Although French is called “the language of Molière”, we shouldn’t forget that it’s also the language of Maurice Maeterlinck and many other Belgian writers.
French, a mother tongue of 76.8 million, is used by 321 million people worldwide. It has the status of official language in 29 countries. We refer to a French-speaking person as a Francophone. Let’s take a more in-depth look into one of the dialects of that language: Belgian French.
A note (or two) about Belgian French
The French spoken in Belgium differs slightly from the one used in Paris, Lyon, or Marseille. Why is it so? The dialect borrows many words and grammatical structures from Dutch. But it isn’t the only influence. A lot of vocabulary was borrowed from local languages: Walloon, Picard, Lorrain, and Champenois.
In 1920 The Royal Academy of French Language and Literature of Belgium (fr. Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique) was found. Nowadays it’s considered the regulatory body of Belgian French. Its purpose is to bring together writers, poets, grammarians, linguists, and other professionals who can contribute to the language. Additionally, ARLLFB awards literary prizes.
Languages of Belgium
Belgium is a real multilingual paradise. The constitution of this small country grants the official status to French, Dutch, and German. Generally speaking, the North uses Dutch (a native tongue to 55% of citizens), the Center and the South – French (39%), and the eastern Walloon – German (1%).
Apart from the official ones, there are many minority languages. The Romance family is represented by Walloon, Picard, Champenois, and Lorrain. Meanwhile, Flemish, Limburgish, Low Dietsch, and Luxembourgish belong to the Germanic family.
Belgian French vs. Standard French
Is it possible to understand Belgian when you’ve learned Parisian French? Certainly, it is! However, from time to time you may get surprised by the way people speak and the expressions they use. The differences between the two accents are not big; sometimes it is compared to American and British English. Let’s learn about it!
Your first impression may tell you that citizens of Brussels and French people speak in the same way. But if you listen more carefully, you will notice small differences. Let’s take the letter “r”. In Belgian, it’s a bit stronger and more pronounced. The consonants at the end of the words also may sound distinct: “d” can be said as “t”, “b” as “p”, and “g” as “k”. The biggest contrast can be noted with the nasal vowels (“-an”, “-en”). They are longer, and you can hear the consonants in them.
We observe the growing trend of pronouncing Belgian more like Standard French, especially among young people. The older ones tend to be more conservative in their linguistic choices. It also varies depending on the region. The dialect used in Liège is considered the most distinctive one. It has slow, almost singing intonation.
The Belgian French grammar is quite similar to the standard one. There are, however, few differences due to the Germanic influences:
- If you want to ask for somebody’s company, in Brussels Capital Region you will say: “Tu viens avec?”. It’s a direct calque from Dutch language (“Kom je mee?”) In Standard French, this question will sound: “Tu m’accompagnes?”.
- If you liked the French fries (or actually: Belgian fries!) you have just finished eating in Liège, you can express your delight by saying: “Ça me goûte”. After dining in a fancy Parisian café, you would rather say: “ça me plaît”.
- If you hear “une fois” in mid-sentence, it means that you are speaking with a Belgian (or somebody who pretends to be one). This expression is a calque of Dutch “eens”. Its use may be compared to English “so”, “well”, “like”.
We left the most interesting part for the end. You may get used to the Belgian French accent and ignore strange-looking grammar constructions, but if you don’t know the vocabulary, you certainly get surprised. Let’s look into the Belgicisms (the words used only in this dialect)!
If you have ever tried to learn French, you probably noticed how difficult it is to learn numbers. Especially 70 and 90 can be tricky and require some mathematical abilities (“soixante-dix”, “quatre-vingt-dix”). Well, the good news is that they are much easier in Belgian: “septante”, “nonante”. So, imagine you want to say: 92. In the standard language you would have to count: 4 × 20 + 12 = “quatre-vingt-douze”, but speaking in the dialect you would just say: “nonante deux”.
Dining in Brussels can be tricky. If you by accident ask in French for “déjeuner” at 2 p.m., you may get startled looks (in Belgian French it means “breakfast”). To get what you want, you would have to ask for “dîner”. Is it time for dinner? Remember, it is “souper” in the dialect.
French “savoir” and “pouvoir” are two different words. They mean respectively: “to know” and “to be able”. In Belgian, it gets a little confusing, as they can be used interchangeably. Similar disorientation can be experienced with “serviette” (the French word for “towel” and “napkin”). If you ask for serviette in Brussels, you will just get a napkin.
Many words in Belgian French originate from Dutch. Some examples are: “sur” (“acid”), “dringuelle” (“tip”), “ring” (“ring road”), and “blinquer” (“to shine”). They are also quite a few expressions from Walloon: e.g. “Qu’à torate” (“see you soon”), “Qué novel?” (“what’s up”), “pèkèt” (a name of Dutch gin).
The sound of Belgian French
If you want to get familiar with the sound of Belgian French, we hardly recommend you to discover the local culture. The best way is to do it through music. Have you ever heard of Jacques Brel? His thoughtful and literate songs have earned him a place in many hearts. Do you prefer modern tunes? Stromae will be perfect for you!
If you don’t have holiday plans yet, why not visit Belgium? Apart from delicious food: Belgian fries (with sauces!), waffles and chocolate, you will meet friendly people and see remarkable architecture. And last but not least, you will have a chance to hear Belgian French spoken by natives!