“Alsatian is a mixture of French and German”
This statement, which you may have heard before, is totally…wrong ! What is called Alsatian is in fact a Germanic dialect just like Bavarian, Saxon or Swiss German. In fact, these dialects are even older than the standard German called “Hochdeutsch” which was only codified in the 16th century with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.
A short history of the Alsatian language
Despite the annexation of Alsace by France in 1681, Alsatian was the language of expression of the vast majority of Alsatians, despite the changes in nationality, until the Second World War. Only a small urban and Francophile minority used French from the 18th century on, but the dialect was never prohibited and the written language was German.
From the 1970’s, the transmission of the dialect is no longer assured in the families, in particular following the trauma of the war (which associates German language and Nazism) and the assimilationist policy of the Republic (the famous “Il est chic de parler français” (“It’s chic to speak French”) posted in the streets of Alsace in the 1950s…) but many Alsatians understand, speak and use it on a daily basis.
The Alsatian dialect nowadays
Today, German is no longer the written language of Alsatians, and everyone knows French. No risk of misunderstanding for a visitor coming from the “France of the Interior” therefore! But if you listen carefully, you can hear this rough but singing language from the north to the south of Alsace. The erosion of its use is stronger in the south than in the north, among the young than among the old, in the city than in the countryside. If you want to hear Alsatian, you will have better luck with an elderly person from a village in the Outre-Forêt.
The dialect is not uniform and under the name of Alsatian, one finds in fact Frankish dialects (in Alsace Bossue and Outre-Forêt) and Alemannic dialects (in the rest of the region) and each village has its own variant. In reality, the similarities are more along an east-west axis: the same language is spoken in the Sundgau and Basel, in Colmar and Freiburg, in Strasbourg and Kehl, in Wissembourg and Karlsruhe. Despite some differences in vocabulary (for potatoes, we speak of Grumbeere in Strasbourg and in the north of Alsace, and Ardäpfle everywhere else!) and pronunciation (a car can be Waawe, Waaga or Wöje depending on the area! It allows the Alsatians to communicate easily with their Palatinate, Baden, Swiss and Austrian neighbors.
We also find the Alsatian language on the radio (notably on France Bleu Elsàss) on TV, on restaurant menus (the pork shank is in fact a Wädele!) on street signs (the Grand Rue in Strasbourg has regained its Langstross name) and in a very lively theatrical tradition.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Alsatians are slowly rediscovering the value of their language, both from a heritage point of view and as a bridge to German and English. But the influence of French is greater than ever. When a dialect speaker ignores a word in Alsatian, he says it most of the time in French. This sometimes gives rise to a language, probably incomprehensible to uninitiated ears, where the two languages telescope in the same speech or even in the same sentence such as “Ich hàb de Portable verlore. I don’t know where it is anymore. Ich wurr verruckt!”. This can lead one to believe that there is a mixture of languages. So keep your ears open! And don’t be offended if the Alsatians speak dialect in front of you…it’s part of the scenery 😉
Alsatian lexicon for beginners
Would you like to learn a few words of Alsatian? Here is a survival lexicon to get you started:
– Güete Morje: good morning
– Salü bissàmme: Hello company !
– Bonchour: good morning (at any time)
– Bis bàll: see you soon
– Wenn’s beliebt: please
– Thank you vielmols: thank you very much (and never “Danke”!)
– S’esch eso: it’s like that (expressing Alsatian fatalism)
– Effektiv!: that’s it ouiiiiiiiiiiii
– Scheeni Wihnàchte / Oschtere: Merry Christmas / Happy Easter
– Ich bin e Innerfranzos wie do in ihrem Dorf verlore esch, un ich wott gern wisse wie ich weder uff Strossburi fàhre kànn: I am a Frenchman from the Interior lost in your village and I would like to know how to get back to Strasbourg (expert level :-P)
Want to go further? Do not hesitate to visit the website of the OLCA, the Office for the Language and Cultures of Alsace and Moselle, which works for a stronger presence of Alsatian in all areas and supports the initiatives of associations, communities, administrations and companies.
You will find many resources to help you learn Alsatian, such as French-Alsatian lexicons or even the SERLET Alsatian application to download on your phone.