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Luxembourgish Collections at the Library of Congress

Eric Solsten
Former Reference Librarian

Introduction

The history of literature in Luxembourgish, the native language of the people of Luxembourg, extends back to the early decades of the nineteenth century. In the last decades of this century, Luxembourgish literature (whether as poetry, drama, or fiction) has flourished as never before. In addition, there is an unprecedented number of non-literary publications in Luxembourgish. To celebrate this development, in 1999 the Embassy of Luxembourg presented a comprehensive collection of books in Luxembourgish to the Library of Congress.

History

Luxembourg lay in the heart of Charlemagne's empire; some of his key officials resided there. At the division of the empire in 843 by the Treaty of Verdun, the territory that later became Luxembourg was part of Lotharingia.

Founded in 963, Luxembourg became the home of one of the most powerful dynasties of the Middle Ages--the House of Luxembourg. The cover of one of the books in this display shows four counts and dukes of the House of Luxembourg from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: Henri VII, Charles IV, Wenzel II, and Sigismund. All were educated at the French court, and became kings of Bohemia or Hungary and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. (See Map by Johann Baptist Homann, 1663-1724. )

Political unrest in the 1830s led to the transfer of the western, French-speaking areas of Luxembourg to Belgium. The remaining Luxembourgish-speaking areas, still under Dutch control, later became the independent Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. During the second half of the nineteenth century, poverty caused many Luxembourgers to emigrate. About one-third of the population left, mostly for the United States and Brazil. In the United States, they settled mainly along the northern stretches of the Mississippi River, in Chicago, and north of Milwaukee. See also the Library of Congress web site: The Luxembourgers in America.

World War II played a large role in defining Luxembourg's present identity. The country's literature has dealt extensively with the war's traumatic events.

An example of books of this kind is Nico Helminger's Patton & Co: Triptychon, published by Editions Phi in 1992. Today, history has come full cycle. Luxembourg has been at the center of the European integration movement since the Belgian-Luxembourg economic union in 1921. Luxembourg also participated in the formation of the International Steel Board and the Benelux economic and customs union, and is a signatory of the Treaties of Rome. Luxembourg is home to a number of European Union (EU) institutions, among them the European Court of Justice. Robert Schuman, one of the fathers of the EU, was born and grew up in Luxembourg and spoke its native language. Today his childhood home is a study center devoted to European integration.

Language

Luxembourgish belongs to the West-Germanic branch of Indo-European languages.  Linguists classify it as a West Middle German dialect called "Moselle Franconian." It developed in the region of Trier and Koblenz, originating with the Salian Franks (North Sea Franks) and the Ripuarian Franks (Rhenish Franks), who settled in this region beginning in the third century AD. Subsequently, Luxembourgish evolved further as a result of a linguistic symbiosis between these West Franks and the Romans living in northern Gaul after the Frankish conquest.

Given its rich history, Luxembourgish merits as much recognition and respect as other European languages.  The earliest written evidence of Luxembourgish appears in the biography of Countess Yolanda of Vianden (c.1290).  However, some scholars suggest it would be more prudent to recognize the first written expression of Luxembourgish in a French survey of the language in 1806.

Until the twentieth century, the official use of Luxembourgish was sporadic, and its speakers did not see themselves as having a separate linguistic identity. In 1848 Luxembourgish was first used at a meeting of the Estates (a forerunner of the parliament of Luxembourg). In 1896 the poet Caspar Mathias Spoo gave his inaugural speech in parliament in Luxembourgish. In 1912 Luxembourgish was introduced into primary schools. In 1941 Nazi occupiers sought to have Luxembourgers declare German their native language and identity, but the people defiantly declared "Luxembourgish" instead. In 1975 the first official orthography of Luxembourgish was adopted and the dictionary Luxemburger Wörterbuch was published. In 1984 parliament voted to designate Luxembourgish as the national language, while stipulating that legislation  would continue to be written in French. All other administrative or judicial acts may be written in Luxembourgish, French, or German, but in practice mostly are written in French. This trilingualism in administrative matters is reflected in daily life, where individuals remain free to use the language of their choice. Thus, Luxembourgers today write in any of these languages, and sometimes even in English.

Literature

Dicks [Edmond de la Fontaine] (1823-91) not only was the first writer of Luxembourgish drama but also contributed to the development of lyric poetry, satire, popular song, and chanson in Luxembourgish. He read law at the University of Liège and spent a year in Heidelberg pursuing Germanic studies. His satirical poem of 1848, "D'Vulleparlament am Grengewald" [The Birds' Parliament in the Grengewald], depicted the members of the Luxembourg Estates as birds. Dicks' light-hearted Komeidisteck [Comedy] was the first example of German singspiel or French vaudeville or operetta in Luxembourgish. Dicks set the lyrics to melodies he had composed himself--all of which are still widely popular in Luxembourg.

