Do you speak Belgian French? Non, peut-être!*

*“No, maybe!”

Mural in Bruges, Belgium (2010)From eighth grade to my senior year of high school, I studied Spanish. I chose it primarily because I thought French was prissy. Naturally, I was placed in a French-speaking country on Rotary Youth Exchange and was forced to sink or swim during a total language immersion experience. I had no background in francophone cultures or in the French language, but I found myself swimming easily after about six months and started my freshman year at the University of Vermont as an English and French double major. I was a bit nervous to volunteer to speak in my French classes, as it was comprised mainly of juniors and seniors. It was my first time having any real excitement for language learning in a classroom setting, however, so I participated in class as much as I could.

I didn’t immediately realize that the blank looks I got from my peers and, occasionally, my professors weren’t because I was a freshman in an upper level French course, but because they could hardly understand my accent. Belgian French, I was gradually told, is enormously different from “standard French,” which is the French taught in American high schools and universities. It didn’t help that I’d learned French in what we’d call in English a “back country” region of Belgium, marking my accent and my vocabulary even further. A half-American, half-French friend of mine who had grown up in France once told me that she only understood about half of what I said when we first met.

Though many accents exist across the expanse of Wallonia, the francophone southern half of Belgium, and though bruxellois is practically a dialect all its own, there are many regularities in the accent and the vocabulary of Belgian French which are easily identifiable. Here are several, some with more linguistic or grammatical focuses and some with everyday consequences when someone, such as myself, encounters a French citizen.

  1. The accent: Concerning the accent, differences between vowel sounds in Belgian French are upheld, whereas in standard French they have merged. For the French students, this means that in Belgium, mettre and maitre sound different, as do brin and brun, and peau and pot.  One of the most characteristic sounds in French, the approximant /ɥ/, does not exist in Belgian French. Additionally, the Flemish dialect has had an influence on the regional French, making some of the sounds more Anglo-Saxon than Roman. The famous French r is also more guttural rather than a light trill. For the non-linguists among us, this means to me that Belgian French sounds like a rich drawl, full of undulations and character and, quite frankly, sass. There is simply a greater variety of linguistic sounds.
  2. Walloon influences: Le wallon is a real language derived from picard and is present only in certain areas of Wallonia. It’s dying out, as it isn’t regularly spoken, but every now and then an elderly member of a small community will be fluent. Oufti, for example is a Liège exclamation expressing surprise or a kind of disbelief. “Oufti, this bag is so heavy!” Pékèt, called genièvre in French, is genever, a liquor coming in a variety of flavors (from strawberry to… cactus), of which Walloons are particularly fond.
  3. Germanic (particularly Dutch) influences: Though the linguistic border between Flanders and Wallonia is fixed, it doesn’t mean that the two languages haven’t influenced each other over the centuries of their close proximity. German influences are also present in Belgian French. Il drâche, coming from the German “dresschen,” means it’s raining hard. Dikkenek, one of my favorites, comes from the Dutch words meaning “big” and “neck,” and signifies someone with a tremendous ego. Additionally, instead of saying voici (“here you go”), Belgians say s’il vous plait, the direct equivalent of the Dutch “alstublieft.”
  4. The numbers: This might be the bane of a French tourist’s existence in Belgium. Counting in French, from fifty to ninety, goes cinquante, soixante, soixante-dix (literally sixty-ten), quatre-vingt (four twenties), and quatre-vingt-dix (four twenties and ten). Why all the random tens? Belgians don’t know, and so they leave them off, using septante for seventy and nonante for ninety instead. Tell me how that doesn’t make more sense! It makes telling tourists the bus and tram numbers that much more fun.
  5. The meals: In French, the words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are petit-dejeuner, dejeuner, and dîner. In Belgium, they are petit-dejeuner, dîner, and soûper. Coming to Belgium and to ask for a dejeuner after noon means you’ll be getting some confused looks.
  6. Other belgicismes: A couque au chocolat is what Belgians, particularly Bruxellois, will call a pain au chocolat. A chique is chewing gum. A tantôt means to see someone later in the day. A chicon is delicious, especially when baked with ham and cheese. In both standard French and in English it’s called an endive. An essuie is a towel used in the bathroom, while a serviette is a napkin used at the table — in France, a serviette is a bath towel. If you hear Belgians talking about eating américain, they’re not cannibals — filet américain is steak tartare. Getting in line in French is faire la queue, but in Belgian French it’s to faire la file. In most contexts, Belgians say savoir instead of pouvoir. To say “I can’t go to school today” in “Belgian,” you’d say je ne sais pas aller à l’école aujourd’hui. A GSM is a mobile phone and an SMS is a text — we don’t have portables (unless you’re talking about laptops) or textos. So, no, I did not get your texto on my portable.
  7. Expressions: Non peut-être?!, literally meaning “no, maybe?!” is a typically Belgian sarcastic way of saying “obviously.” Adding une fois after a conjugated verb means “once,” for example, J’ai mangé une fois chez Franz (I ate once at chez Franz). Belgians also have a habit of saying, instead of je suis allé, j’ai été, using the verb être (to be) instead of aller (to go). So Je suis allé au cinéma (I went to the movie theater) becomes J’ai été au cinéma. And nom de Dieu, the French swear meaning “in the name of God,” famously becomes nondidju. Dire quoi, as in je te dis quoi, means more or less to tell someone what’s up — if you and I want to go travel to Ghent for the day but I can’t remember if I have an appointment, I’ll tell you that I have to look at my agenda but then je te dis quoi, literally “I’ll tell you what.” To finish, here’s one of my favorites that I can never take seriously: ne pas avoir toutes ses frites dans le même sachet. It is a figurative expression meaning to be a little crazy or to have a couple of screws loose, but it literally means to not have all of your fries in the same packet.

Some of my friends who have also traveled to Belgium for their study abroad experiences have tried to avoid picking up the Belgian accent at all costs. They cherish what they think to be their pure standard French and prefer not to pick up the local dialect. I always find this a bit of a shame. Anyone can learn standard French, but when else do you have the opportunity to pick up local speech patterns? Those aren’t things that come on Rosetta Stone, and they’re an integral part of your study abroad experience. Every language varies from region to region — try telling New Yorkers and Boston residents that they have similar accents, for example. If you live with a host family or if you’ve made a few native friends, ask them what some of the particularities of the local tongue are and write them down to remember. Languages heavily reflect cultures, and becoming more intimate with the ins and outs of the local tongue will increase your knowledge of the local culture as well.

Me, I’ve been trying to get more Belgian by the day, nondidju.

Anna Weber Anna Weber is an English and French double major at the University of Vermont and is spending her junior year in Brussels, Belgium with the CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts program at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She has traveled to Greece, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, but will always call Belgium home. Read her Spotlight to find out more about her time in Belgium!

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Anna Weber

Anna studied abroad through the Rotary Youth Exchange in Lessines, Belgium in 2009-2010, and is currently abroad through CIEE in Brussels, Belgium.

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