Belgium’s Bilingualism is perhaps its most well known trait, with the added irony being that there are actually three official languages. Brussels is often understood to be French speaking by the outside world, despite being officially bilingual. The reason for this is long and nuanced, and if ever I want to offend tons of people I’ll try to write about it. It seems that everyone has their own interpretation of events, with the one constant being that the city of Brussels was once ‘Flemish’ speaking.
But that’s not even scratching the surface. Belgium’s provinces have radically different histories, and the country itself did not pursue the romantic 19th century ideal of a monolingual nation-state as aggressively as just about every other country in Europe, and this has led to a linguistic diversity that few European countries can claim. In fact it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the Flemish region united around one language, and even this contentious act took nearly a decade before an agreement was reached. They eventually settled on officially calling their language Dutch, foregoing other names like ‘Diets’ and ‘Flemish’.
So expats know it as Dutch, when the reality is that, although a General Dutch (Algemeen Nederlands or AN) exists, Flemish dialects differ tremendously. So much so that some dialects are subtitled when spoken on television… for other Flemish speakers. The differences are so pronounced that Flemish speakers can generally identify which province their interlocutor comes from within seconds of speaking with them. While you may be thinking that every country has dialects, I can assure you that Flemish takes it to an extreme. To illustrate this I’ll go down the list.
West Flemish or West-Vlaams: the subtitled ones
West Flanders, the province of Brugge and Kortrijk is like another planet linguistically speaking. It goes beyond a few odd words and pronunciations here and there, no, West-Flemish has a host of syntactic phenomena that are unique to west-Flemish and west Flemish alone. Syntactic clitics used for agreement, and negation make use of hyper complex linguistic rules. This arose largely in the same way a town like Brugge did. When the canals around brugge became too hard for boats to pass through the region became isolated from the world, creating a linguistic time capsule around an area sitting firmly between germanic and latin languages, that had had access to the entire world in the form of trade for hundreds of years. The resultant dialect is a perfect storm of multiple influences and nuances being compounded in an echo-chamber for 30 generations. This is the reason these people must be subtitled.
Do Say: “ ‘k Zy joe ghèèrn” – I love You
Don’t Say: “ ’k Verstoa je nie” – I don’t understand you
Brabantian or Brabants
These are the dialects from the east side of the Schelde. The river that separated Gaul from the Germanic empires. This area did not become economically relevant until several hundred years after the rise of Flemish provinces (East and West Flanders). These are the dialects from which General Dutch are based on, this is a testament to the consolidation of cultural power in the Brabantian city of Antwerp, and for this reason a city many outside of it see as having a seemingly endless appetite and ego to match.
Among the Brabantian dialects is Brusseleir, a Brussels hybrid that is on the brink of extinction. Below is a video of Eddy Merckx reciting a famous fable in Brusseleir.
Merckx speaking Brusseleir
Limburger or Limburgs: They Came from the East
Limburg is an interesting example because it is a region split into two provinces between two countries. Limburgs is the most germanic of the Flemish dialects. Limburgs has deep rhotic R sounds, they use words like the german ‘Ich’ for ‘I’ instead of the standard Dutch ‘Ik’, and it is thought to be spoken a bit slower. This last point forms the most telltale stereotype of people from De Limburg.
To make this even more complex, the dialectical divisions within these provinces are often so pronounced that Flemish speakers are able to identify the village or town of their interlocutor, with some towns speaking dialects that are so peculiar they become known to all of Flanders, the town of Aalst aka Oilsjt being a classic example. While people may speak some version of a standard language at work or in mixed company traces of these dialects are visible in most people’s accents.
Yes it is a bit convoluted and complex, but it’s just one of the many things that makes Belgium unique and interesting. It is an aspect of the local culture that often goes overlooked by expats in Brussels, and yet it is one of Belgium’s most remarkable traits.