Dicks' success stemmed from his interest in folklore and tradition. He collected rural proverbs and adages that both enriched his stage dialogues and provided him with material for publication in 1857. His other publications include an 1877 book of children's rhymes and an 1883 ethnographic work, Luxemburger Sitten und Gebräuche [Luxembourg Manners and Customs]. His own ambitions as a people's poet are best illustrated by the poem "De Volleksdichter" [The Folk Poet].

Michel Rodange (1827-76) is best known as the author of the epic poem "De Renert," a very successful adaptation of the traditional Flemish/Low German fox epic to a Luxembourg setting. A schoolteacher who traveled widely in Luxembourg, Rodange was an astute observer of regional and sub-regional dialects from the Ardennes to the Moselle Valley. The use of these dialects in the poem allows for a lively rendering of Renert the fox and his companions. The fox himself epitomizes local forms of mendacity, hypocrisy, and deception. The poem deftly sketches the political and social turmoil of Luxembourg in the 1870s. The poem remains not only the most popular but also the best literary portrait of Luxembourg's life and people.

Michel Lentz (1820-93) rounds off the trio of Luxembourg's most influential nineteenth-century writers. He is the most traditional of the three, writing formal, festive, and nationalistic poetry and songs. He aimed at creating a body of poems and songs for all occasions, in the tradition of a poet laureate. His most famous song is "Feierwon" [Fire-wagon], a proud patriotic piece about the inauguration of the first railway line in 1859. In 1864 he wrote the solemn poem "Ons Hemecht" [Our Home], that later became the Luxembourg national anthem.

The last few decades have seen the emergence of a new generation of writers using Luxembourgish. They work in a variety of forms: drama, novels, non-fiction, detective stories, and poetry. This display shows three novels: Georges Hausemer's Iwwer Waasser [Above Water], Georges Kieffer's Schierbelen [Shards], and Josy Braun's Porto fir d'Affekoten, [Port Wine for the Lawyers], a mystery.

One of Luxembourg's most productive writers is Roger Manderscheid, who began his career in the early 1960s as a dramatist and essayist writing in German. In 1989 and 1991 he published two autobiographical novels in Luxembourgish. Manderscheid's success has been such that in 1994 a group of writers participated in a tribute to him edited by Robert Gollo Steffen, Aschlofen ënnert engem roude stärenhimmel as méi wéi geféierlech: E Buch fir de Roger Manderscheid [Falling Asleep Under a Red Starry Sky Is More Than Dangerous: A Compilation for Roger Manderscheid].

Luxembourgish literature has always been most popular in its spoken form: music theater and epic poems in the nineteenth century; village theater, serious drama, and films in this century. Ernst Binder's Frësch Bestued [Newly Wed] was so popular as a play that it was subsequently made into the movie Hochzeitsnuecht [Wedding Night], recently shown at the American Film Institute's European Film Festival at the Kennedy Center. Other notable examples of contemporary drama in Luxembourgish are Guy Rewenig's Eisefrësser [Iron Eater], Pol Greisch's De Laangen Tour [The Long Bus Route], and Jean-Paul Maes' Manila Du Mäin Hiirzegt Kand [Manila, You My Darling Child].

Children's books in Luxembourgish are also extremely popular. The display includes a reader containing excerpts from Luxembourg's literary classics in several languages. In 1998 this book was given to every sixth-grader in Luxembourg as a graduation present. Also in the display is Zabbazillo, a collection of humorous rhymes by novelist Guy Rewenig.

Exhibition of Books

The books in this exhibition are gifts of the Ministry of Culture of Luxembourg, except where noted. Thanks to the Ministry of Culture of Luxembourg; the Bibliothèque Nationale; the Institut Grand-Ducal: Section de Linguistique, d'Ethnologie et d'Onomastique; the Maison de la Littérature; Jul Christophory, for his help; and Her Excellency, Arlette Conzemius, the Ambassador of Luxembourg to the United States.

This exhibition was compiled by Carlo Krieger, Embassy of Luxembourg, and Eric Solsten, European Division, Library of Congress.

Cover of Pol Greisch, Äddi Charel Besuch E Stéck Streisel Cover of Georges Hausemer, Die Gesetze der Schwerkraft.  Erzählung Cover of Léopold Hoffmann, Der Pelz der Reisswölfe Cover of Dennis Kirps, Gedichte einfach so

Cover of Jean-Paul Maes, Good Night Sweetheart. E Stéck an 8 biller

Cover of Roger Manderscheid, Feier a Flam

Cover of Guy Rewenig, Vakanz am Pazifik Cover of Rafael Springer, Alarm.  Briefe an mich

Cover of Michèle Thoma, Der Ernst des Lebens.  Prosa. Cover of Jacques Wirion, Saetzlinge.  333 Stücke

Additional Luxembourgish resources at the Library of Congress

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  February 23, 2017
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