Friday, August 31, 2012

Why don't the Belgians speak Belgian?

In Henry Miller's outrageous 1956 novel Quiet Days In Clichy, the following exchange takes place between a couple of American expats and a young French girl:
Before I had time to answer, the girl turned to him, and almost as if frightened, asked what language we were speaking.
"Don't you know English when you hear it?" said Carl, giving me a glance which said I told you she wasn't very bright.
Blushing with confusion, the girl explained quickly that it sounded at first like German, or perhaps Belgian.
"There is no Belgian!" snorted Carl. (...)
The truth in Carl's remark might be obvious to some, but you don't have to be ignorant or illiterate to assume that Belgians speak Belgian. To make it absolutely clear, they don't. The official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch, and German.

Why not Belgian? The answer is, as many things regarding this little country are, complicated.

In fact, there may have been a Belgian language once. It was first hypothesized by the Flemish linguist Maurits Gysseling (1919-1997). He proposed that the Belgae, a tribal people who inhabited northern Gaul around 300 B.C., spoke a language different from that of their neighbors, the Gauls, who were a Celtic people. This claim is supported by Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War, which details Caesar's conquest of, among many other tribes, the Belgae. In the Commentaries, Caesar mentions that the Gauls and the Belgae spoke different languages.

After Caesar's conquest, the Belgae became assimilated into Celtic culture, losing their language in the process. Carl is right; there is no Belgian.

So which languages do the Belgians speak, and how come?

Since Caesar first invaded Gaul, the territory we now know as Belgium has changed hands a number of times. (If you want a closer look at the region's complex history, here's an impressive timeline of the Low Countries from Wikipedia.)

Two major powers have influenced the culture and languages of the region more than any other: the Netherlands and France. This is why the northern half of Belgium (Flanders) speaks mainly Dutch, while the southern half (Wallonia) speaks mainly French.

The Belgian Revolution of 1830 gave rise to a language struggle which continues to this day. While the two language communities were roughly equal in size, the Revolution was decidedly pro-French, dominated by the French-speaking cultural elite and the then-strong economy of the industrialized, French-speaking southern part of the country. As a result of this, French became the official language of Belgium.

The Belgian Revolution of 1830 placed French firmly at the top of the
Belgian language pyramid, where it remained for almost a century.
Painting by Gustave Wappers (1803-1874).

It wasn't until the early 20th century that Dutch became the official language in the northern provinces and was also given equal status to French in the Brussels capital region. In 1962 Belgium's official language borders were defined, which significantly raised the status of the different languages in their respective areas. In addition to the French-speaking south, the Dutch-speaking north and the bilingual capital region, nine of the easternmost municipalities in Belgium now have German as an official language. They are part of the East Cantons, which were annexed from Germany after World War I.

The Belgian language may died two thousand years ago, but in the meantime, the Belgians have found no fewer than three worthy replacements. Since then, the challenge has been how, when and where to use and impose these languages. Meanwhile, the status of the Belgian regional dialects is shaky at best. But that's a story for another time.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Henry Miller on the Belgians

New column: The Saturday Brew

I'm no expert on beer, nor do I aspire to be one, but I do appreciate the fact that I now live in one of the greatest beer nations in the world, and that there are many who would give an arm (after all, you only need one to raise a glass) and a leg to be in my position to explore this wonderfully rich side of Belgian cuisine.

To satisfy the needs of the thirsty for knowledge and tips, I'm starting up a beer review column. Unsurprisingly to faithful readers, it will include plenty of background information on breweries and other interesting facts. Because I'm such a novice at the actual tasting and reviewing, I will supplement the posts with opinions from around the web, effectively crowdsourcing my reviews.

What I'm aiming for is a column you can enjoy both as a connoisseur looking for an "inside scoop" and as a casual appreciator of good beer.

Each beer will be rated Norwegian-style, using a die with a value between 1 and 6.

Opinions are highly appreciated, especially with regards to the quaint working title of the column.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jukebox Friday: Gotye - Save Me

"Save Me" is from Gotye's latest studio album, 2011's Making Mirrors. The video was released on Wednesday and has so far racked up 98,000 hits on YouTube. Will it repeat the success of "Somebody That I Used To Know" with its 297 million views? Only you and I can make that happen.

The video is mesmerizing in every way. Traditional animation is a rare treasure these days, and "Save Me" is both innovative and nostalgic in its style and execution. Please enjoy the story of two humanoid robot-like creatures that find each other in an otherwise empty world and are completely transformed by the experience.


In the mornings
I was anxious
It was better just to stay in bed
Didn't want to fail myself again

Running through all the options
And the endings
Were rolling out in front of me
But I couldn't choose a thread to begin

And I could not love
'Cause I could not love myself
Never good enough, no
That was all I'd tell myself
And I was not well
But I could not help myself
I was giving up on living

In the morning
You were leaving
Traveling south again
And you said you were not unprepared

And all the dead ends
And disappointments
Were fading from your memory
Ready for that lonely life to end

And you gave me love
When I could not love myself
And you made me turn
From the way I saw myself
And you're patient, love
And you help me help myself
And you save me,
You save me,
You save me