French Language Blog

Alsace-Lorraine: French or German Originally? Posted by on Mar 31, 2013 in Vocabulary

No region has caused a more serious headache to both France and Germany than that of the Alsace-Lorraine, or as the Germans call it: Elsass-Lothringen.

To this day, some people still wonder: Is it originally French or German?

Starting from the mid-seventeenth century, the Alsace-Lorraine was French, no question about it.

That is, until it was lost to Germany between 1871 and 1919.

The temporary loss of this mineral-rich territory proved to be a rather traumatic experience for many a French person.

So much that it provoked a corresponding temporary loss of sanity of national proportions. This was the pathetic social phenomenon known in French history as “revanchisme” (from the French word “revanche“, meaning “revenge.”)

The root causes of the territorial dispute, however, go way back in time.

The Alsace-Lorraine region was part of a “messy inheritance“, so to speak, between the grandsons of Charlemagne.

Of course, as King of the Franks, Charlemagne, whose realm stretched over the European heartland, can easily be claimed by France.

After all, it was the Franks who gave France its name: “la France“, land of les Francs (the Franks), long before Charlemagne was even born.

But the Holy Emperor can also be claimed by the Germans as one of their own, since the Franks are technically Germanic people, as opposed to the native people of France, who are gaulois, and therefore of Celtic stock.

But wait, ce n’est pas tout (that’s not all.)

Another way to see things, still in a narrow “national perspective”, is to highlight the significance of le lieu de naissance (the birthplace) of Charlemagne:

Neither in modern France, nor in modern Germany, but in la Belgique, in a town called Héristal, not too far from Liège. 

Fair enough.

Alors, que retenir de cela? (what to retain from this?)

To simplify matters, just remember that both France and Germany come originally from the division of Charlemagne’s empire between three of his grandsons (a fourth one had died in the meantime): Louis, Charles le Chauve (meaning “the Bald“; he just liked to be clean-shaven), and Lothair.

  • Louis took the eastern part of the Carolongien empire (“Carolingien” means belonging to Charlemagne), called East Francia, and thus was known as “Louis the German” (or “Ludwig der Deutsche” in Deutsch.) Of course, this territory was the “ancestor” of modern Germany
  • Charles le Chauve, the “bald” of the three brothers, took over the western portion of the empire, West Francia, which roughly corresponds to today’s France.
  • Finally, Lothair, who found himself “sandwiched” between the two, ended up taking Middle Francia. This wasn’t so bad of a deal (concluded at the famous Verdun treaty in 843, shown in the picture above), considering that his two brothers had no previous plans of offering him a share in their grandpa’s empire.  

Now, back to our main subject.

Notice that the German name of the Lorraine region, “Lothringen, clearly echoes the name of Lothair (in French Lothaire), which, as some etymological explanations go, stands for “famous warrior.”

But did Lothair (lot-hair), the “loser” in the conflict with his brothers, owe his fame to other things than his capacités martiales (martial skills)?

Like maybe having a “lot of hair“?

If that were the case, one could then argue that West Francia, namely France, would have been better off with him than his “voluntarily bald” brother, Charles.

After all, a huge part of this originally Celtic territory was for long known as “la Gaule chevelue“, meaning “Hairy Gaul.”   

Capillary qualities, a symbol of spiritual power, were probably better appreciated there than anywhere else in the Holy Empire. 

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  1. Pedro Castillo:

    Very interesting history about the origins of France and Germany.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  2. David Bock:

    The author missed the part that the Elsass was part of the german kingdom from 962 to the late 17th century until France conquered it.

  3. Patricia Hamer:

    thank you. My family said my grandmother was from Germany and then from France causing confusion. Now I understand!

