Is Flemish a language?

11 and 12 March 2011

Introduction

Clients unfamiliar with the Dutch language sometimes ask me if I also offer translations into Flemish. The short answer is: yes. But there is a lot more to be said about the issue. On 19 February 2011 I took the trouble, in response to a question from a German client, to explain the situation thoroughly.

Later I decided I might just as well publish that text on my web site. This is the English translation of that German text.

Language or dialect group?

Flemish isn’t really a language, but rather a group of dialects spoken in the West of Belgium, e.g. in and around Ghent (nl: Gent), Bruges (nl: Brugge) and Kortrijk. Famous cities like Antwerp (nl: Antwerpen) and Brussels (nl: Brussel) however belong to a different dialect area, that of the Brabantish dialects. The Dutch province of North Brabant is also in that area. This maps shows the locations: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brabants). Further east in Belgium, and also in a province of the Netherlands and even extending into Germany, there is a third dialect group: Limburgish.

Dialects in all those groups are as different as Cockney, Geordie and Appalachian. They are rarely written and so aren’t relevant as a possible target language for translations.

Politics

To add to the confusion, in Belgian politics there is the notion of ‘Vlaams Gewest’ (http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlaams_Gewest), which is also shortened to ‘Vlaanderen’ (the Dutch word for ‘Flanders’). In that name, ‘Vlaams’ (‘Flemish’) also refers to areas in which local dialects are not Flemish but Brabantish of Limburgish.

Language Union

Just like here in the Netherlands, in Belgium (except where French or German is spoken) the official language and written language is Dutch (nl: Nederlands). There is a common spelling convention, which is established by the ‘Taalunie’ (‘Dutch Language Union’), of which Surinam is now also a member.

So in essence there is a common standard language, understood everywhere and in theory also the same everywhere. Yet, small differences exist in the pronunciation (cf. Gordon Brown, you can hear where he’s from, although he doesn’t speak Scots, but standard English) and also in vocabulary: the ‘Vlaams-Nederlands woordenboek’ (‘Flemish-Netherlandic’ dictionary) contains hundreds of pages full of words that are known in Belgium but not in the Netherlands, or we do also know the word, but not with all the senses it can have there.

Hochdeutsch in DE, CH and AT

The situation is comparable to the use of Hochdeutsch (Standard German) in Germany, Switzerland and Austria: differences exist, but real Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German) is a different matter altogether. A translation made by a translator from Germany, I suppose can also be understood without problems in Switzerland and Austria. It’s like that with Dutch too.

The situation with English in various countries is also somewhat similar, except that in that case there are two unofficial, de facto ‘standards’, each with its own spelling convention: UK English and US English.

Commercials

Commercials may be a different issue: when it is essential what kind of a feeling or mood a text invokes in people, it can make sense to use a different translator of copywriter per country.


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