“Save the Walloon speakers!”

Professor Francard’s students love to “sketter” beer (knock it back in large quantities). Their parents, on the other hand, are likely to head for Le Roi du Matelas to buy bedding when “Ventes à tout sketter” (knock-down prices) are on sale over 30 m2 of shopping space. The Walloon or, to be exact, Picard term appears in a context which is entirely French.

Walloon was for a long time the “official” language of the French-speaking people of Belgium. It fell into disuse over three generations, as the much more prestigious French of the elite classes was imposed in school with teachers ready to respond to the use of dialects seen as wilfully self-stigmatising, with and a rap of a ruler across the knuckles.

Michel Francard, professor of French linguistics at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) has written a practical guide to Wallonia’s regional languages to be published by De Boeck this fall. Along the lines of “everything you ever wanted to know about Walloon but never dared to ask”, he tells how Walloon (in its widest sense, including the Walloon, Picard, Gaumais and Champenois dialects) fell from the heights of its glory days into the trashcan of history. This set the tale in the socio–economic context of the region. However, he also describes the extent to which the language is benefitting from a revival of interest, although no longer in common use.

Is Walloon now completely obsolete?

“Walloon was once a working language, but it has become purely social. It is indisputable that, over the history of Wallonia, the primacy of French has promoted social advancement. The cost of favouring French, however, was the loss of regional languages – indeed an attempt to eradicate them. This cost is much too high. Walloon hasn’t gone underground, but nowadays you have pay close attention to hear or read it. It survives noticeably in everyday French – people readily say they ‘skette’ beer, or that they ‘cause’ [chat]. ‘Belgian’ French often borrows from Walloon. You also see it in street signs and place names – a school might easily be called ‘Les P’tits Leûs’. And it’s inextricably linked to important popular festivals – ‘La Ducasse’ in Mons, ‘Li bia bouquèt’ in Namur, ‘Les macrales’ in Vielsalm. Moreover, the Walloon literary tradition is extremely rich, in both quantity and quality.”

Is your book a call to action?

“I am very clear that the book is not in itself a call to action. It provides the public with information. What people then do with it is up to them. Personally, I consider it important that people who have chosen to speak Walloon should continue to do so.”

Do you mean that Walloons should learn to speak it again?

“There are a whole series of reasons why people might consider it important to speak a regional language. It could be simply a matter of heritage. Or there could be economic reasons – for those who want to work in Luxembourg, for example. Whatever the reasons, it seems to me that they should be taken seriously.”

Do you have a sense that there is new life stirring?

“Unfortunately, we no longer have a linguistic census, so it’s impossible to get accurate information on language use. However, research carried out by my teams at UCL shows a net loss. Nevertheless, the rate at which the language is disappearing is slower than in the eighties and nineties. And at the same time I note that, while practical use is in decline, there is a revival of interest in these languages. It’s very evident. This is a trend that can be observed in many endangered languages – on the one hand, they are dying away – on the other, interest in them revives. If we want to take an optimistic view, and look for decisive action, then we need to count on this revival of interest. The choice is to have the Walloon language or not. It will make a real difference to Wallonia.”

Do we need to save Walloon?

“We need to save Walloon speakers! A language is not a living entity. It’s the people who speak it who are alive! Unless we have a political initiative in Wallonia relating to our regional languages, their situation will become even more desperate than it is today. And there is no point asking a linguist if he’s happy to see a reduction in linguistic diversity!”

ÉRIC BURGRAFF

 

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One Response to “Save the Walloon speakers!”

  1. Paul says:

    Interesting to learn that -so typical, alas- that the language of the French relegated Walloon (or Picard) to the panoply of subsidised sectors of official Walloon culture. It would appear that a huge majority of Walloons did not do the effort necessary to save their own language from near extinction. So be it, the decision was theirs, and we need to express respect for that position. The fact remains that this does not provide, neither Walloons nor those rather more imperialist speakers of the french idiom, with the slightest valid argument which might be used against any other language as might be present within the confines of this country. I quietly think in lines of “shut up and take care of yourselves”. To each his own…

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