Is there a Belgian language?

If you are interested in the role of French in Belgium, I recommend you read my other post here. It will explain all there is to know about the French of France and of Belgium. And if you are thinking of moving to Brussels, you can read this article.

The role of French in Belgium today

The French of Belgium is the same as in France. There are no words or verbs you have to re-learn or prepare for. If you know French, you will switch from one country to the other as if there wasn’t even a border.

French will be like your driver’s license. It serves just as well in any country. You don’t have to re-learn how to use the roads or understand what the traffic lights mean.

Since the creation of Belgium in 1830, standard French has been the official language. You read right: Belgium was only “invented” 200 years ago and since that time there has been no other official version of French.

(Picture: Belgian newspaper from 1945. Written in perfect standard French)

What of the dialects?

After 1830, “proper” standard French was used by the educated classes while the lower classes spoke Walloon, French (to varying degrees) or a mixture of French and Walloon. This brilliant article tells us that as late as 1920, it is thought that 80% of all Belgians still spoke Walloon at home and with local institutions.

It is hard to account for which “version” of French people spoke at home until 1914 when school was made compulsory. School had the effect of strongly standardizing the use of “correct” French. Education, job interviews and work in larger towns generalized the subsequent use of proper French.

Long before this date and all the way back to the Middle Ages, there was however a “Walloon” language that was spoken on the territory of Belgium. This was a dialect without an official grammar and which varied from one area to the next.

The Walloon language in Belgium today

The Walloon language partly survived the law on compulsory schooling in 1914.

As of 2024, official numbers suggest as many as 300,000 speakers of Walloon in Belgium. This should be understood as “second language users” on top of French.

This number should be taken with caution due to Walloon being a matter of personal pride, liable to inflate the estimates. The definition applied to “speaker of Walloon” also influences the results.

Who speaks Walloon fluently?

It remains hard to picture a fluent user of Walloon who isn’t of advanced years and who hadn’t grown up in very isolated conditions.

Those claiming to “know” Walloon often use a few handfuls of words, and in the best cases a few hundred. Rarely the full language.

(Picture: This poster for conversations in Walloon seems to indicate efforts to keep it alive in non-organic conditions by an older population.)

The Walloon language in use today is often made up of ready-made phrases, proverbs and expressions that are repeated rather than rationalized and expanded-upon. It is highly unlikely that more than a handful of passionate learners of Walloon have brought the language to the same level of complexity as their native French.

In an improbable scenario, a Belgian child would have to switch to Walloon the second they got home from school to speak with their fluent parents. In all likelihood, the decreasing use of the public space by younger generations strongly acts against the organic spreading of Walloon.

For those curious, the following online dictionary will provide quality translations into Walloon.

Belgian variations of the French from France

Despite the homogeneity of the French language, there are local words and even local accents in parts of Belgium.

But as for all accents, this is largely dependent on the image that a person wishes to put forward.

Yet, whatever the accent (Ardennes, Namur, Liege…) it would not be prominent enough for a non-native to pick up on it. To the untrained ear it would just sound like plain French.

In terms of lexicon, there are lists that contain words of French that only Belgians use. The obstacle to finding any relevance in such lists is that they are often exaggerated for the purpose of entertaining the reader.

(Picture: Books such as these suggest a step aside from a “proper” French norm. The word “belgicism” contains a negative connotation which generations of Belgians understand as”inferior to France”)

Journalists will point out that Belgians use the word Bic to refer to a pen while the French say “stylo”. However, the same “error” is found in English with the words Kleenex, Tupperware and Hoover. This argument of “incorrect Belgian French” soon falls flat since the French do the same with the word “Carte Bleue” to signify “credit/debit card”.

Calling objects by their brand is rather a phenomenon of linguistics than truly a deformation of the proper French norm.

Examples of Belgian French to know

The three main grammatical differences with the French from France can be found in numbers (1), the modal verb SAVOIR (2) and in the passé composé of ETRE (3).

