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Are you Dutch? No, I’m Flemish!

Are you Dutch? No, I’m Flemish!

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Need a Dutch translation? Confused? Let’s have an elevator conversation.

Dutch is the official language of The Netherlands and Belgium. The Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium is also known as Flanders, hence the Flemish… i.e. people living in Flanders. The Flemish speak Dutch with a Belgian accent and will often refer to their ‘accent’ as Flemish to make sure people do not confuse them with the Dutch. Aye, and there’s the rub.

Because we are talking about one language spread over two countries, there will be some major regional differences in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation, but the main difference between Flemish and Dutch is patriotic pride.

Without boring you to tears with all the linguistic distinctions, the most common ones are the “g” and “ch” sound – pronounced softly in Belgium (similarly to the ch in Loch) and full guttural in The Netherlands; the famous back of the throat phlegm. Also, you are is jij/je bent up north and gij/ge zijt down south, and then there are words so different you wonder if they belong to the same language such as goesting (BE) and zin (NL), meaning ‘to feel like’, or words that are identical but have different meanings such as tas – meaning bag in NL and cup in BE.

Because of these variations, the Dutch snottily refer to ‘Flemish” as a dialect or ‘Old Dutch’, mainly to get a reaction out of the poor Flemish – usually successfully. The fact that this seems offensive, points out that a dialect is somehow of lesser value and for a lower class. Many Dutch-speaking Belgians probably feel that the regional differences should be officially recognised, in the same way USA and UK English are recognised.

While there is a vaguely homogenous Belgian Dutch (i.e. Flemish), Flanders as a region is very complex in that people have many different regional dialects and accents. So much so that someone living in eastern Belgium will have difficulties understanding someone out West (only 200 km away). One thing is certain, as a written language, Dutch and Flemish are identical. They share the same literature, grammar and rules. Which begs the questions, what constitutes a language and when is a language a dialect?

Languages are usually written and standardised and have a literary history. As a general rule, dialects are oral without codified rules and do not have literature. This interpretation is open for debate, but over history many different dialects were standardised to make teaching it and passing it down generations easier. In other words, a move from oral to written. I guess, Flemish is to Dutch what Cantonese is to Mandarin or Moroccan Arabic to Saudi Arabic. On the page they read the same but are pronounced very differently.

Let’s just say that as long as you cannot study Flemish as a language, it is not a language. Maybe the reference Dutch-NL and Dutch-BE should be introduced to alleviate the Flemish confusion. Whatever version you need, we’d be happy to help with your Dutch translation.

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