In search of Cité-Duits, Limburg’s underground language


In a corner of Limburg, a local language emerged in the 1930s; it’s still spoken by a handful of former coalminers and is the focus of new research

Documenting a dying language

“Of course I speak Cité-Duits,” says Jan Kohlbacher. “I’ve lived in the Cité all my life.” At 81, Kohlbacher has in fact lived through a significant part of his village’s history.

“Cité-Duits was – and to some extent still is – the language I spoke with my friends,” he says. “Not at home, that wasn’t allowed. My father insisted that we speak impeccable German in his presence.”

The discovery of coal beneath Limburg in 1901 changed the previously sparsely populated region forever, as rapid industrial development brought migrants from all over Europe and the Mediterranean to the mines.

While the post-war migration of workers from countries bordering the Mediterranean is well-known, previous migration waves have largely been forgotten. But they left their traces. 

Hyper-local language

One of them is a linguistic curiosity: Cité-Duits (Cité-German), a local language only spoken in Tuinwijk. The neighbourhood is also known as the Cité, a miners’ quarter in the village of Eisden, now part of Maasmechelen.

In the beginning, the Limburg mines drew their labour force from the local population and from Wallonia, where coal mining had taken off much earlier. But Eisden was an exception.

Bordering the river Meuse, which constitutes the border with the Netherlands, Eisden had no hinterland in which to find potential miners. So the Eisden mines depended on foreign labour from the get-go.

Cité-Duits is an element in a wide-ranging story of early migration, but we learned it on the streets and in the mines without a thought

- Jan Kohlbacher

Recruiters swarmed Central and Eastern Europe to find skilled workers, focusing on regions where mines were already established. Many of them came from the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, like Kohlbacher’s father, who arrived in Eisden with his family in 1925.

Despite their diverse ethnicities, most of these immigrants from Hungary, Slovenia, Silesia and elsewhere had at least a rudimentary knowledge of German. The language was used for administration and the military in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It proved a base for a common language, while gaps were filled with the Limburg dialect, Dutch terms and words from all over Eastern and Central Europe. And so Cité-Duits was born.

“Cité-Duits is an element in a wide-ranging story of early migration,” explains Kohlbacher (pictured above). “But we learned it on the streets and in the mines without a thought.” 

Filling in the gaps

The process of acquiring the language was very fluid. Speakers found their own solutions to gaps. If someone didn’t know a certain word, they would use the corresponding one from their mother tongue.

“That’s why Cité-Duits is full of words from Hungarian, Polish and so on. It was a hyper-local language. Even within the Cité, there were differences. Quite often it was the big mouths who introduced new elements. To an outsider, it might have sounded like German; but it certainly wasn’t.”

For example, during the Second World War, an American reconnaissance plane used to take off from a local airfield. Kohlbacher: “My Polish friend called it a pasjakonnik, and it wasn’t until much later that I learned that actually means ‘grasshopper’ in Polish.”

Or they would say Past auf, du stats auf mein tenen (“Look out, you’re standing on my toes”), which sounds German, but tenen is a Dutch word.

Handful of speakers

Cité-Duits has always existed under the radar, and it’s only recently that linguistics have begun to study it. And just in time, because there are only a handful of speakers left.

Nantke Pecht, a PhD student at Maastricht University, is carrying out research into the language. “I find it hard to describe how it sounds,” she says. “It’s somewhere between German dialects and Flemish, but it differs from both languages. The name Cité-Duits was given to the language by the speakers themselves, but I wouldn’t label it as mostly German.”

She describes Cité-Duits as a mixed language that originated from a very specific social constellation. “There are a lot of elements where the origin is unclear: The roots of many words and some syntactical structures cannot be brought down to a defined language of origin. Many words derive from German, but some structures can’t be found in German or in Dutch.”

We meet regularly with the last remaining speakers, but each of us is over 70. The language will disappear with us

- Jan Kohlbacher

The reason Cité-Duits did not spread to other mining areas has to do with the neighbourhood’s relatively isolated position, Pecht explains. “The miners had very little contact with the other villagers, and the mine provided everything, including a church, schools and leisure activities. It had to do with identity as well. By speaking a language only known to themselves, the miners from Eisden constructed a separate identity.”

Kohlbacher is pleased with the recent attention Cité-Duits has received. “It’s a dying language,” he says. “Cité-Duits has never been passed on to younger generations. It wouldn’t be possible, because there’s no grammar, no formal structure to be taught.”

After the Second World War, he continues, “new groups of people migrated to the region with no connection to German at all. We meet regularly with the last remaining Cité-Duits speakers, but we’re all over 70. The language will disappear with us. With these new studies, at least some accounts will survive in the archives.”

Photo: Jan Kohlbacher in the Miners House Museum in Eisden. The house, built in 1925, was once home to two mining families from Slovenia
©Ulli Kohlbacher/Ludo Coenen