Walloon Language

General Overview


Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Walloon is spoken nowadays in the modern Belgian provinces of Hainaut, Liège, Namur, Luxembourg, and southern Brabant (they are called often Wallonia), in tiny parts of Northwestern France (mainly in the city of Givret in the departement of the Ardennes), and in the region of Green Bay in the United States (Wisconsin), where a compact group of Walloons settled in the 19th century. Walloon was previously spread in Luxembourg also, where it disappeared recently.

It is estimated that Walloon is used actively by 10-20% of the total population of Wallonia or between 300,000 and 600,000 people. The proportion of those who can understand it is higher. The proportion of those who can read and write is very small indeed. There are only few monolingual speakers, although there are still more than a handful whose main language is Walloon, especially among the elderly generations.

Linguistic Environment

Other regional languages spread in certain areas of Wallonia include three Langue d'oil speeches: Picard (in western half of the province of Hainaut), Lorrain (in some southern villages of the Luxembourg province) and Champenois (in one village in the south of the province of Namur); the Germanic Letzebuergesch (Luxembourgeois) is found in the region of Arlon.

All these languages are spoken in the neighboring countries: the major part of the Picard and Lorrain linguistic areas are in France and Letzebuerguesh is the official national language of Luxembourg.

Origin and History

Walloon is a Langue d'oil speech, which developed between the 8th and the 12th centuries from the Gallo-Romance language. It preserved its linguistic peculiarities throughout the periods of Burgundian,
Spanish, Austrian, French, and Dutch domination that preceded the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830.

As a matter of fact Walloon is closely related to French and is usually considered by the linguists to be one of its dialects. There is, anyway, a local view about Walloon as a separate language. According to it there are to be distinguished three language levels in Wallonia: standard French, Walloon in its different dialects, and local colloquial variant of French (i.e. a dialect of French) which is colored by Walloon influences.

The nature of the Medieval Walloon is sometimes subject of disputes between modern scholars. The main question that arise is whether it was French decreasingly smacking of Walloon or Walloon increasingly smacking of French. The fact that we study the linguistic developments of this remote period by the means of written documents only prevent us of giving a definite answer. At first, the written language may be more or less artificial (we could suppose it was a type of scripta); and at second, we could be never absolutely sure about the exact pronunciation of the written text. It is evident anyway, that in the course of the centuries the written language was approached closer and closer to standard French, with a very few known exceptions.

Standard French gained in Wallonia the status of the only language for official, formal use, especially among the upper classes in the prosperous urban areas. In the beginning of the 17th century however, there emerged a bulk of literary works in Walloon, supposedly because people got conscious of what they were writing was far away from what they spoke. Since then, the literature in Walloon has been developing without interruption.

Though the bourgeoisie adopted the standard French in the 18th and 19th centuries, until 1900 most of the population used only Walloon in everyday life. But the number of speakers fell sharply between 1930-1960 and so has the functional and social range of the language. French was by then considered the only language to assure full social integration and success in the professional carreer.

At present it seems the extremity of the functional deadend is near, with some people claiming that Walloon should be revered only as a relic of the past, a literary language or, at best, "the language of the heart", but not of everyday speech.

Literature

The first literary work in Walloon, Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie, appeared c. 900. From the middle of the 12th century there appeared several other works in vernacular. They were anonymous tracts, among which was the Poème moral, consisting of nearly 4,000 alexandrines. In 13th-15th centuries Walloon literature is marked by the importance of its local chronicles and its religious tracts and drama.

At the beginning of the 17th century the literary possibilities of Walloon were greatly developed, particularly in the district of Liège, and, from then on, the number of writings increased. Poems about the everyday life or incidents of local history were at vogue. Use of the Walloon broadened in the 18th century with the success of opéra comique at Liège. A group was formed, known as the Théâtre Liégeois, and met with instantaneous success. In the 19th century were written over 10,000 plays, mainly comedies. In this period the number of poets and other writers increased. Chief among them were Charles Nicolas Simonon, François Bailleux, and Nicolas Defrêcheux. The first two of these writers introduced sentiment into dialect literature, while to the third belongs the honour of being the first great Walloon lyric poet. A notable event was the establishment at Liège, on Dec. 27, 1856, of the Société de Littérature Wallonne, which became a real regional academy with a considerable influence on both language and literature. From then on, there was an increase in the number of poems, songs, plays, and even translations into Walloon of important foreign authors.

