Yenish, around 1900 / © Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Although the Yenish reside right here in Luxembourg, many people are unaware of their culture and, in particular, their highly interesting language, which, despite being closely related, is entirely incomprehensible to many Luxembourgers.
Officially, the Yenish are called d'Jéinesch in Luxembourgish. However, that is probably not what most people know them by. If, instead, you mention the word Lompekréimer ("ragmen"), chances are that people will either remember them from their childhood or have memories of parents or grandparents telling them stories about their encounters with them.
In this article, we will meet the Yenish and learn about their history, both abroad and in Luxembourg – and if you make it all the way to the end, we will even learn a bit of Yenish, which is sure to earn you the respect of both your expat and Luxembourgish friends.
I. Who are the Yenish?
The Yenish are an itinerant group who live across Western Europe, mostly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and parts of France. As a distinct group, the Yenish first emerged towards the end of the 18th century.
Yenish in the Muotathal (Switzerland), around 1890 / © Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Yenish have faced some persecution under Nazi Germany, as part of the Nazis' oppression of Romani people, which also targeted other itinerant communities.
Between the 1920s and 1970s, the Swiss government ran a programme called Kinder der Landstrasse ("Children of the Road"), under which the authorities institutionalised Yenish parents and placed their children for adoption by the Swiss population. The programme was eventually criticised for violating the fundamental rights of the Yenish and traumatising nearly 600 children. It was discontinued in 1973.
II. The Yenish in Luxembourg
The Yenish community in Luxembourg was and to some extent still is concentrated in the Pfaffenthal (Luxembourg City), Esch-sur-Alzette, Fond de Heiderscheid, and Weimerskirch.
The Yenish were originally travellers, or people with professions outside of mainstream society that required them to travel from town to town, such as showpeople, tinkers, and door-to-door salesmen.
Many older Luxembourg residents still remember the Yenish as the Lompekréimer ("ragmen"), although they typically referred to themselves as Lakerten (with Laken meaning "rag" or "towel").
The Yenish used to travel across the Grand Duchy trading rags or old iron for a range of household items (porcelain, sewing kits, etc.).
III. The Yenish language
Yenish has been documented since the 18th century. From a linguistic standpoint, it is a jargon rather than a language, with a large number of unique specialised words. It has no grammar or basic vocabulary of its own.
Yenish speakers typically speak their local dialect, which they supplement with Yenish vocabulary. The latter contains many peculiar metaphors and metonyms and is influenced by Yiddish, Romani, and other minority languages.
For English speakers, particularly those from the UK, a good comparison for the relationship between Yenish and the standard language is the relationship between Cockney and standard English.
In Luxembourg, Yenish was dubbed – somewhat derogatorily, it must be noted – Geheimsprooch ("secret language").
According to local researcher Romain Pansin, the Yenish did use their vocabulary as well as a variety of hand gestures to secretly communicate with one another about, for instance, the value of the products they were dealing with.
There are many different varieties of the Yenish language. The Yenish spoken in Weimerskirch was referred to as Lakerschmus.
Besides Luxembourg, the Yenish jargon is now only used in a few isolated locations, such as certain neighbourhoods of Berlin, in Münster, and in several villages in the German Eifel region.
The use of the Yenish language declined over time as their traditional professions faded and living conditions improved. In Luxembourg, there are, however, still initiatives aimed at preserving Yenish culture and language, such as the Yenish Federation in Luxembourg.
It should also be mentioned that some families continue to speak Yenish amongst themselves and believe that their language should only ever be passed down among their people.
There have been some academic studies on the Yenish language in Luxembourg, notably by Professor Joseph Tockert in the 1930s. Researchers from the University of Luxembourg have proposed another theory regarding the origin of the Yenish spoken in Luxembourg: They theorise that it may have originated among the people who lived inside the old Fortress of Luxembourg.
IV. Learn (a bit of) Yenish with RTL Today!
Intrigued by the fascinating history of the Yenish? Rightly so! As a special little treat, we are ever so slightly going to dip our toes into the charming world of the Yenish language.
Let's start with two nearly identical words: Lösch and Löscht. Despite the fact that they only differ by a single letter, they actually mean two very different things: A Lösch is a lantern, while a Löscht is a door. In comparison, a lantern in Luxembourgish is called a Lanter and a door a Dier.
Now let's add a verb to the mix, the imperative of a verb to be precise: Kuff generally carries a meaning of stopping, closing, or putting out. So, a correct Yenish sentence would for instance be:
Kuff d'Löscht! ("Close the door!")
In Luxembourgish, this sentence would be Maach d'Dier zou! Already you can see that Yenish is quite different from standard Luxembourgish!
Since Kuff not only means closing but also "putting out," we can also use it in a sentence with the other word we learned, Lösch:
Kuff d'Lösch aus! ("Put the lantern out!")
Again, in Luxembourgish we would say: Maach d'Lanter aus!
Sticking with Kuff, we can also use this verb to make one of the most beloved Yenish expressions of all:
Kuff d'Schmull! ("Shut up!")
And just in case you really need to tell someone to zip it in Luxembourgish, you should go for: Hal de Mond (literally: "Hold the mouth").
Alright, now that we're a bit warmed up, how about we learn how to navigate around our home in Yenish? This will also allow us to appreciate just how logical Yenish is structured.
A "house" is called a Beies in Yenish. A Kusch is a "small house" and also a "room" – makes sense right? Now, let's look at a couple more Yenish nouns:
Glëmmerech --> "oven" (LU: Uewen)
Limm --> "bread" (LU: Brout)
Using these two, we can build two Yenish words for "kitchen" and "baking room": Glëmmerkusch and Limmerkusch, so literally "oven room" and "bread room." You can get the other rooms in your home by simply adding different Yenish words to -kusch. For example, Schlummerkusch ("bedroom") or Schondkusch ("bathroom").
Can't get enough of Yenish? Here is a selection of some more Yenish words and phrases, translated into both English and Luxembourgish.
|Bloën/de bloën Zwir||schnapps||Schnapps|
|doft (eng doft Moss)||good/beautiful (a beautiful woman)||gutt/schéin (eng schéi Fra)|
|flosseren/bachelen||to rain/to pee||reenen/pissen|
|Fock (Ech hu Fock)||hunger (I am hungry)||Honger (Ech sinn hongreg)|
|Gatt (Schmonk mer de Gatt)||behind (Kiss my a…)||Hënner (Leck mech am A…)|
|Hautz||father/elderly man/farmer||Papp/elere Mann/Bauer|
|Nilles Plompert||a pint of beer||en Humpe Béier|