Joel at Far Outliers has a post about the German dialect he encountered on his recent visit to Alsace:

My first introduction to Elsässisch (Alsatian German) came in the form of bilingual street signs in Strasbourg, where the main street through Grand Île in the heart of the old city is named both Grand’Rue and Lang Stross. (A street of the same name in Pfalzgrafenweiler on the German side of the border was labeled only in High German, Lange Strasse, even though the locals speak an Alemannic dialect similar to Alsatian.)
Later I found a useful little Werterbüechel Elsässisch–Hochditsch / Wörterbüchlein Hochdeutsch–Elsässisch, by Serge Kornmann (Yoran Embanner, 2005). So I thought I’d share a few gleanings from that tiny source, focusing on how to get from High German to Alsatian, since the former is likely to be more familiar to most readers.

For some reason I tend to like German dialects more than the official language, and this is no exception. How can you not love a word like Schnuffelrutsch (lit. ‘sniff-slide’) ‘mouth organ’?


  1. Given that Alsace-Lorraine was such a bone of contention between Germany and France at an earlier time (I presume we all remember reading Daudet’s “La Dernière Classe”), I wonder about the current status of the German dialect in French territory.
    According to Wikipedia, “although Alsace was a German dialect-speaking region for most of its history, all Alsatians today speak French. About 25% of the local population is fluent in the Alsatian language (as a mother tongue) or German (as a second language).”
    With only 25% speaking Alsatian or German, is Alsace on the way out as a Germanic speaking area?

  2. Wikipedia adds “People above 70 still speak Alsatian at home, but the younger generations use French even at home, and the vast majority of people below 30 do not understand Alsatian anymore,” so I’m guessing the answer is yes. (Of course, there’s a [citation needed] after that statement…)
    And yes, I vividly remember “La Dernière Classe.” (Online here for anyone who wants to experience the pain of over a century ago as though it were their own.)

  3. Assimil used to have a textbook “L’alsacien sans peine”, but I believe they let it go out of print around the same time as “L’occitan sans peine”.

  4. The publisher of the little Alsatian dictionary, Yoran Embaner, got its start publishing stuff on Breton and now publishes on other minority languages in France. Maybe they’re aiming at tourists from outside France, especially Germans and English speakers, rather than French audiences.

  5. Actually,bathrobe, I don’t remember reading Daudet, or knowing anything about him whatsoever other than some vague idea he’s a French writer, sorry. Is this someone cultured people are supposed to know? Or is this a standard text in most French classes? (In my French class in the ’80s we probably spent more time watching Truffaut and Godard films than reading, such was my teacher).

  6. It’s a standard text in old-school French classrooms; I read it over forty years ago, with a teacher who was herself Alsatian (she taught both French and German) and really put a lot of emotion into the story. Adieu, Mme. Ruegg!

  7. aldiboronti says:

    The link for the Daudet story is broken, but there’s an English translation here, of which I’m about to avail myself.

  8. John Emerson says:

    The end of the story cites Mistral: S’il tient sa langue, il tient la clé qui de ses chaines le delivre.
    But Frédéric Mistral (Nobel 1904) was an Occitan militant. The passage actually should read: Qui ten sa lenga ten la claù que deis cadenas lo deliure.
    Was the irony of this intended by the author, and did he expect it to be understood by his audience? The point would be “In Alsace French will now become an impoverished kitchen language like Occitan, a language of resistance at best, and no longer the language or culture and power”.
    But it’s an odd thing for a Frenchman to say.

  9. BTW, I got the Occitan version off the internet simply by Googling the French version. I knew who Mistral was, but didn’t have access to the Occitan version.
    This is a case when Google is a superior reference to anything that existed before it. Even some university libraries might not have been able to answer my question, and none of them as quickly as that.

  10. I just checked the French, and Daudet cites Mistral in French:
    Alors, d’une chose à l’autre, M. Hamel se mit à nous parler de la langue française, disant que c’était la plus belle langue du monde, la plus claire, la plus solide : qu’il fallait la garder entre nous et ne jamais l’oublier, parce que, quand un peuple tombe esclave, tant qu’il tient bien sa langue, c’est comme s’il tenait la clef de sa prison…

  11. To John Emerson: actually, in his LETTRES DE MON MOULIN Daudet writes about meeting Mistral and of his admiration for him. Although he was probably a native speaker of French, Daudet was also a (proud!) Southerner (born in Nimes), and IPSO FACTO had, I suspect, a very good grasp of the psychology of linguistic subordination: there would be nothing strange about his drawing a parallel between French in Alsace-Lorraine and Occitan in Southern France. And indeed had France lost World War I, and Alsace-Lorraine remained German, I see no reason to doubt that French there would be as marginalized and endangered as Occitan is in France today.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Even though I was born and raised in France, I did not read La dernière classe until many years later, in a textbook for North Americans learning French. No doubt my parents would have been more likely to have read it in school.
    When I was young there were still students my age who spoke Alsatian as a matter of course.
    As for Occitan, there is not just one variety but several, and there can be variations from one village to another. My maternal grandparents spoke a variety which was closer to that of Toulouse than that of Nîmes where Daudet was from, or of the place where Mistral came from (I forget the name). Unfortunately I was not able to learn more than a few expressions from this language because it was heavily discouraged as the language of the peasants. At the time of those two writers there would still have been many monolingual speakers in rural areas, and Daudet like Mistral must have been bilingual.
    Right now most rural people are not interested in continuing to speak the patois but many urbanites who like me are of Occitan origin are trying to relearn it, but what is being taught is a more standardized and archaizing version propounded from the University of Montpellier – what an old Occitan-speaking friend of my parents used to call a kind of Esperanto.

