While living in Brussels, I came ito contact with a non-profit called Constant, an association for art and media working to shed light on the culture and ethics of the Internet in our daily lives. You can check out all their different projects here, but I’m going to talk about the one that interested me the most and that I wish so badly I had known about during my time there: La Langue Schaerbeekoise/De Schaarbeekse Taal.
Between 2009-2012, project workers met with a wide range of residents of the La Cage aux Ours/Berenkuil (“The Bear Cage” in English) neighborhood of Schaerbeek, a Brussels commune (a Brussels commune is just an equivalent to a borough, parish, district, etc, not a place where hippies live and love together). Home to the Brussels North Station, this commune boasts an exceptionally large Turkish population in addition to a large array of other nationalities coming from other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
While Schaerbeek is a technically a bilingual Flemish and French-speaking commune, the main language spoken in the project’s target neighborhood of La Cage aux Ours is French. The Turks are just one of many immigrant groups to populate this commune: Congolese, Moroccans, Poles, Italians, Vietnamese, and Spaniards are just a sprinkling of the various nationalities that make up this area. Walking around you can hear anything from Berber to Dutch to Lingala being spoken on the cobblestone streets. This being so, the language spoken in and around Schaerbeek has taken on a life of its own.
Dubbed la langue schaerbeekoise in French and de schaarbeekse taal in Flemish, the aim of this project was to discover what words, terms, concepts and emotions make up the unique language of Schaerbeek and how this multicultural commune reflects its many influences in the rich and colorful smorgasbord of a language its residents speak.
The book Mots de la Cage aux Ours/Woorden uit de Berenkuil was released in 2012, and I definitely encourage you to read the PDF version (it’s in Flemish and French) because the introduction explains a lot about the background and aims of the project, which were above all to shed some positive light on a not-so-popular neighborhood going through a period of urban renewal. Or you can click here to explore the ever-expanding online dictionary, an “audio-portrait” of sorts, where you’re able simultaneously read and actually listen to the residents define the words and talk about what they really mean to them.
The dictionary is set up in a few different ways: the words are catgorized by Language (Turkish, French, English, Dutch, “Camerounais”, Albanian, etc), Daily Usage (Abbreviations, School, Curse Words, Identity), and then by Words in Action (Key Words, Points of Interest, Travel Agents, Code Words, Bureaucrats, Metaphors …).
Looking through the Words in Action is probably the coolest way to explore as the reader gets a better sense of who might be using this word and how. One of the authors writes, “Imagine how the expression D’eizels van Schoorbeek resonates when it’s said by a jolly old lady from Brussels. Or Manko-o Shop, uttered by a beautiful ebony-skinned woman, sunken deep into her chair behind the counter, her steadfast African accent, lethargic after many years spent under the brutal sun. With their pronunciation, the residents of Schaerbeek enrich the words with associations, feelings, desires, and their past life experiences”. That’s what is so great about the online version – you can listen to the subjects speak as they give their definitions and opinions on all the words, really giving you a feel for who they are more so than a reading a few words on a page.
The dictionary is an extensive piece of work and gives readers and listeners a taste of all the different languages, accents and people who assaisonnent, or spice up, the language spoken around La Cage aux Ours and the unique commune itself. It’s truly fascinating to see how the Schaerbeekois have embraced their linguistic differences and molded it into a language of their own. As one woman remarked, “C’est pour ça que ce dictionnaire ça me fascine, ça donne un miroir de ce quartier, de comment les gens voient le monde” That’s why this dictionary is so fascinating, it’s like a mirror into the neighborhood, of how the people view the world. Here, here.