The Kingdom of Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. A number of non-official, minority languages and dialects are spoken as well. Belgian French and the French spoken in northern France are almost identical, but there are a few distinct phonological and lexical differences. Almost all of the inhabitants of the Capital region speak French as either their primary language (50%) or as a second language (45%). For the most part it is identical to standard, Parisian French, but differs in some points of vocabulary, pronunciation, and semantics.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, most residents of the French-speaking part Belgium spoke both French and Walloon; thus Walloon had a large influence on Belgian French. Also, the proximity of Dutch-speaking Flanders and the Netherlands has led to a sizable lexical contribution from various Dutch dialects.
There are a few differences in pronunciation between the French spoken in France and Belgian French. Regional accents can vary from city to city, but on the whole they vary more according to one’s social class and education. Stronger accents are more typical of working-class people. On the other hand, many upper-middle-class Belgian Francophones speak with a neutral accent.
Major differences include:
Lack of ɥ (sounds like the ‘u’ in French nuit): The combination ɥi is replaced by a “wee” sound, and in other situations ɥ becomes a fully vowelled y. Thus for most Belgian speakers, the words enfuir (to run away) and enfouir (to bury) are pronounced and sound the same.
The differences between the nasal vowels /ɛ̃/ (say the ‘a’ as hat or pat, and add a slight nasal sound to it) and /œ̃/ (like the “ir” in bird, nasalized) is noticable, whereas in France these two sounds have merged. Thus, to a French person, brin (stalk) and brun (brown), sound the same, Belgians say them differently.
While long vowels are found only in closed syllables in France, Belgian French also uses them in absolute final position. As a result, almost all feminine adjectives are distinct from their masculine counterparts for Belgians.
The letter “w” is, for the most part pronounced like the “w” in English, (also in Flemish). For example, the word wagon (train car) is pronounced /vaɡɔ̃/ in Standard French, but /waɡɔ̃/ in Belgian French.
For some speakers, voiced consonants are unvoiced at the end of a word. For example:
“d” becomes “t” – grande is pronounced “grat”
“b” becomes “p” – table is prononced “tap”
“g” becomes “k”
Words which are unique to Belgian French are called Belgicisms. But basically, lexical differences between standard French and Belgian French are minor (much like the differences that might exist between American English and British English). Some of the better-known usages include:
The use of septante for “seventy” and nonante for “ninety” (in contrast to Standard French soixante-dix and quatre-vingt-dix). These words are also used in Swiss French. Unlike the Swiss, however, Belgians never use huitante in the place of quatre-vingts. Little interesting fact: septante and nonante were common in France until around the 16th century, when the composite forms began to dominate.
|English||Belgian French||Standard French|
|morning meal||déjeuner||petit déjeuner|
|evening meal (before going out)||souper||dîner/diner|
|late-evening meal (after going out)||—||souper|
Many Walloon words and expressions have crept into Belgian French, especially in eastern regions of Wallonia. Examples include Qu’à torate (a cognate of à bientôt, “see you soon”), pèkèt (jenever), barakî (similar to the word chav in British English).
Germanic influence is found in Belgian French vocabulary:
Crolle reflects the Brabantic pronunciation of the Dutch word krul (curl).
S’il vous plait is used to mean “here” (when handing someone something) as well as “please”, whereas in France the meaning is limited to “please” – and “voilà” is used for “here”. This is comparable to the use of alstublieft in Dutch.
Sûr (from Dutch zuur) means “sour”, while in France, the word acide is used.
Dringuelle, is from the Dutch drinkgeld (standard French pourboire).
Kot (student room in a dormitory) from Dutch kot.
Ring (ring road) from Dutch ring (standard French: une ceinture périphérique).
Savoir (to know) is often used in the place of pouvoir (to be able [to]).
Blinquer (to blink), instead of briller, has a German origin, through Walloon.
Germanic influence is also seen in the grammar:
Ça me goûte – I like it (only for food) comes from the Dutch construction Dat smaakt (standard French “ça me plait”)
Tu viens avec ? – literally “Are you coming with me?” is from Dutch Kom je mee? (standard French “Tu m’accompagnes ?”)
Ça tire ici (mainly said in Brussels) is from Belgian Dutch Het trekt hier (standard French “Il y a un courant d’air”, “there is a draft”)
Phrases with the construction of pour + verb is a grammatical structure coming from Dutch om te + verb ; ex : “Passe-moi un bic, pour écrire” – “Give me a pen, so that I may write” (standard French “Donne-moi un stylo, afin que je puisse écrire”).
“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça pour un animal ?” comes from the Dutch construction Wat is dat voor een dier? – “What kind of animal is this?” (standard French “Quelle sorte d’animal est-ce là ?”).
Using une fois (once) in mid-sentence (especially in Brussels). Une fois cannot really be translated in other languages; its function is to soften the meaning of the sentence. It is a direct translation of the Dutch eens. French people who want to imitate the Belgian accent often use une fois at the end of the sentences, which is often wrong. Example: Viens une fois ici – literally : “Come once here”. The English equivalent would be “Could you come here?” or “Why don’t you come here?”.