Bilingual signs in the Alsace area



The focus of this essay is on the bilingual signs in the Alsace area. The Alsace, like all of France, is officially monolingual. Even so, in towns such as Strasbourg, Mulhouse/Mühlhausen or Colmar bilingual street signs have been noticed. Interest in German and Alsatian dialects, repressed until the 1970's, has recently increased. However it may be too late as Alsatian is no longer widely spoken by younger generations. Alsatian may be relegated to an antiquarian curiosity and as such is no longer a threat to French nationalism.

This essay presents some primary data in the form of photographs of street signs and demonstrates that there is a pattern to these signs. Bilingual signage only appears in the historic centre, where outside of this the signs are monolingual. Therefore installing street name signs in both French and Alsatian/German may be a tourist draw rather than a genuine attempt to increase the awareness of the language.

Bilingual Signs

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The 'linguistic landscape' is defined as the signs on buildings and shops, road signs, street names and advertising billboards within a geographical territory, which serve the function of conveying information and also a symbolic function (Cenoz & Gorter, 2006; Landry & Bourhis, 1997). The symbolic function that is served is to promote the language and thus the identity of a minority. Where in previous generations, the dominant culture would obliterate the language of a minority culture living within its confines, either deliberately or simply due to a lack of concern, in the current multicultural climate, minorities are celebrated.

Sohamy (2006) refers to language battles taking place between 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' approaches. The top-down approach is from government, public or economic facilities, where bottom-up is when those of an autonomous status such as local business and private citizens initiate the action. These two approaches interact and this is where Sohamy suggests that the battles for control arise.

In terms of bilingual signage, these battles would be fought on the linguistic landscape with shop signs being in one language and road signs being in another for instance, or road signs being bilingual and shop signs monolingual. "The appearance of language in the public space serves as an important mechanism through which language battles… take place. Thus, the public place serves as a tool in the hands of different groups for the transmission of messages as to the place of different languages in the geographical and political entities and for influencing and creating de facto language realities." (Sohamy, 2006, p.111)

These battles may erupt into criminal behaviour such as the defacing of road signs where the language which is considered unacceptable is obliterated (Chen, 2007). These are civil disobedience actions by people with national pride and pride in their language as a symbol of their nationality, and these actions would be the result of a bottom-up process. In Wales the focus has shifted in recent decades from bottom-up actions like these to a top-down process whereby the government and all official signs must legally be bilingual. A bottom-up protest in Wales now would be a monolingual English sign erected by a shopkeeper who does not wish to pay for translation services.

The impact of the bilingual signage in Wales is that drivers take longer to read the sign than if it were monolingual in their dominant language (Jamson, 2004). However, even with this safety concern, and given that there are no longer any Welsh speakers who do not also speak English, it remains politically expedient to oblige all official signs to be bilingual in Welsh and English rather than monolingual English (Merriman & Jones, 2008). Thus Wales is officially a bilingual country with a unique history of language activism. The Welsh language has a much stronger position than other minority European languages such as Basque. The Welsh bilingual signs are no longer designed to be quaint or attract ethnic tourism as they may have been in the past (Pitchford, 1995). Other minority European language speakers may still be patronised in this way and have looked to Wales as a model for challenging this attitude.

The Alsace Context

The Alsace is an historically disputed geographical area between France and Germany. It is an area of linguistic contact between the two dominant languages French and German, and has a unique and complex history of cultural conflict, military occupation and political domination (Kegel, 2003). Since the fifth century AD when the area was occupied by two Germanic tribes, German dialects have been spoken in this area. The Vosges mountain range to the West have served to isolate the population from the French and kept Alsace on the German side of the Germanic-Romance language border. Even when Alsace was officially French it has been easier to travel to Germany rather than into France as recently as the 1970's (Rademaekers, 1973). During the 70's Alsatians had access to television channels from both France and Germany. Most Alsatians at that time spoke both French and German and 80% also spoke Alsatian (Hessini, 1979). However in recent years there has been a decline in use and it is reported that younger generations do not speak Alsatian (Bister-Broosen, 2002). French is the state language, is used in education and officialdom, and parents are reluctant for their children to miss learning French as a native tongue due to this prestige.

