Saarlanders and French Love on the Back Burner

Love on the Back burner
Love on the Back burner | Photo (detail): © BirgitH /pixelio.de

The Saarland prides itself in being the most French of all the German federal states. Yet though the French influence can be felt, the language of Saarland’s neighbouring state plays only a minor role.

Whenever the Saarlander goes travelling (even if he only does it to be able to relish the thought of returning to his belovedly manageable region), people in places like Berlin and Munich know almost after only a few seconds where he is from. Well, at least the moment he says the french word “Engagement” (i.e. commitment). He does not pronounce it like all the other Germans, whose plosive sounds verge on veritable explosions. No, he pronounces it the way it should be pronounced – the “g” being ground into a smooth “sh” sound and the “a” with a nasal twang. Maybe that is the reason they are told all the time, “You Saarlanders, you all speak perfect French.” That, however, is exactly what the Saarlanders cannot do. Nevertheless, many Germans stick steadfastly to the idea that the almost one million people living in and around the towns of Saarlouis, Saarbrücken and St. Wendel are all half-French. They still think like that even though the Saarland has been part of the Federal Republic of Germany since 1957, and even though every night they see clearly on the TV weather map that Saarbrücken, the capital of Germany’s smallest territorial state, is a German city.  

Signs in two languages

Is the idea of the Saarland being the “most French” of the German states then really all that farfetched? No, there is in fact a grain of truth in it. Let us move now in the other direction and take the journey from Berlin or Munich back to Saarbrücken. The visitor is really in for quite a surprise – on Saturday mornings the French language can be heard in all the shops as half of Lorraine crosses the border from France to do their shopping. Bilingual signs point the way to the “Musée” and the “Théatre”. It does not really matter if a Saarlander speaks standard German or dialect, he still refers to the pavement he is walking on as the “Trottoir”. His letters are delivered in a “Kuvert” (from the French couvrir meaning to envelop). This is in fact really quite original as an envelope in French is in fact enveloppe. Whenever things go wrong for a Saarlander and he is in a fix, he says he is in a “Bredouille” and not in a fix.

If one delves into the main dialects that are spoken in the Saarland, the Moselle Franconian and the Rhine-Franconian, one soon discovers even more linguistic heirlooms from Gaul. Most of them are fairly easy to understand like “Forschett” (from the French fourchette for fork), the carnival cry “Alleh hopp!” (from the French aller for go) and “Fissäl” (from the French ficelle for string) for tying up parcels. Some words however require an etymologically detective approach. “Mach kee Fisimatente!” is used to tell people not to get up to any mischief. It has never actually been clearly defined where this word “Fisimatente” actually came from. In the meantime some sources point to the Middle Ages. In Saarland however they prefer a much spicier explanation. Napoleon’s soldiers, who also passed through the Saarland on their various campaigns, apparently would chat up the local girls, telling them to “Visite ma tente!” (Visit my tent). The girls’ fathers were enraged  and told the girls not to do this, saying “Don’t you dare go Fisimatente!”. “Bettseischer” is a famous Saarland speciality consisting of eggs, bacon and dandelion leaf salad, but the name was derived in a very roundabout way. Due to their diuretic effect dandelions in French are called “Pissenlit” (wet the bed/seichen).

When all is said and done there are only about a dozen words and phrases that made it to the Saarland from France – even though the length of the border they share is 157 kilometres long. Strangely enough, however, cross-border exchange was not really that rife at all. The Lorraine dialect that is actually spoken as far as 30 kilometres across the border into France, is in fact a German dialect that the people in Saarland and in parts of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate understand without any problems.

France – the land of the foe

Where, however, does this aloofness towards the French come from? Throughout the centuries, for the people living in the Saar area France had always been the land of the enemy, the land where the occupying troops came from. It took quite some time before they became partners and friends. On a linguistic level they also kept a distance and remained aloof, which, however, did not prevent other Germans from calling the Saarlanders “Rucksackfranzosen” or “Saarfranzosen” (pejoratives in German for “closet” French people) – this of course did not particularly instill any great feelings of love for either the French or their language.

The art of “saarvoir vivre”

Things really did not change very much until the middle of the 1970s when Saarbrücken elected a Lord Mayor who had a French-sounding name – in 1985 he went on to become the Minister President of the state of Saarland. With Oscar Lafontaine, then a social democrat, at the helm the Saarland gained more prestige among politicians, artists and gourmet chefs and the offensive nickname “Saarfranzosen” took on a more positive meaning. People of Saarland prided themselves in their “saarvoirvivre” – Saarland-style French “joie de vivre”. It was not just a case of exquisite culinary delights, people started taking an interest in French culture, too. In 1977 Saarbrücken hosted the “Perspectives” event – a festival celebrating francophone stagecraft that still takes place every year. And nobody managed to put it into words better than the author Ludwig Harig. His book Die saarländische Freude. Ein Lesebuch über die gute Art zu leben und zu denken (The Saarland Joy – A Reader on the Best Way to Live and think, publ. by Hanser-Verlag, 1977) became a guiding principle for the people in the Saar area.

In the meantime the way to the heart of the French is no longer only through the stomach. People have started to use their brains and change their way of thinking. For example, the regional government of the state, made up of Christian and Social Democrats, has passed what is known as the “France Strategy”. The aim is to make French the second  “lingua franca” in the Saarland by 2030. Maybe then, when the people in Berlin, Hamburg or Munich say “You Saarlanders, you all speak perfect French”, the answer will be “mais oui!”.