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Brussels language pâté

March 2, 2012

I have just returned from Brussels, where I have not been since I visited my uncle there as a teenager. I knew Belgium was a bi-lingual country of course, but I have just witnessed the real impact of this on the professionals who work there.

I was delivering a series of short workshops on professional writing at the Brussels office of a UK law firm. As soon as the delegates started arriving, I heard three languages effortlessly mingled. Everyone seemed to me to be able to speak perfect French and Flemish and used them alternately depending on who they were talking to. When they addressed me they slipped into English which was in most cases almost as perfect.

Now think about their working lives. Lawyers here in the UK have a lot to deal with – but they only have to do it in one language! A first language Flemish lawyer in Brussels has to talk and write about legal issues in both French and English. They have to remember which is which of the ‘false friends’ such as eventual and eventuel; actuel and actual; and sensible and sensitive. That’s hard enough when you are just dealing with your first and second language let alone your second and third. Oh and by the way I discovered a new ‘false friend’. The word ‘acteur’ is used in business French to mean ‘representative’ or ‘stakeholder’. I guess we would sometimes use ‘player’ which would be a close equivalent but the direct translation to ‘actor’ simply does not work.

In the Brussels law firm, multiple languages are not worthy of comment, they are just part of life. Before you can start work, you have to speak three languages more fluently than most first language English people can speak two. And just think for a moment about the problems of having to translate practically every document before it can become legally binding.

I was lost in admiration. But as a linguist, I was also envious. In my daily life, I almost never have the opportunity to read or hear French or Spanish. Television here is all English, in Brussels there are French, Flemish and English channels at the touch of a remote button. I happily watched a stupid game show just to listen to the fast colloquial French. Where in England can I do that?

This is not an entirely rhetorical question. Do you happen to know of an internet radio station that you would recommend for learning South American Spanish? If so, please let me know.

PS As you see in the picture praline makers, like grocers, get confused by apostrophes. What language is this sign in as a matter of interest?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Phillip Sheahan permalink
    March 2, 2012 10:09

    A fascinating article, Jane. Thank you. As to the sign … perhaps it hangs from a shop run by the ‘Brussel’ family, then all could be explained and forgiven, for that would make sense in any of the three languages. Oui? Or perhaps the owner is a grocer at heart.

    • Mike Taylor permalink
      April 5, 2012 08:41

      If it were run by the Brussel family then it would be run by the Brussels so that would make it “Brussels’ Pralines” but Brussel’s Pralines would do if it were run by just Mr or Ms Brussel alone. Let’s face it however we’re all being a bit too charitable; the shopkeeper is just guilty of trying too hard and got it wrong. If in doubt, stick in an apostrophe. Anywhere. Just as they do in the UK.
      On a related theme (Belgium) I have lost count of the number of times I have seen and heard “Belgium chocolates” or “Belgium cheese”. It’s Belgian ! There is even a large shop sign near the Grand’ Place in Brussels offering “Belguim Beer”

  2. Bessel Dekker permalink
    March 2, 2012 16:39

    Since “Brussel” is the Dutch-language equivalent of “Brussels”, and “pralines” for luxury chocolates, this might very well be Dutch. The apostrophe-s for the possessive is contested in that language, but in proper names it does occur fairly regularly.

    • March 3, 2012 02:47

      Thank you Bessel! I had no idea that Dutch used the possessive apostrophe. I am sorry that I maligned the writer of that sign. I get so used to misplaced apostrophes in England that it just looked to me like a grocer writing Brussel’s sprouts (which I have seen).

      • Bessel Dekker permalink
        March 3, 2012 11:02

        To be fair, Freshword, many Dutch language authors would disapprove of the apostrophe-s here, too. And yes, it is not surprising that you have seen “Brussel’s sprouts”.
        One general conclusion might be that in such cognate languages as English and Dutch, the distinction between apostrophe-s and solid -s is difficult for many people, not only, of course, greengrocers.

  3. Mike Taylor permalink
    April 5, 2012 08:55

    Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end or even begin there. A number of educated francophone Belgians even have a hard time with their own language. Best/worst example: “je l’ai besoin”/”tout ce que j’ai besoin. I just have to sit there and bite my tongue (or lose many of my friends).

  4. April 5, 2012 09:43

    Thank you for your comments, and now I now who you are! Alan enjoyed meeting you at the weekend and had reported to me on your comments about misuse of ‘besoin’. I bite my tongue when I hear ‘I feel like I’ve run a marathon’. But my tongue is getting so sore I am going to have to stop.

    • Mike Taylor permalink
      April 5, 2012 09:52

      Thanks Jane, I could tell from Alan’s incredulous expression on Saturday night that my news of the abuse of “besoin de” would filter back to you pretty quickly ! As for the misuse of the subjective, or rather its absence, even after “dommage que”, don’t get me started.


      Apostrophe terrorist (II)

      • Mike Taylor permalink
        April 5, 2012 09:56

        I’ve done it again (typing faster than I can think). For “subjective” please read “subjunctive”. Obviously. Literally. Actually.

  5. Mike Taylor permalink
    April 5, 2012 10:01

    Regarding hispanic FM radio stations I suggest you first choose your preferred accent and usage (vos in Argentina perhaps, or maybe not ?), then choose the capital city of the corresponding country and google FM radio accordingly.

  6. meerveld permalink
    December 15, 2012 13:27

    Flemish? In Flanders people speak dutch. Like in Austria people speak german instead of austrian.

    • Mike Taylor permalink
      January 24, 2013 10:44

      I’m sure that many educated, professional, people will have diverging, sometimes partisan, opinions on this subject but in my experience “Dutch” (ABN=Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands= General Civilized Dutch) is taught in Belgian schools while Flemish is spoken in many Belgian homes (and school playgrounds). ABN is the politically correct version while Flemish, of which there are several dialects, not all mutually understandable, is what is spoken.

      By the way, a surprising number of my educated (francophone) Belgian friends insist that the language spoken in the USA is American. I put a stop to that by pointing out to them that we are having that conversation in French not Belgian. Nevertheless I see many a “French” book “traduit de l’américain” or “australien” or “sudafricain” depending on the nationality of the author. I must check out what they say for Salman Rushdie’s works.

    • January 28, 2013 09:56

      When I was in Brussels, I told a local that I could not hear the difference between Dutch and Flemish. He spent the next ten minutes pointing out the differences. I accept that they were mainly to do with local usage and dialect of the Dutch language – but does that not nonetheless make it legitimate to refer to speakers of Flemish? Glaswegians read and write English. Most of them can speak English that is comprehensible to foreigners from England when they want to, but they can also speak Glaswegian that is not!

      • Mike Taylor permalink
        January 28, 2013 10:22

        It doesn’t take long listening to both versions to notice the difference and distinguish one from the other. The local trick is simply to zap from Flemish TV to Dutch TV, for example at news time, and the difference becomes apparent, probably even to a total non-Dutch/Flemish speaker.

        Afrikaans is another matter. I’ve seen Afrikaners on Dutch TV complete with subtitles…in Dutch.

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