Luxembourgish, dialect or language?
What is Luxembourgish?
Luxembourgish, or Lëtzebuergesch, is the native language of Luxembourgers. Foreigners often tell me it sounds like Dutch but softer. It has kept much of the German grammar and syntax and a lot of its words can be traced back to either German or French.
Isn’t it just a dialect?
Technically no. In 1984, Lëtzebuergesch was established as the national language of Luxembourg and adopted as one of three official languages, alongside German and French. However, the question of when and how a dialect becomes a language is not a simple one to answer.
All languages are influenced by the people living in an area, by the people that visit this area and by that region’s political or economic aspirations. Dutch settlers brought their West Germanic language to South Afrika and Namibia to eventually form a new language now known as Afrikaans. The Spanish brought their language to Peru where it influenced the native Quechuan language and inversely, Quechuan influenced the Spanish now spoken in some areas of South America.
Many languages are also influenced by the things that visit their territories. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think an iPhone is an iPhone, no matter what language you speak. The line between dialect and language is therefore, not a hard and solid one, but rather a flexible, dotted line where speech develops through time and location as people try to make themselves understood. To me, a dialect becomes a language when it is distinct enough from other dialects or languages and is spoken by a separate nation or entity within a nation.
So how did Luxembourgish start out and which languages was it influenced by?
After the Romans conquered the Celtic Treveri tribe and occupied the area now known as Luxembourg in 53 BC, the aristocracy in the Luxembourg territories quickly learned Latin to preserve their economic status. Eventually, the Latin words they adopted also trickled down to the general population.
In the 4th century, the Germanic Franks invaded the area we now know as Luxembourg and the language started to become influenced by Old Franconian. For example, the common Luxembourgish (and English) word ‘Standard’ is of Frankish origin (‘standhard’). You can see that the Luxembourg territories have been caught between Germanic and romance linguistic influences for a long time.
In 963, with the creation of the Luxembourg Castle, the territories of Luxembourg became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Luxembourg, being in the middle of France, Germany and the Netherlands, became of great strategic value and was successively led by the Bourbons and Habsburgs among numerous others. Before the Treaty of London in 1867, which led to Luxembourg’s formal independence, the country had a tumultuous history of occupation and land partitions during which it lost territory to France (1659), to Prussia (1815) and to Belgium (1839).
You can imagine that with each change of leadership between Royal Houses and with each occupation of the territories, different linguistic influences affected the small geographical area of Luxembourg.
Today, Luxembourgish is considered an example of the Moselle Franconian dialect, a West Central German dialect spoken from around 1000 AD.
Lëtzebuergesch certainly is a witness to the history of this spot on earth and combines elements from many other European tongues while preserving its own neat little character.
This article can also be found on the website of Your Living City Luxembourg.