1. Numbers: The most noticeable difference with France is in the numbers 70 and 90. France says soixante-dix and quatre-vingt dix but Belgium says septante (70) and nonante (90). Luxembourg and Switzerland do this also.

2. Modal verbs: There is also the use of “SAVOIR” (“to know” in the sense of having knowledge) that is sometimes used to replace POUVOIR (can).

For example, to ask:“Can you tell me where the station is?” a Belgian might say: “Savez-vous me dire ou est la gare?

Instead of asking someone if they have the ability (POUVOIR) we are asking them if they have the knowledge (SAVOIR)

SAVOIR is also used when we cannot perform a physical task. Instead of saying “I can’t be there” with the verb POUVOIR, Belgians will use SAVOIR: “Je ne sais pas être là.” (In the case of an appointment we cannot attend)

3. Passé Composé: Belgians often replace ALLER by ETRE in the passé composé. To say “I went there.” they will rather say “I have been there”.


1. The French way: “Je suis allé au magasin.” – “I went/I have gone” with the verb ALLER (= to go)

2. The Belgian way: “J’ai été au magasin.” – “I have been” with the verb ETRE (= to be)
This variant of the passé composé of ALLER is not done by all Belgians and not in all cases either. It will be dependent on the individual speaker.

Examples of the “proper” Belgian French

The somewhat ill-defined “Belgian French” should be understood as nouns (naming words) or expressions (phrases) that will be heard only in Belgium.

Within this, we have a classification ranging from “very informal” to “extremely formal”. One such example is the school vocabulary.

Since Belgium does not follow the French system of Collège, Lycée and Bac, there is no reason for a Belgian to say: “Après le collège, je suis allé au lycée pour obtenir mon Bac.” (After middle school I went to highschool to graduate)

Primary school in Belgium is called Les primaires, while middle and high school is simply called Les humanités.

Similarly, the local council (town hall) is not called La mairie simply because there are no “mairies” in Belgium. The French “mairie” finds its equivalent in “La commune” in Belgium. And the French “maire” is called Le/La bourgmestre because Belgium does not follow a political structure that elects mayors.

This Belgian lexicon should not be seen as a sidestep from the French norm but rather as a perfectly legitimate use of French to describe a Belgian reality.

(Picture: On the left, a Belgian maison communale desribes a Begian reality and is not a lesser version of the French mairie.)

Examples of “lower-level” Belgian French

Digging deeper into “Belgian French”, we will find large numbers of words that are derived from Walloon, but also from English and Dutch. This is where Belgian French gets informal.

1. An example of Belgian French that derives from “proper French” is the expression “Non, peut-être?” (No, perhaps?).

The words “Non peut-être?” are entirely French but are reassembled in a Belgian way. The expression is used as a way to say “You betcha!” and can be undestood as “You think I’m going to say no to that?!” (I’d be a fool to say no)

(Picture: A Belgian micro-brewerey called their beer “Non peut-être” to underline their belonging to a certain tradition. The name could translate as: “You think I’m going to say no to that?”)

2. The Belgian expression “en stoemeling” is borrowed from Dutch patois (informal Flemish/plattevlaams/vloms) and means “in a sneaky sort of way”.

When a Belgian communicates that something was done in the shadows they will sometimes add “en stoemeling”. (Behind one’s back) The expression is on the higher echelon of acceptable informal French!

(Picture: Marriage for everyone celebrates 20 years. “It grew quietly. Almost behind everyone’s back. Taken from la DH newspaper, 2023) Link.

3. The Belgian word for chocolate croissant (pain au chocolat) is sometimes called “une couque” and is taken from the Dutch word “koek” meaning “a cake”. The brand “couque de Dinant” refers to a specialty biscuit from the town of Dinant, birthplace of the saxophone.

(Picture: a bakery in Dinant selling Couques de Dinant)

Below, we see the Dutch word “koek”, an illustration of a Couque de Dinant and Meli’s honey sponge cake written in two languages: “honningkoek” and “couque au miel”.

