Happy Belgian National Day!

Exactly one week after Bastille Day, it’s the Belgian National Holiday!


Ok, so you probably weren’t aware of that fact. The holiday hasn’t really entered the public consciousness the way Bastille Day, or other national holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or the Fourth of July have. And I think that’s mainly because Belgium is a small country that doesn’t have such a distinctive national identity compared to other countries. And I think that in turn has a lot of to do with the fact that it’s a complex little country, linguistically.

One of the things that most annoys Belgians (and I say this having lived there for six months, so far) is when they meet foreigners, usually non-Europeans, who ask, So what language do you speak? Belgian? This is annoying you see, because there’s no such thing as the Belgian language. Sure, as in most European countries, there are plenty of obscure dialects, but the majority of the people speak two of three official languages: Dutch and French. The third language is German, which is spoken by a tiny minority of people in the east. About 60% of the population live in the Northern region, Flanders, and speak Dutch, while the French speakers live in Wallonia in the south.

I won’t get into the long history of why the situation is the way it is, mainly because I can’t fully understand or remember it anyway, but it’s an interesting situation to live in. And of course, even though I’ve lived in Wallonia, my time in Belgium is what inspired my adventures in learning Dutch via Duolingo (which are on hold while I’m back in Ireland for the summer and using pay-as-you-go broadband which makes me watch my data usage: it’s Twin Peaks that I miss the most). Even though children in each region generally learn the language of the other region in school, they don’t use that language in their everyday life, so levels vary. It’s therefore not uncommon for two colleagues in different branches of the same company to use English as a Lingua Franca.

This might partly explain why Belgians tend to have a fairly good level of English, especially in Flanders where all English-speaking films and TV programmes are subtitled rather than dubbed, and the similarities between Dutch and English help too. Sadly though, I can’t really say too much about Belgium’s contribution to the English language, as it doesn’t have its own language. I can of course look at how French and Dutch have influenced English, but there’s not much specifically Belgian.

Well, there are Belgian waffles, the popular American snack, so-called because they’re, well, from Belgium. Though in Belgium the term doesn’t really mean anything, as they have Brussels waffles (crispy and made with beer) and Liège waffles (sweeter, butterier, and breadier, and I think, much nicer). Another culinary term that doesn’t reference Belgium, but perhaps should, is French fries. There’s actually a long-running argument between France and Belgium over who invented them, with the Belgians long arguing that they did. And they are very popular there, usually eaten with mayonnaise and a sausage such as fricandelle or merguez.

Another little Belgian addition to the English language is the surname Fleming, which also refers to someone from Flanders (e.g, He’s a Fleming). Though it’s more common to say He’s Flemish. And of course Flanders itself is not an uncommon surname in English. Stupid Flanders… The noun for someone from Wallonia is Walloon, so you can see why that didn’t take off as a surname. That –loon part just sounds too silly in English, though the French term, Wallon, (like Macron) sounds much better.

So Belgium hasn’t had a huge influence on English, but at least it can lay some claim to any French- or Dutch-inspired words, and that’s a few. And it’s a lovely little country (not a city, Donald) with great beer and chocolate, and some beautiful countryside in the Ardennes and beaches on the coast. It’s also a great example of the wonderful complexity of Europe, so for that alone let’s say Bonne Fête Nationale, or Gelukkige Nationale feestdag!

23 thoughts on “Happy Belgian National Day!

  1. Great post about my home country 😀 Last week I was in the UK and had a conversation with our air bnb host about the languages in my country… he couldn’t actually figure it out so I gave him a brief lesson 🙂
    I must say that especially the Flemish speaking Belgians do try to talk other languages as opposed to the Walloons. They are more chauvinist in my opinion and often refuse to speak Dutch.
    When I was still at school, we had an exchange program with a school from Wallonia. The difference between our knowledge of French and their knowledge of Dutch was very big so we ended up speaking French all of the time…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve noticed that there’s definitely a contrast between how the inhabitants of each region speak the others’ language. I’ve met a few Walloons who felt annoyed and embarrassed at speaking Dutch worse than the Flemish speak French.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Still, at least Jonny can console himself with the fact that he was kind of right. Flamenco does actually mean flamingo in Spanish, after all. No-one’s quite sure where flamenco comes from. Some suggest it means flame-coloured, as flamingos are pink, like fire almost is, sometimes. Others suggest that, like many Spanish words, it comes from Arabic. Others still, suggest it comes from the name Fleming, which originally referred to someone from Flanders in Belgium. […]


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