  13. “Daudet was also a (proud!) Southerner”. He certainly was and Southern identity is a theme in many of his works, e.g. “Numa Roumestan” which is about a Southern politician and his Northern wife who fail to understand each other. The North-South divide in France seems to have been a topic in the literature of the time. There’s a passage in Huysmans’ “Là-Bas” where the hero laments the victory of the French in the Hundred Years War because it prevented a unified kingdom which would have included the English and the Northern French, who have so much in common. Instead Northerners and Southerners have been lumped together and “we [Northerners] are landed with – forever, or so it seems! – those dull-eyed, olive-skinned chocolate-munchers and garlic crushers who are not in the least bit French, but rather Italian or Spanish. In short, but for Jeanne d’Arc, France would not have been overrun, as it has been, by the Latin race – cocky, treacherous, over-emotional imbeciles one and all that can go to the Devil for all I care!”
    “Daudet like Mistral must have been bilingual”. Highly likely. I don’t think he wrote any books in Occitan but he certainly used an Occitan title, “La Doulou”, for his account of his terminal illness. There’s also a poem he wrote for Mistral which he later used as the epigraph to his novella “Le Trésor d’Arlatan”. The first stanza goes:
    Coumo fai bon quand lou mistrau
    Pico la porto emé si bano
    Estre soulet dins la cabano
    Tout soulet coumo un mas de Crau.

  14. Very interesting! It’s an amazing but almost invisible twist to the story.
    I’ve been told that anti-Latin Germanism was a theme for many aristocratic French / Frankish reactionaries, for example Gobineau.
    And then Rimbaud claimed to be a Gaul in order to put himself outside civilization.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know about anti-Latin Germanism, but apparently there was for a long time a feeling among the French nobility that they were descended from the conquering Franks and were thus very different from the common people, who were descendents of the lowly Gauls – twice conquered, first by the Romans, then by the Franks. There are traces of this in Balzac’s novels, among other works. I did not know the anecdote about Rimbaud, but as a rebel it makes sense that he would have declared himself a Gaul (whatever that meant),
    When compulsory education became law (in the 1880′s), lessons about the early history of the country were supposed to encourage national pride in the Gaulish heritage and especially the heroism of Vercingétorix (not much else being known about the Gauls at that time apart from what Julius Caesar had written). Of course, at that time France was suffering from the aftermath of the 1871 defeat by the Prussian regime (Napoleon III having stupidly fallen into a trap set for him by Bismarck). Thus the Germans replaced the English as the “hereditary enemy” in the popular mind, but some reactionaries must have held on to the earlier pro-Germanic bias of the aristocracy.

  16. That’s a theme in Proust as well—many of the aristocratic characters are related to German aristocracy, and the Baron de Charlus is accused of being a boche sympathizer during WWI.

  17. The Rimbaud is from the section called “Mauvais sang” in “Un Saison en Enfer”:
    “J’ai de mes ancêtres gaulois l’oeil bleu blanc, la cervelle étroite, et la maladresse dans la lutte. Je trouve mon habillement aussi barbare que le leur. Mais je ne beurre pas ma chevelure.
    “Les Gaulois étaient les écorcheurs de bêtes, les brûleurs d’herbes les plus ineptes de leur temps. D’eux, j’ai : l’idolâtrie et l’amour du sacrilège ; – Oh ! tous les vices, colère, luxure, – magnifique, la luxure ; – surtout mensonge et paresse”.
    “Mais je ne beurre pas ma chevelure” refers to the Burgundian (hence Germanic) practice of smearing rancid butter on their hair (according to Sidonius Apollinaris). Apparently the idea that the common French people were descendants of the Gauls oppressed for centuries by the Frankish aristocracy became popular during the French Revolution.

  18. Assimil used to have a textbook “L’alsacien sans peine”, but I believe they let it go out of print around the same time as “L’occitan sans peine”.
    Looks like it’s still available
    Assimil website

  19. I like German dialects, too. But for a non-native speaker like me, having learned “Hochdeutsch” at the Goethe Institute, local dialects are almost always a barrier. Besides, I don’t like **all** of German dialects as a whole: I tend to like more Rhineland dialects, and Bavarian dialects make me think I’m stupid and didn’t learn the language well. :-)
    Yesterday I was watching TV here in Germany, and there was this Swiss politician who was being interviewed in Zürich’s German dialect with Standard German subtitles! And the TV presenter, who up to then had been speaking Standard German (with a Swiss accent), suddenly started to speak the dialect, too. That was so amusing! Something impossible to see in home country, Brazil. :-)

  20. For some reason I tend to like Austrian German better than the northern varieties.

  21. michael farris says:

    IIRC 3Sat (which I no longer have on cable) often used to subtitle programs from Switzerland and I was very glad for it though a German who had lived in Switzerland once told me some Swiss people were sort of offended by the practice.
    I also learned Hochdeutsch and have been wary of dialects since being stuck in the Koln train station (from 1 to 5 in the morning) where people could understand me just fine and I couldn’t understand a thing anyone said.
    The general lack of materials on how non-natives can adapt to more everyday and regional ways of speaking didn’t help. All I could ever find were dense dialect studies from before WWI written in uncompromising scholarly tones that weren’t very accessible and the occasional bit of dialect humor (sort of like the strine book) which might be fun for native speakers but are essentially useless for learners.

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