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As languages, French and German are considered to be mutually exclusive, French being a Romance language. Alsatian is a Germanic dialect, derived from the Alemanni who settled in the area in the fifth century, and is understood to be German with French borrowings (Hessini, 1979). In fact it has been seen that there are appreciable differences between the dialects in different areas of Alsace and Lorraine, although the whole area is said to speak Alsatian (Judge, 2000). Alsatian was never a written language; Gutenberg's printing press in 1440 precipitated the standardisation of written German. The dialect that was chosen to be the written German was the one considered to be most easily understood by all Germanic dialect speakers. This then became the official and prestige German language and other dialects dwindled. German is the literary medium for the unstandardized Alsatian dialect (Hessini, 1979).

The region of the Alsace has changed allegiance or been invaded numerous times through wars between France and Germany, and always seems to be on the losing side (Rademaekers, 1973). Between 1870 and 1945, the Alsace experienced five different changes of nationality, each of which required a change of official language (Vassberg, 1993). It has been French since the end of the Second World War and although Alsatian as a language has more in common with German than with French, as a French province, French has been the official language and Alsatian has been repressed until the 1970's. For example, "French educational authorities have forbidden the teaching of German-language courses in Strasbourg primary schools." (Rademaekers, 1973, online).

France has become more multicultural in recent years, with bilingual education being introduced, however there is a strong historical context for this monolingualism which stems back to the time of the French Revolution: "a nation state which built itself on the principle of 'one language, one nation'. This has meant that all citizens must share the same language in order to be equal before the law; plurality of languages or dialects was felt to be a threat to the cohesion of the nation and for two centuries linguistic policies were based on the elimination of dialects." (Hélot, 2003, p.255) Thus the elimination of Alsatian has been a deliberate policy of French government. In recent years attitudes have changed due to the acknowledgement that learning a second language while young will enhance a child's educational prospects and later their employment prospects (Hélot, 2003; Judge, 2000). However it may well be too late for Alsatian to continue to exist as a language in its own right. If it is no longer spoken, then it will be doomed to become something quaint and old-fashioned, only reeled out for specific purposes (Bister-Broosen, 2002).

Alsatian as a spoken language is used on some radio and television, but in all written formats, e.g. education and newspapers, German is used in its place (Judge, 2000). There has not been political language activism in the Alsace in the same way as there has been in other European countries, such as Wales described above. In the 1970's there existed a small-scale group Front de l'Alsace libre and there now exists an Alsace d'Abord movement which promotes bilingualism on all levels (Judge, 2000). However this is also a small movement and is described as an 'extreme right-wing' movement playing the regionalist card to gain support (Judge, 2000).

The supremacy of French in France continues to be absolute, and has been confirmed by Article 2 of the new Constitution of 22 June 1992. This article states that "the language of the Republic shall be French". Elected regional authorities use only French. However they do now provide financial aid for the teaching of standard German in Alsace and in 1993 set up the Office régional du bilinguisme d'Alsace (Regional Office for Bilingualism in Alsace).

Public and semi-public services are provided solely in French, this includes telephone bills and receipts, telephone directories, hospital signs, electricity bills, post-office and police-station signs (Euromosaic, 2009). Oral communication between the authorities and the public is generally in French, as public employees tend not to be natives of Alsace. In common with other areas in Europe, there is a great deal of geographical movement and there are many other languages spoken in this area not only French, German and Alsatian, including non-European languages.

Primary Source Analysis - Street Signs in Strasbourg

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Street signage in Strasbourg has since 1991 begun to be bilingual in French and German. As has been previously mentioned, Alsatian has no written form, and standard German is used in its place, therefore on street signs it would be difficult to distinguish whether they are 'Alsatian' or 'German' as both are the same when it comes to written format. Bilingual signs are also seen in other Alsatian towns such as Mulhouse/Mühlhausen or Colmar. However, this analysis will concentrate on Strasbourg. On analysis of these street signs, their location and purpose, it might be said that the sign makers are paying lip-service to Alsatian rather than a genuine attempt to reinstate the language.

This primary source analysis will begin with street name signs in the historic centre of Strasbourg and will move on to general road signs around Strasbourg for comparison, and signs for the river Rhine. It will then move on to a discussion of the use of bilingual signs, including their patterns and prevalence and opinions on their use.

Bilingual Street Name Signs in the Centre of Strasbourg

Figure 1 Katzegass (source

In Strasbourg, an important and historic street Rue Du Chat (Cat Street) is also signed as Katzegass. It can be seen from the photograph in Figure 1 that the French sign is clearly older than the Alsatian/German. Both in style and condition, the French is seen to be the original with the newer German sign placed above.

