Snippets from Europe Trip: Of Languages and Dialects

Languages Repressed

After visiting Les Combarelles cave, Abhaya asked our guide where the name of the cave came from. The answer was a little unusual. It apparently came from a word in a language called Occitan and as far as I remember that word meant cave. I tried to verify from the only Occitan-English dictionary I could find online and the nearest word I found was Comba, which means a gorge or a hollow. It still fits. So, perhaps that’s what she was referring to. But the best part of the conversation was the discovery that there is a language called Occitan.


France wasn’t traditionally French-speaking. Since after the revolution, targeted policies have been followed to repress, even destroy, “patois” or “dialects” in favor of a unifying French language. It was considered essential for democracy (else non-French speakers are excluded!) and for making France a unified power to contend with. Some, like Occitan, have survived to date, but like many Indian languages and “dialects”, they also have mostly older people left as speakers and hence are endangered. There are some scattered efforts here and there for these languages, but it doesn’t look like they are a priority. French is the only language of the French Republic and there is really no space for other languages to flourish under official patronage.

By recognizing a large number of languages in the constitution, India did a better job than the Republic of France with the languages. Since each of our states can have their own official languages, which can be different from the official languages of the central government, it has ensured that at least some languages are not yet obliterated. But there has been a sweeping classification of a large number of languages as dialects even in India (and Hindi – to whose dialect status many of these languages are consigned – might be the worst culprit here).  Large modern nations just don’t seem to know what to do with their languages.

And Multilingualism!

Luxembourg stands in stark contrast to France as far as the language policy goes.

In Luxembourgish: We want to remain what we are

People in shops and streets of Luxembourg are effortlessly multilingual. The default seems to be French, but English and German are easily switched into. There is also Luxembourgish, which has refused to succumb to the status of a dialect of German. It is, in fact, the national language of Luxembourg and one of the three administrative languages apart from French and German. Perhaps if we had more city- and micro-states in the modern world, we would have had more languages and fewer dialects.

Luxembourg seems to take its multilingualism seriously.  Looks at the description of how different languages are used in education.

Click the Image for a clearer screenshot.

This, in particular, blew me over:

Language learning over the entire school career accounts for 50% of the curriculum.

There is something to learn here. A multilingual country like ours should have much more emphasis on learning multiple languages in school than it currently has. Multilingualism, as a talent, is not sufficiently appreciated in our society, but it can be a great practical asset to people.

Then there was Brussels. Walking down one of the streets Abhaya suddenly told me something like, “They have such rhyming names for places. See, they have a chapel that’s called Kapel. I noticed other such names too.”

“Huh? A chapel called Kapel?” I hadn’t come across a chapel by that name in Brussels during my research on the places to see there.

He dragged me back to show me the street sign. It read


“Uh oh! It’s not a chapel called Kapel. It chapel written in French and Dutch!”

Henceforth, this story shall be known by the title “A chapel called Kapel“.

By KapsuglanOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Belgium consists of three regions. Flanders is Dutch-speaking. Wallonia is French-speaking and Brussels is officially bilingual (hence those bilingual signs). There is also a German-speaking minority in the country, but it isn’t a separate region. Dutch, French, as well as German, are official languages of the kingdom. We didn’t visit any places in Wallonia. Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, all in Flanders, sported Dutch-only signs. But the multilingualism of the country seems to accommodate English also amidst all this without any signs of grudge or snobbery.

Language Troubles

French snobbery about their language is much talked about. Although in smaller places like Les Eyzies we faced language problems, we, thankfully, didn’t find anyone who was rude to us for not speaking French. In fact, in the place worst known for its language and cultural snobbery, Paris, we had a super nice Airbnb host. The elderly lady spoke very little English, but she was infinitely patient with us and went out of the way to help us at every stage. Since she had an easier time understanding written English, she always had a set of post-its about her and would ask us to write down when she didn’t understand what we were saying or asking.

At many places in Les Eyzies we had to resort to keywords, gestures, and pointing to written words – especially to get food! I suppose the Indian experience of often not knowing the local language even while traveling within your own country makes us more used to it. We are more likely to smile apologetically for the language trouble and make attempts to overcome it than act like it’s their fault that they don’t speak English. So, most people also respond in kind. Sorry for stereotyping, but many (not all – obviously) clueless American tourists seem to think it is everybody’s responsibility to learn English for their pleasure and this sense of entitlement gets returned in kind in some cases.

In Paris, people in shops, streets or restaurants usually always started by speaking in French, even when it should have been obvious that we don’t know the language, but most of them switched to English when we started using gestures and keywords (always with an apologetic smile!) to respond.

At the tourist attractions all over, even in Les Eyzies and other less visited places, there was almost always English-speaking staff available.

But, Museum Troubles

Unfortunately, information in English was missing in most of the museums. So, wherever available, one should take an audio guide.

One of the cards at National Museum of Prehistory

National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies and Musee du Compagnonnage in Tours were two very interesting museums which didn’t have information on the exhibits in English and had no audio guides available either. However, at the Prehistory museum, there were A4 cards available which had some information in English about all the exhibits in a room. It took some effort to figure out where they were for different parts of the museum and what they described, but they were ultimately fairly informational. One member of the staff did something very sweet for us there. Although her English was so labored that we understood very little of what she was saying, but she voluntarily came forward to speak to us and tried her best to explain how the exhibits in that room were chronologically arranged. After struggling with the cards for a while, what she was pointing out made sense to us and we were better able to use the cards.

At Musee du Compagnonnage we discovered a little late that the landing place, which was so crowded with a large group of elderly French tourists that we had thought it was a meeting/resting place and had skipped it, had some background information available, which helped to understand the rest of the museum with the help of a little pamphlet available in English.  So the visit was slightly frustrating, although we did finally get a hang of the place.

At Musee du Compagnonnage

At Lourvre we had opted for their “Welcome to Louvre” guided tour in English. At other museums in Paris and Brussels audio-guides saved the day.

We had popped in for a very quick look into Museum of National History and Art at Luxembourg and the cards in English there were fairly easy to use.

The Industrial Museum is Ghent turned out to be unsatisfactory. There were no audio guides although there were booklets provided in English for each of its floors. But in some cases, there was too much to read. Then on the main floor showcasing textile industry equipments, after the first few, we couldn’t match exhibited machines to their description in the book very accurately. But the Plantin Moretus Museum (related to printing) at Antwerp was very English-language friendly. All the information was available in all three languages – French, Dutch and English.

From Plantin Moretus Museum, Antwerp (Fragments of Dutch on the left, French on the right)

The Language Families

This is purely academic information, but one which I became aware of only after this trip. French is a Romance language, while English is a Germanic language, as is Dutch. So, English and Dutch are more similar than English and French are. But if there are many words in French that you recognize from your knowledge of English, it is because English borrowed most of them from French. After what is known as Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, a large number of such words entered the English language. More might have been borrowed over time too, because before English started donning the mantle sometime in the 20th century and after Latin had been displaced, French was the lingua franca of Europe!

Given that last bit, we can excuse the French some languages-snobbery, can’t we?


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