3 March 2011

Brussels Pidgin English

Brussels Pidgin English (I)*

Pidgin is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. Although Wikipedia does not yet know about it, it is time to add another form of Pidgin English to the existing list: the Brussels Pidgin English or „Brussish”.

Brussels Pidgin English is spoken in the Brussels EU district to discuss the never ending flow of EU affairs. This interaction usually works fine until a native English speaker appears on the scene (usually a British or Irish colleague). Here, the conversation often stops and people slowly disperse. They will reconvene in a few minutes at another corner to carry on in pidgin, while keeping an eye out for approaching native speakers. (A great example is the Dutch guide for what the British mean when they speak, as described here in one of the masterpieces of a previous resident Charlemagne, or here in more detail.)

One particular feature of Brussels Pidgin English is the use of eurojargon, that may sound funny and inspires articles but comes naturally to inhabitants of the bubble; avoiding idioms and using only a core vocabulary (rather like Special English in Voice of America), thinking up ingenious ways of murdering the language of Shapespeare, from “Hunglish” to “Spanglish”.

Volumes have been written about the incredible domination of English, but here is one that we recommend to all, who want to understand why English seems to be unstoppable in Brussels. (Including why we write this blog only in English – another compromise to our everlasting shame). In his book, “Empires of the Word” Nicolas Ostler tracks the "growth, development and collapse of language communities". By understanding why certain languages became global, while others vanished against all their military or trading powers, we may understand better our everyday interaction in Brussels.

Of course, it is not the first time that a special form of expression develops in this town. It may be the Belgian weather (la drache nationale) that helps these dialects grow, like mushroom. Brusseleir (or marols or bruxellois) is the traditional dialect of the Brussels locals, spoken today by only a handful of people. Hergé the author of Tintin comics (whose fictional detectives Thompson and Thomson inspired Kovács and Kováts, see our starting post) has used this dialect to create the Syldavian language. (Which may be the new official language in Belgium.)

We wonder what Hergé would make of this new form of English developing in Brussels. (And what would Captain Haddock say about Eurocrats? Bashibozouks?)

*this post is intended to inspire debate, we will continue here with our take on multilingualism in Brussels


  1. Brilliant, brilliant : ) just yesterday at a work meeting, one Croatian person stood up, apologised for his level of spoken English - and then added "However, Croatia is aspiring to enter the European Union, where broken English is the official language" : ) spot-on!

  2. Jean-Luc Dehaene, former Prime Minister of Belgium referred to the official language of the EU as "Le bad English". :-)

  3. I think "Pidgin English" sounds negative. But linguists have for some time been speeking about English as a lingua franca: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_as_a_lingua_franca.

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