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Belgian French (French: français de Belgique) is the variety of French spoken mainly among the French Community of Belgium, alongside related Oïl languages of the region such as Walloon, Picard, Champenois and Lorrain (Gaumais). The French language spoken in Belgium differs very little from that of France or Switzerland. It is characterized by the use of some terms that are considered archaic in France, as well as loanwords from languages such as Walloon, Picard and Dutch.
French is one of the three official languages of Belgium alongside Dutch and German. It is spoken natively by around 39% of the population, primarily in the southern region of Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region.
While a number of oïl languages have traditionally been spoken in different areas of Wallonia, French emerged as the regional language of literature in the 13th century. That was a result of heavy French cultural influence on the region over the past few centuries. The diversity of local languages influenced French in Wallonia, with words from Walloon, Picard, Champenois and Lorrain making their way into the local variant. Until the 20th century, Walloon was the majority language of Wallonia, and most speakers were bilingual in both French and Walloon.
While the French spoken in Wallonia was influenced by local languages, the variant spoken in Brussels was influenced by Dutch, specifically the local Brabantian dialect. The city, geographically in the Flanders region, originally spoke only Dutch. However, a gradual Francisation began in the 19th century and intensified the end of the century and continued throughout 20th century. Today, many Dutch expressions have been translated into French and are used in the language in the Brussels area.
There are a few consistent phonological differences between the French of France and Belgian French but usually no more than the differences between regional dialects within France (or the ones that exist between in the English of Toronto and Vancouver, for instance), which might be even nonexistent. Regional accents however, can vary from city to city (the Liège accent being an example). However on the whole, accents may vary more according to one's social class and education.
While stronger accents have been more typical of working-class people, they have become much less pronounced since World War I and the widespread use of television, which have helped to standardize accents and the types of words used by speakers. Francophones are taught standard French pronunciation. The following differences vary by speakers, according their level of education, age, and native region.
- The lack of the approximant /ɥ/. The combination /ɥi/ is replaced by /wi/, and in other cases, /ɥ/ becomes a full vowel /y/. Thus, for most Belgian speakers, the words enfuir (to run away) and enfouir (to bury) are homophones.
- The nasal vowels are pronounced like in France. /ɑ̃/ → [ɒ̃], /ɛ̃/ → [æ̃], /ɔ̃/ → [õ]. The distinction between the nasal vowels /ɛ̃/ and /œ̃/ is upheld in Belgian French, but in many regions of France, these two sounds have merged. Thus, in Parisian French, brin (stalk) and brun (brown) are pronounced the same, but they are still distinguished in Belgian French.
- The distinction between the vowels /ɛ/ and /ɛː/ is upheld, but in France, they have merged. The words mettre (put) and maître (master) are still distinguished in Belgian French.
- The distinction between the vowels /o/ and /ɔ/ is upheld in final open syllables, the words peau (skin) and pot (jar) being pronounced differently. They are pronounced the same in the French of France and in Quebec French.
- A stronger distinction exists between long and short vowels.
- While long vowels are constrained to closed syllables in French of France, Belgian French also has them in absolute final position: ⟨ée⟩, ⟨aie⟩ [eː]#, ⟨ue⟩ [yː]#, ⟨ie⟩ [iː]#, ⟨oue⟩ [uː]# and ⟨eue⟩ [øː]#. As a result, almost all feminine adjectives are phonetically distinct from their masculine counterparts for Belgians.
- The marginal phoneme /ɑ/ is usually pronounced as a lengthened version of /a/: [aː].
- The letter "w" is almost always pronounced as /w/, like in English, which also approximates the Flemish "w". In France, it is often pronounced /v/, as in German. For example, the word wagon (train car) is pronounced /vaɡɔ̃/ in France but /waɡɔ̃/ in Belgian French.
- For some speakers, final stops are devoiced: "d" becomes "t", "b" becomes "p" and "g" becomes "k". Combined with the dropping of consonants in final consonant clusters, that causes pronunciations like [ɡʁɒ̃ːt], instead of [ɡʁɒ̃ːd] ("grande"), and [taːp], instead of /tabl/ ("table").
Certain accents, such as certain urban accents (notably those of Brussels and Liège as well as the accents of older and particularly less-educated speakers, show a greater deviation from the pronunciation of France. For example, in the dialect in and around Liège, particularly for older speakers, the letter "h" is pronounced in certain positions, but it is never pronounced in Standard French. The dialect is also known for its slow, slightly singing intonation, a trait that is even stronger to the east, in the Verviers area.
