Category Archives: Language

Which Language for Local Food in Wallonie?

Joan Gross

I just returned to my dissertation fieldwork site after 38 years.  Back in the 1980s I examined the use of the regional Gallo-Romance dialect, Walloon, in Liège, Belgium and particularly in the puppet theater.  Over the past couple decades I’ve gotten increasingly interested in how people resist the global industrial food system. Upon arriving at the Liège train station last week, my interest was piqued by the poster announcing a show of local alimentary products called CBon, CWallon. It took a minute to understand that they were not using aberrant initial consonant clusters, but the practice of using a letter (or number) to stand in for the name of that letter, like the francophone usage of K7 for “cassette.”

I went to the C’est Bon, C’est Wallon Fair today, wondering whether the Walloon language would appear as well as the products of Wallonie. One of the first booths I saw was a beer cooperative called Badjawe. My husband asked one of the festival workers walking by what “badjawe” meant and he didn’t know, but a woman in the booth quickly said that it was the Walloon word for a talkative person. The publicity announces that the beer will loosen your tongue and facilitate conversations.

They call it a farm beer and advertise that everything comes from the farm on which they built the brewery. It’s organic too. Later I found that they even put together a short video in Walloon, explaining the name.

This highlighting of the Walloon language, however, was far outweighed by the presence of English at the fair. In fact, this same brewery is sponsoring a festival of microbreweries in April and the advertisement reads “Soif the Date” emphasizing the similarity between the English word “save” and the French word for thirst. Below the date is a list of what will be there including the English words “food” and “more.”

I photographed several other signs that used English in their advertising, usually mixed in with French. I asked the croquette sellers why they chose to put “Home Made,” “Authenticity,” and “Diversity” in their logo and they said that their graphic designer proposed it, so that they could maybe eventually export their product to other countries. It’s true that “Belgian Single Malt Whiskey” and “Cookies” tell you what the product is, but the use of English in the advertising of the fair was not necessarily descriptive. “Feel Inspired” or “A Life in a Drink” does not tell you what the product is, facilitating referential understanding across linguistic borders. It fulfills more of an aesthetic or emblematic function, implying modernity and global connections. I’m not sure what to say about “Tits,” but I’m sure that it wouldn’t fly in an American context.

In Belgium, however, there is an additional motivation for the use of English. It avoids the age-old struggle between the two main official languages, Dutch and French. (German is a third official language, but is only spoken by 1% of the population.) Flemings and Walloons will often choose to speak to each other in English, even though one or both of them may be fluent in the other one’s native language. Truth be told, it’s usually the Fleming who is fluent in French. Walloons still seem to be reluctant to devote enough time to learning Dutch when they can learn English instead. Learning English is also far more popular than learning the Walloon that their grandparents spoke.

So, here was a fair meant to bring attention to local products, but many of the makers of these products relied on global English for their advertising. I can’t help but notice that the majority of products using English in their advertising are forms of alcohol. The Thomsin family who have been making the famous Sirop de Liège since 1884 did not use English in their advertising (but they didn’t use Walloon either). Belgium’s reputation for beer is very well known. In fact, Belgian beer culture was recognized as a UNESCO intangible heritage this year. There has been over a 50% rise in exports of Belgian beer in the last ten years, even overtaking Germany in 2017. The whiskey and wine industries in Wallonie are probably trying to ride on the coattails of Belgian beer. Meanwhile, Badjawe is using the local language, Walloon, to promote the conviviality of drinking beer together and talking. I wish them success.

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Filed under anthropology, beer, Belgium, Food Studies, Language