In a duchy of languages, grammar rules

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 14.06.2019

Not long ago, a Flemish rock band played a concert in Luxembourg before an intimately sized audience. The guitarist and bandleader was a chatty one, telling anecdotes during every song break, and in French – his second language.

Though a swift and easy talker, he was imperfect with his French and aware of it. Coming up to a noun whose gender he doubted, he would ask the audience, “un ou une hommage…?” The crowd, with an enthusiasm rivalling what they expressed for the music, would yell back the answer. His greatest sin of the evening was uttering écrivire, whereupon one spectator, horrified, bellowed écrire! under his breath with all the mortal affront of a wronged aristocrat.

One does not mess about with French grammar.

For any Americans in attendance, the scene would have represented a bizarre display. Why would a foreigner solicit feedback on his own inadequacies instead of apologizing for them, and – much stranger – how could a crowd be so mean as to eagerly indulge him? Repartee of this exact species exists nowhere in the anglophone lands.

But these lands are different. French to the francophone is not quite like English to the anglophone. Indeed, as is widely known and remarked upon, the French language is a castle that all of its native speakers are consigned to defend. Lying in a hospital bed, in critical condition, you mutter hazily to the doctor about a drug allergy. A white light shines in your eyes; a thousand daggers pound in your head; a face looms into view. “C’est une allergie,” it says.

For further evidence, consider the RTL Dictée, a radio contest that anglophone expats will find preposterous and disturbing. To win, you must be the first to write down and submit a perfect transcript of a passage dictated in French, German, or Luxembourgish. That’s it. No symptom of insanity is as alarming as participating in this pedagogically obsolete primary school lesson administered via technology from the 1930s. Yet, fully grown adults will slam the brakes, steer the car into a ditch, and grab wildly for pen and paper when the contest begins. By no means is this normal.

While most societies consider grammatical prowess a general indicator of education and class, around here this concept is truly hyperdeveloped. In a business context, senior partners will touch up the wording of a report for no reason other than to exert a (usually imagined) intellectual authority over the project, while an error in anything printed will elicit a chorus of joyfully condescending snorts. In America, the world is ending because nobody can pry the guns away from the racists; in Luxembourg, the world is ending because some dismally moronic intern flubbed the accent in “stratègies” and it survived until the final draft.

We expats find all this unsettlingly pedantic, as far as exoticisms go. That’s because English speakers see our language not as a castle to defend, but as a giant, scary, amorphous monster rampaging out of control. For many, trying to contain the whole beast with grammar would just be absurd, and in fact English has never had any equivalent to the Académie française. Instead, all the heavy accents, slangy dialects, and broken abilities are generally taken merely as evidence of the raging liveliness of the monster. (A prevailing generality, notwithstanding our many xenophobes and grammar nitpickers). Above all, we have a collective guilt that our mother tongue is so ubiquitous, such that correcting a foreigner is, really, the height of bad manners.

Thus, watching a whole crowd shout grammar tips at a poor Flemish guitarist – and he enjoying it – is fairly surreal.

Naturally, Luxembourgers have been shaped by this frenzy over the prescriptive rules of French, and further by the attitudes of the Germans, who are rumored to be similarly fussy with their language. Having grown up in the shadow of all these touchy pedants, Luxembourgers revere grammar. Tragically, however, they are often disadvantaged in grammar wars: since the rules of Luxembourgish are relatively young and loose, and since it lacks foreign speakers, sharp grammar knowledge must usually be proven in a second tongue.

There is a healthy pride in all this, since French and German are important national languages that every child must master, but it goes too far. Too many consider a mistake in French to be a grave thing, a shame upon the family. Even so much as a clumsy construction is feared. As a result, despite many known examples of tolerable, even lovely, local French speakers, often will a Luxembourger groan when a friend announces a new francophone boyfriend.

“But… we’ll… have to speak French,” comes the lament, inevitably.

Undoubtedly, having to speak English (or German) is worse for many, or at least equally annoying, but the cultural gulf is also real. If a foreign musician were to shout an English grammar question to a crowd in Baltimore, nobody would answer. Not one person. The question’s degree of unexpectedness would render it purely unintelligible, and any fan who did catch it would experience not the will to respond, but only the desire to apologize. It might even be seen as aggressive: I’m improving in your language, and I bet you don’t even speak mine! Ha! Ultimately, we are a guilt society, not a shame one. We have learned to feel guilt. This region of Europe has learned to feel shame. That is the real difference.

At the concert, then, audience and musician clearly shared a cultural awareness that French is a language worth speaking properly. Furthermore, all seemed to agree that mistakes bring shame, not guilt, making shamelessness a sort of gift, a free pass to commit errors. It was on such a basis that this ridiculous guitarist somehow endeared himself to the crowd. While anglophone listeners were being pummeled by confusion, Luxembourgers probably rolled their eyes at these overstimulated grammar fans and felt good about their own French abilities. Better to let this Flemish guy advertise his own shortcomings, and in so doing satiate the furious appetites of the francophone intelligentsia.

For if they are not fed by someone else, they may come for you.

Jeffrey Palms
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