Can You Understand Belgian French? [PART 1]
When we talk about the French language, the very first country that crosses our minds is, of course, France.
However, as we well know, it is not only in France that we can speak French.
Indeed, Belgium is another European country, where we can practise the language of Molière.
Even if the French and the Belgians speak the same language, there are a few differences between the French spoken in France and Belgium, its small neighbour.
Here are the most well-known variations, potentially leading to some funny misunderstandings.
First of all, numbers.
In Belgium, we (yes, I am Belgian) are more logical than in France.
Let me explain…
For example, in France the number ‘seventy’ is ‘soixante-dix’ (literally translate as ‘sixty-ten’). As you can see, it is a little bit confusing for a non-native speaker to hear the number beginning with ‘soixante’ whereas in fact it is ‘seventy’ and not ‘sixty’ (where is the logic?).
Luckily for you, in Belgium, this is easier to learn, as we say ‘septante’ instead (’septante’ comes from ’sept’ for ’seven’)! Likewise, for number 90: French people would say ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ (literally ‘four twenty ten’), whereas Belgians would simply say ‘nonante’ (‘neuf’ for ‘nine’ – much more easier to learn!).
Here’s a funny story that happened to me at University with my friend who’s from Toulouse (a city in the South of France).
We were in our classroom when I asked her if she had seen my ‘plumier’ (a pencil box).
She gave me a puzzled look and asked “Are we in the Middle Ages that you are looking for an inkpot?”
“An inkpot?? No, I’m just looking for my ‘trousse’!”, I replied.
“Ah, right your ‘trousse’, why didn’t you say so?”
But in Belgium, ‘trousse’ and ‘plumier’ mean the same thing!
To cut a long story short, she summed up the whole thing by saying: ‘Belgians can’t definitely do anything normal’!
Trousse and plumier are not the only terms for school materials that are different.
Here are a few more examples: ‘bic’ and ‘stylo’ for pencil, ‘latte’ and ‘règle’ or ‘double décimètre’ for ruler (the last one is a really weird for us Belgians), ‘farde’ and ‘classeur’ for ring binder. With some exceptions, all these words are used as synonyms in Belgium, but not in France.
Les serviettes et les torchons
Another concept that marks a huge difference between French and Belgian French: there are always misunderstandings linked to the use of the terms ‘essuie’, ‘torchon’, ‘serpillière’ and ‘serviette’.
Let’s start with ‘essuie’ and ‘serviette’.
On the one hand, in France, ‘serviette’ means towel, whilst in Belgium ‘essuie’ means towel, which also refers to a tea towel; in this case, we add ‘essuie de vaisselle’. On the other hand, ‘serviette’ means napkin both in Belgium and in France. Consequently, it is the context that has to clarify the situation.
‘Torchon’ and ‘serpillière’ in Belgium mean the same thing: a floor cloth/ a mop. On the contrary, in France, ‘torchon’ means tea towel while ‘serpillière’ means floor cloth/ mop. In a word, be careful when you ask for a ‘torchon’ for your dishes in Belgium! Don’t forget the famous quote in France: “ Il ne faut pas mélanger les serviettes et les torchons “.
There are many more considerable differences between the two variations of French, but these are the funniest and most common ones (according to me!).
Want to discover more? Here’s PART 2 about “belgicismes” (typical turn of phrases in French as spoken in Belgium).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Aurélie Geets
Aurélie is an intern at Alliance Française de Cork September-December 2016. She got her degree in Information and Communication with a specialisation in work organization at Université Saint-Louis in Brussels (Belgium). She is now doing a Master’s Degree in cultural management at the Université Libre of Brussels.