembourg is a tax haven, it’s the “LUX” in BENELUX, it’s the birthplace of EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, and it’s a small country — but that’s about it. If you’re not living in a country that shares a border with Luxembourg, you generally don’t hear much about this small country. Which is a pity, because it’s both historically and linguistically fascinating. So what language is spoken in Luxembourg? (Hint: There’s more than one.)
What Languages Do Luxembourgers Speak?
According to an EU survey, the mother tongue of roughly 70% of Luxembourgers is Luxembourgish (or Lëtzebuergesch, as they write it). This seems simple at first: Germans speak German, the French speak French, so, therefore, Luxembourgers speak Luxembourgish. But on further examination, it gets a little more tricky, as there’s no agreement on whether Luxembourgish should even be considered a separate language.
Still, throughout its turbulent history, Luxembourg frequently changed between German and French rule, fell into the hands of the Netherlands, and was divided into parts. It only achieved total independence in 1890, but was re-occupied and annexed by Germany during the World Wars. Due to this history, Luxembourg’s official languages were initially Standard German and French. It was only in 1984 that Luxembourgish became the national language. As a result, Luxembourg now has three official languages: Luxembourgish, German and French.
Why Wouldn’t Luxembourgish Be Considered A Language?
From a linguistic perspective, Luxembourgish is a Moselle Franconian dialect and forms a dialect continuum with those other dialects in the German Saarland and Trier area. Therefore, it belongs to the Central German linguistic area. It’s not distinguished enough from the other West Central German dialects to be considered a separate language.
Furthermore, Luxembourgish is more closely related to Standard German than many High German dialects found in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland. These are not considered separate languages, but rather dialects of German.
However, it’s not possible to definitively answer the question of whether Luxembourgish is a separate language, because there aren’t any agreed-upon linguistic criteria to distinguish between a dialect and a language. As is often the case, the answer depends on the political and social opinions of someone, rather than linguistic definitions.
How Do 3 Official Languages Work In Practice?
As previously mentioned, most Luxembourgers’ native language is Luxembourgish, so this is what they speak in their daily lives. However, it’s rare that they write in Luxembourgish. This stems from the fact that Luxembourgish has not been a written language for very long: The first proposal for how Luxembourgish should be written was only introduced in 1946, but was not well-received. In 1976, the current standard was introduced and was further reformed in 1999. Still, Luxembourgish has not achieved much status as a language of literature or science.
Language In Education
Needless to say, this leads to a few challenges when it comes to education. For one, most school books are printed in German, but most Luxembourgish children don’t understand Standard German when they start school. Children are therefore taught first in Luxembourgish and are then introduced to German. In the 2nd grade, they then learn French. Luxembourgish as a subject only remains part of the curriculum until 7th grade.
By secondary school, French becomes the dominant language of instruction, particularly in science. Interestingly, university students didn’t even have the option of studying in Luxembourgish until the University of Luxembourg was opened in 2003.
Luxembourgish In Media
Luxembourgish’s limited written use is also noticeable in the media. It’s the most-used language in TV and radio, but the statistics for print media paint a different picture: 65% of all articles are published in German, 25% in French and only 10% in Luxembourgish.
Luxembourgish In Business
In banking, business and gastronomy, most people speak French. This is due to the fact that many of these workers commute from France and Belgium for these sectors. Luxembourgish dominates on informal and traditional print media such as invitations and leaflets. (However, official announcements are written in French, the same as for laws). Beyond this, young people in Luxembourg write e-mails and texts in their mother tongue.
So What Is Luxembourgish?
We’ve discussed Luxembourgish already — but we’ve yet to look at what makes Luxembourgish distinct. Obviously, we don’t have time to cover all the details, but it’s very closely related to Standard German, so we can explore some of the biggest differences.
While many words and expressions are unique to Luxembourgish — most of its words are related to German. If you know Standard German, then it’s pretty easy to recognize their corresponding form in Standard German. If you’ve little patience for etymology then keep scrolling down to our short Luxembourgish dictionary and you’ll quickly see how similar German and Luxembourgish are.
One of the biggest influences on Luxembourgish is French, which is hardly surprising considering the history. Many elementary words like Merci (Thank you) or Pardon (Excuse me) have made their way from French into Luxembourgish. Even after Luxembourg declared independence, many French words made their way into Luxembourgish: a “refrigerator” is a Frigo, and both French and Luxembourgish drivers get annoyed when a slow Camion (truck) is hogging the road. Differently from French, the first letter of nouns are capitalized — German and Luxembourgish are the only languages which use the Latin alphabet to do so.
Interestingly, there are compound words in Luxembourgish which are made up of one French word and one German word. Luxembourgers call the “main course” Haaptplat (coming from the German haupt, meaning “main,” and the French plat, meaning “dish”) and a football field is a Fussballsterrain (Fussball from the German for “football” and terrain from the French for “field”).
A Small Luxembourgish Dictionary
|Moien||Hallo (but similar to regional Moin)||Hello|
|Äddi||Tschüss (but similar to regional Ade)||Bye|
|Wéi hesch du?||Wie heißt du?||What’s your name?|
|Ech sinn …||Ich bin …||I am …|
|Wéi geet et?||Wie geht es (dir)?||How are you?|
|Mir geet et gutt/schlecht.||Mir geht es gut/schlecht.||I’m doing well/bad.|
|Wann ech gelift||Bitte||Please|
|Ech hun dech gär.||Ich liebe dich (but similar to Ich hab dich gern).||I love you.|
How Many People Speak Luxembourgish?
Around 300,000 people worldwide speak Luxembourgish as their mother tongue. Unsurprisingly, most of them (approximately 250,000) live in Luxembourg, with the rest largely in Belgium, Germany, France and the United States.