Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Do you speak Belgian?

Elise and I come from Belgium.

Well, that's not entirely true, as I was born in Wales, where I lived for the first nine years of my life, after which I lived in England until I moved to Belgium when I was almost twenty-three. However, having then spent the next thirty-five years of my life in Belgium, before moving to Spain, I feel almost entitled to write that I, too, come from Belgium and I'm proud to be able to write it, too.

Anyway, I am amazed at how many people who, upon first meeting us, ask us if we speak Belgian. And then, when we explain that there is no such language, they seem to have great difficulty in accepting that a country called Belgium does not have a language called Belgian, as if Brazil has a language Brazilian, or Canada a language Canadian, or New Zealand perhaps New Zealandian… Admittedly, Americans speak a strange sort of English, but their language remains English, even if their accent and usage is American.

Well, Belgium is rather like that, as far as language is concerned, except that things are rather more complicated, especially for such a very small country. You see, there are three official languages in Belgium: Dutch (spoken by some 60% of the population), French (roughly 38%), and German (some 2%).

Dutch is spoken in the northern part of Belgium, in the area known as Flanders. The sort of Dutch that is spoken there, with its typical accents and usage, is often referred to as Flemish, but it really is Dutch and don't let anyone tell you different.

French is spoken in the southern part of Belgium, in the area known as Wallonia. Wallonian French has, again, its own accents and usages, but it remains French.

German is spoken in a very small part of Belgium, close to the border with Germany. This part of Belgium actually belongs to the political region that corresponds to Wallonia, but don't let this confuse you—Belgian politics, particularly when related to language borders and usage is a minefield that requires an expert in hieroglyphics to decipher and understand.

So, no, we do not speak Belgian. Our first language, at least as far as Belgium is concerned, is Dutch, though we can also get by in French (with hairs on) and German (even hairier).

Indeed, nobody speaks Belgian.

Even people who have some idea of Belgium are often very confused abut its use of language. Many believe it to be a French-speaking country, whereas it is primarily Dutch- speaking, of course. In the early 1960s, one of my Geography masters explained to the class that Belgium was French-speaking, but that some uneducated, illiterate peasants still spoke a dialect called Flemish (it was the same Geography master that threw me out of the class for arguing with him that Monmouthshire was in Wales and not England). Educational nonsense was not confined to the UK side of the Channel, however: my Belgian wife, when at school at about the same time, was taught that Wales was a county in England… So much for schools.

(The photo shows the Belfort (bell tower) in Gent (Ghent) with Sint Baaf's cathedral in the background.)

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