Sunday, November 18, 2012

Learn some Flemish

Flemish for Dummies.

Flemish is the Dutch that Flanders/northern Belgium (most Belgians) speaks. Interesting to me because I love languages and work for people in Flanders so I was curious. You can see and hear the cognates with both German and English, all sister languages. Dutch sounds like a mix of the two, a bit closer to German. It’s what English would have been if the Normans hadn’t invaded England.

One difference I picked up on is the Dutch on the Netherlands’ TV has an American or Irish-sounding r but Flemish Dutch r sounds more uvular like the French one.

As an outsider I wondered why Flanders isn’t part of the Netherlands next door (instead of joined with the French-speaking Walloons). My boss said never say that to a Flemish person! They want to be independent of the Walloons but be their own country, which historically in Europe is normal. ‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’ are 1870s aggregations of what were many little countries (Liechtenstein and San Marino are remnants of that). So it makes perfect sense to Europeans for their region to be a country even though the region next door is almost the same (same language, etc.). Rather like Canada and the US. Almost identical cultures (the differences such as the accents are no more really than among American regions) but I wouldn’t ask at a Canadian hockey bar why not just be American. Ethnic (family writ large) and local pride and independence are natural.

Most Dutch-speakers such as the company I work for speak very good English so when they hear broken or foreign-accented Dutch they switch to English to be helpful.

LRC’s Karen De Coster is ethnic Flemish.

Afrikaans is South African Dutch creole, still largely mutually intelligible.


  1. "‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’ are 1870s aggregations of what were many little countries"

    Italy today is still basically two different countries that can't stand each other. If memory serves, from the fall of the Roman Empire down to the 1870s, Northern Italy and the Mezzogiorno were almost never politically united, except for a very brief period under the Hohenstaufens and briefly again under the Habsburgs (both of which dynasties exercised only tenuous administrative control over Northern Italy).

    Indeed, Northern Italians' complaints about the Mezzogiorno are very similar to Flemings' complaints about Wallonia- industrious, wealthy Northerners complain about paying high taxes which then get transferred to corrupt, dysfunctional Southerners. In turn, the endemic criminality of Sicily and Calabria probably had a lot to do with the intense mistrust people there had for their new Piedmontese overlords, who were, for all intents and purposes, total foreigners.

  2. I can read Dutch quite easily (it was an official language here until the 1920s, so there are lots of archival documents in Dutch; they look a bit old-fashioned, like the King James Bible in English. But the accents and pronunciation are very different. I found it easier to communicate with Belgians -- once took a bunch of Belgian tourists on a bus tour of London, and they understood my Afrikaans commentary. But when I spoke Afrikaans to the Dutch Dutch, they just said "Dat is leuk" (That's cute).

    I once spent a vac at a Dutch Augustinian monastery, and they got me to translate stuff, and even to speak to groups of people, and I tried to put on a Dutch accent so people would understand, it was quite a strain.

    1. But when I spoke Afrikaans to the Dutch Dutch, they just said "Dat is leuk" (That's cute).

      I've heard that before. I think it's because Afrikaans sounds to them like 'Us has...' instead of 'We have...', etc.

  3. SPQRatae3:34 am

    "As an outsider I wondered why Flanders isn’t part of the Netherlands next door"
    The reason is simple. The Low Countries split on religious grounds, not linguistic grounds (Protestant north, Catholic south). Very interesting, as it is evidence that while the most significant marker of cultural identity tends to be language, religion is so deep-rooted in the human psyche it trumps even language in this respect.
    Sadly, as religion has died here (I live in Belgium, and it is no exaggeration to say that Belgium is the Quebec of Europe when it comes to the near-total collapse of Catholicism in a once deeply Catholic country), the language divide has come to the fore, and has poisoned the political scene for the last 50 years. I am convinced the country will split in our lifetimes.
    Your boss is right, Flemings would never want to join the Netherlands. Although religion is a non-issue now, they are still very different culturally.

  4. But the southern Netherlands is historically Catholic too and in other ways I understand culturally a lot like Flanders just across the border. Again I think it comes down to regions naturally being independent even though they're very similar. Like Canada and the US: on the surface they're almost indistinguishable (underneath, Canada's still British like Australia and New Zealand: America if the Revolution hadn't happened), but Canadians (partly because of that British connection) don't want to be Americans, and Flemings like my boss don't identify as Dutch. (He has Dutch as well as Flemish in his family but he's Flemish.)

  5. Anonymous6:48 pm

    Belgium was a Catholic rebellion, the fact that sections of Netherlands that were Catholic and remained Netherlands I think had to do with them having to use the borders of Austrian Netherlands (Before Netherlands took it over after the Napoleonic Wars) in the peace treaty to save Dutch face


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