As improper as the word “couque” sounds to some delicate ears, we must underline that even the French find themselves entangled in a nationwide squabble surrounding the same word. Chocolatine vs pain au chocolat!

4. Lastly, there are the influences of either Walloon or Brusseleir that can be heard in Belgian French among locals.

The words “rawette” or “chouia” refer to “a little quantity more”. To say “You can still move your car forward half an inch” Belgians might say: “Tu peux encore avancer d’un chouia”.

The French from Brussels (Brusseleir) can be heard in such verbs as “sketter” to signify “to damage”.

To say: “He damaged my bike I lent him”, some Belgians will say: “Imma sketté mon fiets que j’lui avais prêté”

Examples of the French from Brussels

The French from Brussels can be described as French pronounced with a Dutch intonation to which many Flemish words were added. It survives in a few idioms and sparse words which the Brussels locals enjoy placing to mark their belonging or for comical effect.

Examples include:

1. Je naime pas ce peï. (I don’t like that guy)
2. C’est qui cette meï? (Who is that girl?)
3. Quel dikkenek! (What a show-off!)
4. J’ai fait ca au vogelpik. (I just winged it)

(Picture: The “vogelpik” is the Dutch word for darts board. To say that we did something in the manner of a vogelpik means that we just threw a dart at random and hoped for the best.)

To get a feeling for this “light” version of Bruxellois, nothing better than to watch one of the two famous plays Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans or Bossemans and Coppenolle. Both can esaily be found on Youtube, though I personally recommend this one and this one.

The plays serve as an illustration to which point the “genuine” Brussels accent has disappeared. Recordings of modern-day actors (post-1990) fail to reproduce the true accent as it can be heard in 1970s recordings. The resulting efforts make the language sound forced and clownesque.

(Picture: actors from the play “Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans” who still had the genuine accent)

These plays remain “proper French” into which elements of Dutch grammar were added, as well as Dutch vocabulary and a typical Brussels musicality in the intonation.

How opaque was the Brusseleir language?

Depending on the source we consult, there are different definitions for the Brusseleir patois. There is a spectrum of intensity that ranges from approachable to opaque.

Pushed to its full force, it rather resembles Dutch in which we recognize the occasional French word. In its lighter version, it sounds like French with words of Dutch. (Such as the two plays already mentioned)

The examples above qualify as the “light” version of Brusseleir. Even this type of accent would be considered very much out of the norm in today’s Brussels.

In its pure form, the “undiluted” version of Brusseleir would not be understandable for a speaker of standard French:

Na mooie ni paaze da’k ee da poèzeke em zitte deklameire. Allien mo vè aile t’amuzeire Neineie… ik em aile wille demonstreire…” (Example taken from Wikipedia)

To conclude on the French of Belgium

As we saw throughout these examples, there isn’t exactly a French of Belgium. In terms of a percentage, there would be less of a difference with France than there is between the UK and the United States. Same English, just different terms.

1. On the first level, we find the words that describe the Belgian reality. Instead of the French “Gasoil”, Belgians say “Diesel” – just like the UK say “petrol”and th US say “Gas”. No side is right or wrong – just different uses.

2. The second level down contains expressions and sayings that are only heard in Belgium. However, these are occasional and always embedded in a “proper” French sentence. They are not used by the whole Belgian population. For example: “Il drache” instead of “Il pleut” (it is raining)

3. Third level down we have the patois that is mixed with standard French. It might be words or full sentences taken from Walloon or Brusseleir. For example: “Amaï! Ton mur est complètement schieve”. (Your wall is completely crooked)

On this third level, we might also encounter words of modern-day Dutch thrown in for comical effect. “Demande à ta moeke.” (Ask your mum) “On va se prendre une pintje ou quoi?“(What do you say to a pint?) J’ai foncé dans le mur. Pataat! (I rammed into the wall. Bang!)

Wherever your travels to Belgium take you, rest assured that your French will comfortably cover all your needs for communication!

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