  4. Claude G.:

    Alsace was part of the mostly Germanic Holy Roman Empire from 962 to 1648. Inhabited by Germans ethnics (Alemannic).
    It was then ceded to France after the victory of France Kingdom at 30 yeas wars (1618–48) under Spanish Habsburgs. It was formally annexed and incorporated into French by the treaty of Nijmegen (1679) and treaty of Ryswick (1697) .
    After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, Alsace and part of Lorraine became in 1871 part of the newly united Germany.
    In the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Alsace was returned to France after the defeat of Germany by the Alliance.
    After Germany’s defeat of France in June 1940, the region was attached to the “Reich”. But then returned to France after the defeat of Nazism by the Alliance in 1945.

  5. Candy Wood:

    Was Schalbach Lorraine ever a part of Germany, or was it always French?

  6. chris frank:

    what? my family is from Elsass Lothringen, and even today it is still mostly German, the street signs, are in German.

    and if any existing nation can claim Charlemagne it’s Austria. yes, the Franks became the Germans and the French, but the French are merely Franks who adopted vulgar Latin. Latin is all that separates us, but there’s a reason the Burgundian inheritance, Elsass-Lothringen went to Austria, not France, and it’s because both Austria, and Austrasia are the “Osterreich”. Austria is a continuation of the same kingdom the Franks set up in the German lowlands, but the territory they controlled stretched from Narbonne to Bavaria. the House Habsburg is of Elsass Lothringen, which is why after Burgundy broke up Elsass Lothringen and the German lowlands went to the Holy Roman Empire/Austria.

    Then France joined the Protestant League despite being predominantly Catholic to illegal give materiel assistance to treasonous rebels in Flanders, Belgium and the Netherlands.

    You can’t compare modern political borders with the de jure claims of High Medieval royalty. Countries back then had a tendency to wonder over large periods of time, and by the way, there is no linguistic connection between Frankish and French, but Frankish did develop into German.

    At the time of Charlemagne, at best there might have been a “Franconian” dialect of latin, but there were no French, but there were people who identified as being from Germania.

    If you want to get really specific, Charlemagne and Austrasia were Eburones, which were described as a mix of the Belgae and the Germani, they would conquer the rest of the “Frankish” tribes well before Charlemagne. At this time, there were still mostly Gauls in “France”/Gaul.

  7. William Giebel:

    My grandfather was born in Alsace Lorraine in 1899 of German ancestry & at one time he had both German & French passports. He was born near Strassbourg in a small town – I think it was called Freudenstadt.

  8. sylvia:

    Interesting read. I could tell the politics of the time by the way my family name alternated between the French and German equivilents. By the time my direct ancestor landed in Philly in the 1700s it was German Wudrung and then Anglicized to Woodring.

  9. Dario:

    Franks were, in fact, a fully Germanic people who spoke various proto-Germanic languages which eventually became Dutch, German, etc. In fact, Charlemagne wanted to rename the months and the winds to Germanic words, in order to reflect the ruling Frankish class. By the time his grandsons were dividing what was to become France and the Holy Roman Empire, the West Frankish kingdom spoke mainly a dialect of Gallo-Romance, a Vulgar Latin dialect with Celtic and Germanic influences. In fact, French today is the most Germanic of all Romance languages – it contains 10% of Germanic vocabulary with significant pronounciation and syllable stress akin to German. The French people themselves are a mixture of Celts, Romans and proto- Germans – a fact which has persisted into modern times, no matter how hard the nationalist movement of 19th and 20th century tried to erase this regionalism. It only takes a cursory look and listen at the peoples of Alsace, Bretagne, Languedoc-Roussillon, Alpes-Maritimes, etc. to realize how different these people sometime look, sound and eat.

  10. Fran deLaRue:

    Wish there was something more about surnames from mid to late 1800’s.

  11. Carol schroeder:

    I have relatives from the Alsace region, my 23 and me dna came up French / German did not know we had French dna , but please as I’m now studying the French language

  12. Susan:

    Well, this explains a good bit of my Irish DNA, as I have no directly Irish ancestors. Interesting.

  13. Pat:

    My ancestors came to usa from alsace lorraine and spoke a german dialect pennsylvania dutch wonder if they were afraid to speak french