Should you happen to be visiting the Brussels flea market, you may hear a strange tongue being spoken. But it’s not one of the many rich additions to the city from other countries in Europe or further afield: it’s more likely to be the language spoken right there on the square and its immediate environs: Brussels dialect.
The dialect is most commonly associated these days with the Marolles, that district in the shadow of the Palais de Justice, centred on the flea market of the Place du Jeu de Balle or Vossenplein, once the poorest area of the city, now becoming increasingly gentrified with tattoo artists, chic restaurants serving stoemp and shops selling vintage clothing and décor that used to be known as junk.
However, the tradition is being kept alive, according to Flemish Minister Sven Gatz, by people now living in the outer communes of the city such as Jette, or even in the periphery of the city in Flemish Brabant. The dialect, he says, is important “because for a large group of people in Brussels, it reflects a union between them. Maybe they weren’t aware of it back when it was more widely spoken, for which we have to go back a few decades, but now it’s spoken – maybe nowadays a bit more outside of Brussels than within the city limits. At present, you tend to find it more among people who have left Brussels for some reason, in places like Vilvoorde and so on.”
Relevance and usage in modern times
Gatz is a former member of the Flemish parliament, who left to become director of the Belgian brewers’ federation, and is now minister in the Flemish government for culture and for Brussels affairs. Born in the tiny commune of Sint-Agatha-Berchem, west of the city (also birthplace of Jean-Claude Van Damme), he was recently one of the speakers at the annual mass in the neighbouring commune of Jette, carried out in the Brussels dialect by the priest of the church of St. Peter.
“I speak it from time to time,” he explains. “When I was young, my mother was French-speaking and my father was Dutch-speaking, but tensions between the languages were tougher in those times, in the Sixties and Seventies, so my father was very strict about the standard of Dutch that we had to speak, so there really wasn’t much room for dialect in our house. But when I was out in the street playing football with my friends, then we heard quite some dialect, and so I learned it as a child by ear. The real speakers can probably hear that I maybe don’t use it every day, but I can understand when other people are using it and I am able to respond, because it gives you another possibility of relationship. But I use it maybe more as a politician than otherwise, I must confess.”
His government, Gatz says, supports the Brussels dialect via the website bebrusseleir.be, which is the main organ behind the Brussels Volkstejoêter, or Brussels People’s Theatre, currently presenting a production of Mike Leigh’s hilarious yet painful Abigail’s Party, translated into dialect for the occasion by Claude Lammens.
The group behind the website also, he says, “is the strongest group that is still working for the dialect, but there are also associations in Jette and Koekelberg and some other Brussels communes, putting out two or three magazines a year, so that way it lives on, too.” They also present an annual award for “Brusseleir van’t joêr” or Brussels person of the year, most recently awarded to representatives of the city’s emergency services – police, fire and ambulance – as a tribute to their service during the terror attacks on the metro at Maalbeek and the Brussels airport.
The Mass in the St. Peter church in Jette is held in the Brussels dialect once a year on the occasion of the Epiphany, an initiative of priest, father Dirk Vannetelbosch. “The people who come to the Brussels Mass in Jette are not all from Jette,” Gatz says. “I think they come from all over, from Brussels but also from Flemish Brabant. But Jette is, of all the 19 communes, probably the one where the Brussels dialect is still being kept alive. We still have the weekly market – a traditional Brussels market. Jette is probably the municipality where you have the kind of old-time social life. Not all the time or everywhere, but you can still hear Brussels being spoken on our streets.”
The Mass, father Vannetelbosch says, is a success because people find recognition in it. When the time comes for celebrants to give each other a hand of peace, he says, “the Frenchified people of Brussels and the French-speaking people with Flemish roots give each other a hand because they all have Brussels forefathers. Brussels dialect is not only an enjoyable dialect, it is also a way of joining different cultures together.”
The influences and origins
Brussels dialect is considered to be a branch of a dialect of Brabant, the surrounding region, mainly Flemish but heavily influenced by the importation of French words. Some claim it also has a Spanish influence, based on the history of the province, but that is barely detectable in the vocabulary. The dialect, which is still spoken, albeit by a shrinking group of city inhabitants, is marked by the pronunciation of vowel sounds on the one hand, and the adoption of French or French-sounding words on the other.
The most well-known expression, the insult “skieve archetec”, is reputed to be a response to the construction of the Palais de Justice in Brussels, which overshadowed the Marolles area quite literally, cutting off sunlight to a large part of the district. The building was designed by the architect Joseph Poelaert, himself an authentic Brusseleir who also designed the church of Our Lady in Place Sainte-Cathérine, the royal church in Laeken and oversaw the restoration of the Monnaie theatre.
In popular culture, Brussels dialect pops up in three of the Tintin cartoon albums of Hergé (born in Etterbeek), where it is spoken by native tribespeople in what appears to be South America. Hergé’s grandmother was a Marolles native. The dialect is also often used by a character in the Nero strips by the late Marc Sleen. And it has even left a mark in music, with the rock group De Fanfaar performing most (if not all) of their songs in the Brussels dialect.
Some useful phrases and expressions from the Brussels dialect
ne pei, e peike: a man, usually an older man en mei, e meike: the female equivalent ne pottepei: someone who enjoys a beer or two caliche: licorice, hence calichezap: juice of licorice, used for weak or tasteless coffee e mokke: a pleasant young woman ne fafoel: a boastful person ne kažoebereir: someone who (literally or figuratively) rifles through the rubbish