Who invented the Äifler Regel?
Some months ago, I made a public commitment to learning Luxembourgish, and the public might be wondering what happened with that. Did I file it somewhere under 'Not Really Going to Happen'? Or did I roll up my sleeves and get on with it? Well, after going about the place, liberally informing every Luxembourgish person I met I was planning to learn his or her language, I felt honour bound to enrol in a class.
Armed with a Lux/English dictionary and the fear that I am the only person in the room who knows only three words of Luxembourgish – moien, äddi and merci – I arrive at my first class. The teacher is gentle and kind. He tells us we have "great courage" to learn a language that will be totally useless outside this country, and everyone laughs and relaxes. Laughing and relaxing, however, is the last thing we should do.
Don't say 'morning' in the evening
Our teacher begins by explaining that moien is the equivalent of saying "morning" to someone. Really, we should be saying "gudde mëtteg", "gudden owend" or "gutt nuecht", the last of which is pronounced "noysht". What's more, we learn that, if the person we are talking to is called Pierre, we should actually say "moie".
This leads to an animated discussion on what I now refer to as The Dreaded 'N' Rule, also known as the Eifel Rule or Äifler Regel. We are supposed to drop the 'n' from a previous word unless it begins with any of the following letters: 'u', 'n', 'I', 't', 'e', 'd', 'z', 'o', 'a' or 'h'. UNITED ZOAH. Our teacher doesn’t know the reason for this rule. It's not related to vowels or consonants like French. It’s just a historical rule, and we must learn it.
Next, we discover that all nouns, not just proper ones, must start with a capital letter. No explanation given for that rule either. Finally, we start on our first real sentence.
"Wéi geet et Iech?" or "How are you?" I am quite excited to finally know a full sentence of the language of the country I've been living in for more than four years. But, once again, my excitement is replaced with anxiety. It turns out that Iech is the formal version of 'you', and dir the informal one. OK, I can get that. That's like French.
Then my teacher explains that it depends on the object and the subject. So, in fact, dir is also the polite form when du is the less formal one – for example, "Wéi heescht dir/heeschs du?" At this point, I feel a very big headache coming on, and the woman next to me looks like she is about to faint.
No sympathy at home
As I leave class, I wonder if this is going to be yet another language I fail miserably to master. I need rules I can remember, but, so far, I've learnt lots of rules I am going to forget to use all the time.
At home, my linguist husband is less than sympathetic, citing English as possibly the worst language when it comes to the No Sensible Rules caveat. He reminds me British English isn't even phonetic.
Secretly, I know he thinks I shouldn't be trying to learn a new language when I still don't know French. This is regularly on display when the kids cheerily show him the bad marks they get in French when mummy helps them with their homework. He's right, to some extent. I can imagine I'll be saying "comment allez Iech" and "wéi geet et vous".
Yet I will continue. Luxembourgish is a very beautiful, soft language when spoken. Part French, part Dutch, part German, part Luxembourg itself. In fact, it's positively "tipptopp". So I ask the Luxembourgers I encounter to ignore me if I use the impolite form or say "ch" instead of "sh". Just pretend I am making sense, as I need all the encouragement I can get. In return, I will try my hardest not to completely ruin your language.
(Sarita Rao, firstname.lastname@example.org, +352 49 93 459)