Did you think that learning Dutch was difficult? Well, think again. Because the Flemish are now breathing new life into their many different and utterly incomprehensible local dialects. Or so says journalist Leen Vervaeke in the daily De Morgen (The Morning). “A growing number of singers revert to their own regional languages,” she writes. “A growing number of films and TV series contain dialogues of spicy patois.”
Great. Here I am trying to convince you to watch Flemish TV to help you learn the language. Little did I know that it would be of use only within a radius of three-and-a-half corn fields.
That, of course, is overdreven, exaggerated. It is true that the Flemish – from the beggar to the prime minister – are famously fond of their own village vernaculars (see Talking Dutch of 9 November, 14 September and 30 March 2011).
But, as Vervaeke points out, the revival is more than anything else a reaction to a trend of steady decline, a final gasp of air before being smothered by the hands of time. “The Flemish are beginning to cherish their dialects,” she quotes linguist Reinhild Vandekerckhove as saying, “because they realise that they are in danger of extinction.”
It is mostly the elderly who still practice the patois of old. The young, whose horizons in a generation’s time have broadened from Steenokkerzeel to Shanghai, have all but forgotten. “With every old person that dies, a small dictionary is lost,” Vandekerckhove says.
The result is a plethora of “nostalgic initiatives,” writes Vervaeke, “so as to cling for a little longer to the language of grandma and grandpa.”
Examples are elections of the most beautiful word of a specific dialect (such as tsiepmuile, cry baby, in Gents, the dialect of Ghent), quiz shows on the radio (“guess what gatbadgerke means”), theatre plays, revised editions of Tintin comic books or even smartphone apps that allow the user to compare West-Vlaams, Limburgs, and Brabants, among others.
So in the end, for you it is good news (unless you are fluent now in nothing but coastal West Flemish). It means that you can continue watching the news every evening like you have so religiously been doing. It means that you can continue talking to the baker, from west to east, north and south.
In my next edition, I’ll be discussing the body language of the Flemish. Happy to hear your thoughts!