By the end of the 19th century there were many writers working in the Walloon dialects, lacking neither in range of styles nor in diversity of inspiration. Most of these authors, however, chose a rather doctrinaire realism to depict workaday existence and remained somewhat hidebound by social conventions.

Walloon literature, though limited in its audience, explored new paths in the 20th century. One of the most remarkable developments has been in the dialect studies undertaken by numerous scholars. The literary possibilities of the dialect have also been extended as a result of standardization of the rules of spelling and grammar.
 

Contemporary dialects

Over an area of some 20,000 sq km Walloon is manifested through four dialect groups:

Phonetics and Phonology Morphology

The plural feminine adjectives before the noun take an unstressed ending -ès (except in the Ardenne dialect): cf. li djäne foye the yellow leave and les djänès foyes the yellow leaves.

There is no gender difference in definite articles and possessives (except in the Ardenne dialect): cf. Wall. li vweture the car, feminine and li cir the sky, masculine with French la voiture but le ciel; Walloon has si cwär his/her body, masculine and si fignesse his/her window, feminine while French has son corps but sa fenêtre.

Syntax

The adjective is often placed before the noun: cf. Wall. on fwärt ome vs. F. un homme fort a strong man; Wall. ene blanke måjhon vs. F. une maison blanche a white house.

There is a remarkable influence from the Germanic languages: cf. the construction Cwè-ç ki c'est di ça po ene fleur? What is this flower? which can be compared word by word to German Was ist das für eine Blume?

Vocabulary

Walloon still has some latin remnants that have disappeared from the neighboring Romance languages, for instance Wall. dispierter and Sp. despertar to awake.

There are numerous borrowings from Germanic languages (Flemish and German dialects) and even the term Walloon is of Germanic origin: compare Wall. flåw and today's Dutch flauw weak. Other common Germanic loan words, among hundreds of others, include: dringuele (cf. Dutch drinkgeld) tip, crole (cf. Dutch krul) curl, spiter (same root as the English to spit, or German spützen) to spatter, li sprewe (Dutch spreeuw) the starling, etc.

Dialectical differences

Dialectological studies have been flourishing in Wallonia for nearly a century and dialectology has long been considered the only way of studying the language.
Some classical examples of dialect differences are:

Present Situation

Although there has long been a group of philologists willing to promote Walloon, it is only recently that a movement in favor of the Walloon language developed which simply promotes its use, and asserts that it has still a role to play in today's Walloon society. There is no spoken standard. The efforts to develop a written one are recent too.

Official attention came in 1990, with the vote of a decree which recognizes the existence of "endogenous languages" in the so-called "French community" (i.e. Wallonia and the French-speaking population of Brussels) of the Belgian federal state.The decree states that these languages should be studied and their use encouraged. A specific committee for "endogenous languages" was created with the Ministry of Culture. The room allowed for Walloon on television, however, went on declining, it was neither introduced in the schools, nor even the local place names were officially changed according to their Walloon pronunciation.

Literature, anyway, is alive and well with new authors appearing regularly in several literary magazines. Theatre is still flourishing with over 200 non-professional companies playing in the cities and villages of Wallonia for an audience of over 200,000 each year. In the media, Walloon is present on the state TV (about 2 hours on Saturday afternoons) and on the state radio (about 3 hours on Friday evenings). However, the language is permanently under pressure (budget and time reductions, etc.).
Several French-speaking private radios and national papers and magazines leave a room for Walloon, either regularly or occasionally. Walloon is sporadically present in the church (at marriages, special masses...). After a boom in the 70s, the Walloon song is waning, though there is renewed interest with a couple of rock bands now singing in Walloon.

Walloon is almost totally absent in the educative world: teachers are not trained to teach the language, the educational material is scarce, and the lack of a written standard makes it all the more difficult to teach Walloon for teachers who are not necessarily speaking the dialect of the area where they work, to children who come from several parts of Wallonia and, in addition, who are more and more French-only speakers. The main association for the promotion of Walloon is the Union Culturelle Wallonne (UCW), which is made of five provincial associations and over 250 local Walloon associations, the majority of which are theater companies, but also e.g. writers' associations or the five provincial Walon è Scole (Walloon at school) committees. The main objectives of the UCW are now to promote the use of Walloon in the basic functions and levels of social life (in the family, for instance), while defending and co-ordinating the very rich association network (theater), supporting the presence of Walloon in the media, the schools, the laws, etc.
 

This page is based mainly on materials from Li Ranteule Association.
 



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