Figure 2 Isernemannsplatz (source

Another historic street in Strasbourg's tourist centre is Place De L'Homme De Fer (Iron Man's Square). Figure 2 is a photograph of the two new signs that have replaced the old monolingual sign, the aperture clearly visible beneath the two signs. In this case, both new signs have been produced in the same style although different lettering is used. The French is in capitals and is placed above the Alsatian/German which is in italic script. This photograph was taken in 2001.

Road Sign Examples

Figure 3 Arrival to Strasbourg on the French side (source

Figure 3 is a photograph of a monolingual French sign Communauté Urbaine de Strasbourg (literally translated as 'Urban Community of Strasbourg' or City of Strasbourg). This photograph was taken in 2001 on the French side of Strasbourg, on entering the city.

Figure 4 Arrival to Strasbourg on the German side (source

Figure 4 depicts a monolingual German sign on arrival to Kehl, a district of Strasbourg on the German side, and Figure 5 is a photograph of a monolingual German sign leaving Kehl and travelling through Strasbourg towards France. Comparison of Figure 3, 4 and 5 demonstrates that directional signs in Strasbourg are monolingual - French on the side nearer to France and German on the side nearer to Germany.

Figure 5 Leaving Kehl towards France (source

Signs for the River Rhine

Figure 6 Leaving Strasbourg (source

Leaving Strasbourg, a monolingual French sign indicating le Rhin (the Rhine river) is depicted in Figure 6. And Figure 7 depicts a German sign for Rhein the same river but seen from the German side.

Figure 7 Leaving Strasbourg near the Europabrücke (source

Therefore it can be seen in comparing Figures 6 and 7, that signs for the river are monolingual in French or German depending on which side of the river is being signposted, rather than being bilingual.

Patterns and Prevalence of Bilingual Signs

Strictly speaking, Figure 1 and Figure 2 are not images of true bilingual signs, they are both images of two monolingual signs placed together. However due to the close proximity of these signs, and due to the fact that there are no true bilingual signs to be found, i.e. two languages on one sign, these will be classed as bilingual signage in this analysis.

From these seven images it can clearly be seen that in signage other than street names, the signs in the Strasbourg area are monolingual. Given the cultural and historical significance of the Rhine river, it may be expedient to use bilingual signage for this, however as these photographs (taken in 2001) indicate, this has not been the case. It appears that the only examples of bilingual signage to be found in Strasbourg are in the historic centre, which may be considered the most tourist-visited area.

Thus the patterns of signs in this region appear to be German on the side of the city nearer to Germany and French on the side nearer to the rest of France. This includes road signs for the towns and areas and for the river. In the centre there is bilingual signage for the street names.

Opinions on Bilingual Signs

People do not believe that the French government will promote the use of German. For instance there is little funding available for research projects into German in French universities. There is little encouragement to use written or spoken German in public life; there is little acknowledgement of German as contributing to France's cultural richness. People are discouraged from giving their children names that are 'too German' although proper names and place names have remained in their traditional correct German form (Euromosaic, 2009).

Public notices, door signs, hospital signs, school and trade signs are all in French. As can be seen from this primary source analysis, monolingual German road signs are only evident on the German side of the city. Euromosaic (2009) reports that a number of Commune authorities in France have begun to install bilingual street signs and that these usually appear in historic town centres. This is reportedly due to public pressure, and in Strasbourg this pressure group is referred to as Action-Pirate.

The appearance of these signs in historic tourist areas appears to be a salve to indicate government support of a language that no longer presents a challenge to the dominant language of the state. If it is limited to use on street name signs, it become folklorique and antiquarian. It may be the equivalent of the English 'Ye Olde Teashoppe' signs which are understood to be a reference to cultural history rather than a genuine attempt to reinstate a dead form of the language.

This may be a cynical view, however with no evidence of bilingual signage outside of these tourist areas, as might be seen in a true bilingual country such as Wales, it is clear that the French authorities are making no effort to support the use of Alsatian in the Alsace. Instead it appears that the language is used as a gimmick to attract ethnic tourism.


This essay has analysed the prevalence and patterns of bilingual signs in Strasbourg. It has been seen that bilingual signage only appears in the historic centre, where outside of this the signs are monolingual. The conclusion drawn from this is that these signs form a gimmick to be used as a tourist draw. These signs are 'top down' in Sohamy's (2006) mechanism, and have a purpose other than simply naming the street. As part of the linguistic landscape, they point to the cultural history of the space rather than being needed for directional purposes.