Words unique to Belgian French are called "Belgicisms" (French: belgicismes). Incidentally, the term is also used to refer to Dutch words used in Belgium but not in the Netherlands. In general, the upper-middle class and well-educated Belgian Francophones understand the meaning and use of words in standard French, and they may also use standard French if they speak with a non-Belgian who speaks in standard French, as their accent hints. Overall, the lexical differences between standard French and Belgian French are minor (akin to the differences that might exist between two well-educated American English speakers living in different parts of the United States or a well-educated Canadian English speaker and a well-educated British English speaker, for instance).
Furthermore, in many instances, the same speakers would be well aware of the differences and might even be able to "standardize" their language or use each other's words to avoid confusion. Even so, there are too many forms to try to form any complete list in this article. Some of the better-known usages include the following:
- The use of septante for "seventy" and nonante for "ninety", in contrast to Standard French soixante-dix (literally "sixty-ten") and quatre-vingt-dix ("four-twenty-ten"). The former words occur also in Swiss French. Unlike the Swiss, however, Belgians never use huitante for quatre-vingts ("four twenties"). Although they are considered Belgian and swiss words, septante and nonante were common in France as well until around the 16th century, when the newer forms began to dominate.
- The words for meals vary, as described in the table below. The usage in Belgian, Swiss, and Canadian French accords with the etymology: déjeuner comes from a verb meaning "to break the fast". In Standard French, however, breakfast is rendered by petit déjeuner. Souper is instead used in France to refer to a meal taken around midnight, after the opera, the theatre or a similar event at night.
English Belgian, Swiss, and Canadian French Standard French breakfast déjeuner/petit déjeuner petit déjeuner lunch/dinner dîner déjeuner dinner/supper souper dîner late-evening meal/supper N/A souper
- Many Walloon words and expressions have crept into Belgian French, especially in the eastern regions of Wallonia:
- Germanic influences are also visible:
- Crolle ("curl") reflects the Brabantic pronunciation of the Dutch word krul.
- S'il vous plaît is used to mean "here" (when someone is handed something) as well as "please", but in France, the meaning is limited to "please", "voilà" is used for "here". That is comparable to the use of alstublieft in Dutch.
- Sur (from Dutch zuur) means "sour", but in France, the word acide is used.
- Dringuelle (Standard French "pourboire"), "tip", from the Dutch word drinkgeld, but it is less commonly used in Brussels.
- Kot (student room in a dormitory) from Belgian Dutch "kot".
- Ring (ring road) from Dutch "ring". In Standard French, the term is "une ceinture périphérique" ou "un périph’".
- Savoir (to know) is often used in the place of pouvoir (to be able [to]). It was quite common, however, in older forms of French.
- Blinquer (to shine), instead of briller, has a German origin through Walloon.
- Bourgmestre (mayor), instead of maire.
Belgian French grammar is usually the same as that of Standard French, but Germanic influences can be seen in the following differences:
- Ça me goûte, Standard French "ça me plaît", "I like it" (only for food), is a calque of Dutch Dat smaakt: Spanish 'me gusta'.
- Tu viens avec ?, Standard French "Tu m'accompagnes?", literally "Are you coming with?" (meaning "Are you coming with me?"), is a calque of Dutch Kom je mee?.
- Ça tire ici (used mostly in Brussels, Standard French "Il y a un courant d'air") "There is a draught", is a calque of the Belgian Dutch Het trekt hier.
- Phrases like pour + V : "Passe-moi un bic, pour écrire (Standard French "Donne-moi un stylo afin que je puisse écrire") "Give me a pen, so that I can write / for me to write", is a grammatical structure found in Dutch ("om te +V").
- "Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça pour un animal ?" Standard French "Qu'est-ce que c'est comme animal ?" / "Quelle sorte d'animal c'est ?", "What kind of animal is this?" (literally, "What is that for an animal?"), Dutch "Wat is dat voor een dier?"
- The use of une fois ("once") in mid-sentence, especially in Brussels, is a direct translation of Dutch "eens". French people who want to imitate the Belgian accent often use a lot of "une fois" at the end of the sentences, which is often wrong: "Viens une fois ici, literally from the Dutch : "Kom eens hier" ("Come once here"). "Une fois" cannot really be translated in other languages; its function is to soften the meaning of the sentence. The English equivalent would be "Could you come here?" or "Why don't you come here?".
- Jouer poker ("Standard French "Jouer au poker") "Play poker" is influenced by the Dutch Poker spelen.