Petit manuel de Belge

One of the things that fascinates me about international languages (English, French, Spanish, I suppose you could throw Portuguese in there but I’m less familiar with it) is all the variation that goes on between different countries that use them, all the little additions, subtractions, variations and borrowings that create unique dialects that countries can claim as their own, while continuing to identify (and communicate with) the larger, globalized English-, French-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking communities.

A few examples of how this works, based on my experiences in various French-speaking countries:

When I blog in French, because I learned Quebecois French originally, I use the word blogue. But my French and Belgian readers see that as a spelling error– they write blog, straight from English.

mobile phone is a portable in France and Switzerland, a cellulaire in Quebec and a GSM in Belgium.

An email is a courriel (short for “courrier éléctronique”) in Quebec. In Europe, courriel and mail, sometimes spelled mél, are used interchangeably.

tiny, one-room student apartment is a studio just about everywhere else, but a kot in  Belgium–a loan word from Dutch, I suppose? Flatmates are called colocs in the rest of Francophone Europe, but cokotteurs (men) or cokottières (women) in Belgium, and the verb koter means “to room.” “Je kotte avec tel” = “I room with so-and-so.”

big party is normally called a fête or a soirée. In Quebec these terms are also used, albeit pronounced a bit differently, but you might also hear parté or veillée (when staying up all night is involved). The verb veiller can mean “to party” in Quebec, while in standard French it means “to stay up all night” regardless of the reason, or “to be watchful.” Some young adults in France will talk about a teuf (fête backwards). In Belgium, it’s la guindaille, the verb guindailler means to go out partying. 

Pronunciation: In France and Quebec, the “s” at the end of a geographical name is silent– the whole world knows that Paris is pronounced “Paree.” But in Belgium and Switzerland, the S stays– Anvers, the French name for the Belgian city of Antwerp, is “An-verse.”

Civility: What does one say after someone else says “thank you?” In standard French, “de rien” (“It’s nothing”) or in more casual situations, something breezy like “il y a pas de quoi” ou “pas de soucis” (“no worries”). However, in Quebec you’re just as likely to hear “bienvenue” (Literally, “you’re welcome”, likely a back-formation from English) and in Belgium you may hear “s’il vous plait” , probably a back-formation from the Dutch word “alstublieft” which means “please,” “you’re welcome” and “here you are.”

Civility #2: In French there are two pronouns that mean “you”, tu (used when speaking informally to one person) and vous (used when speaking formally to one person, or to a group). In most situations between adults, strangers are addressed as vous at first and may be addressed as tu over time. Quebecers are very quick to transition to tu, and where there’s no difference of hierarchy involved (i.e. talking to someone other than a teacher, a work superior or an elderly person) they may dispense with vous altogether. The vous–>tu transition happens more slowly in France and far more slowly in Belgium.

Education: Le bac is a bachelor’s degree in Quebec, but a high-school diploma in Europe (there, a bachelor’s degree is called a licence). A master’s degree is called a master or mastère in Europe but a maitrise in Quebec (literal translation of the word “mastery.”) High school students in Quebec go to sécondaire and leave with a diplôme , while their counterparts elsewhere in the Francophonie (including Africa) go to lycée. 

Numbers: The French and Quebecois say soixante-dix (60+10), quatre-vingts (4×20) et quatre-vingts-dix (4×20+10)– although the Quebecois dix rhymes with “this” and not “these” as in Europe. The Swiss, who apparently enjoy math less than the others, say septante, huitante, nonante. The Belgians have adopted septante and nonante but mostly kept quatre-vingts, although I have occasionally heard octante.

Clothes: While francophones in Europe have adopted the English words t-shirt and pull (for pull-over), Quebecers use the old-school French word chandail for the main piece of clothing worn on the upper body. A coat is a veste in Belgium and a manteau everywhere else.

Everyone’s favourite trap: In France, Switzerland and Belgium, the word gosses means “kids.” However, in Quebec, it somehow acquired the meaning testiclesA Quebecer talking about his or her children would say les flos, which means absolutely nothing in European French.

Food: This is the fun part. In France, there’s a popular sandwich called un américain. A steak sub stuffed with fries. Yes, I know, Americans don’t put the fries in the sandwich. In Belgium, this same sandwich is called a mitraillette (which literally means “machine gun”). However, there is a sandwich in Belgium with the ominous-sounding name américain préparé (prepared American). It includes another thing Americans don’t eat– beef tartare on a roll! In some parts of Quebec a variation on an américain (with a hot dog and sauerkraut instead of steak and sub fixings) exists and is called a guédille (which literally means “old rag.”) But in other parts of Québec a guédille refers to a salad sandwich or even a lobster roll!

Confused yet? Hungry yet?

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About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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One Response to Petit manuel de Belge

  1. Denis LeBlanc says:

    In French-speaking Ontario or in Acadie, a chandail is a sweater, the warm kind, with or without buttons and worn as an overshirt. And for your collection, in Brazil, an American sandwich on the menu is something quite close to a Club-sandwich.

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