“a fun roof in Gent”

So went the message from my colleague Elizabeth Traugott on the 25th, to accompany this wonderful photo:

(This was before Elizabeth went on to Antwerp for the activities of the International Pragmatics Conference; posting here.)

Elizabeth has not yet identified the building for me, but what caught my eye, beyond the roof, was the spelling of the city’s name, GENT (rather than the spelling in English, GHENT). Things are linguistically complicated in Belgium.

Belgium has two principal national languages, French (mostly in the Walloon region) and Dutch (mostly in the Flemish region). Both Antwerp and the city depicted above are in the Flemish region and are Dutch-speaking.

Wikipedia on the city depicted above:

Ghent (/ˈɡɛnt/; Dutch: Gent [ɣɛnt]; French: Gand [ɡɑ̃]) is a city and a municipality located in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province.

Yes, the city has an English name, a Dutch name (which could have been spelled GHENT but isn’t), and a French name (which could have been spelled GHENT but isn’t; meanwhile, the spelling GENT would not have done in French, since that would be pronounced [ʒɑ̃], with an initial voiced postalveolar / alveopalatal fricative instead of the stop [g]).

Other cities have dueling names: French Louvain, Dutch Leuven. And the entire country has a name in English, Belgium, distinct from its name in Dutch (België) or French (Belgique). (English fairly often has its own country names, distinct from native ones: Germany rather than Deutschland, India rather than Bharata, etc.).

And Belgium’s largest city has a distinct name in English: Brussels, distinct from French Bruxelles and Dutch Brussel. For some time, there was a university in Brussels called in English the Free University of Brussels (“free” because free of religious affiliation), with instruction (and many other arrangements) in the two languages — and with two distinct names, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). This made answering the question, “What university do you go to?”, something of a stumper for students there.

In October 1969 the French and Dutch entities of the university separated into two distinct universities. Then, with an act on May 28th, 1970, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université libre de Bruxelles officially became two separate legal, administrative and scientific entities.

With separate webpages, of course.

5 Responses to ““a fun roof in Gent””

  1. Drew Smith Says:


    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Thanks. The site says it “is the original 16th-century Masons’ Guild Hall. On top of the stepped gable, six dancers turn merrily with the wind. Beneath the building, which is the property of the province of East Flanders and the East Flanders Tourist Office, is a 13th-century cellar.”

      The site is visitgent.be Visit Gent. But the pages have references to Ghent all the way through.

      Very nice site, by the way.

      And residents of Ghent are called Gentenaars.

  2. simazhi Says:

    Hi Arnold.

    Nice post. However, I do have two comments:

    1) There is also a third official language in Belgium – German.

    In German English Ghent is also spelled as Gent /’ɡɛnt/. While you are right that it could have been spelled as Ghent in Dutch, the official language where the city is situated, previous spelling reforms have turned it into Gent.

    2) In the same period, other spelling reforms also turned “menschen” (people) into “mensen”, because it was no longer pronounced the way it was before.

    However, the -gh- remains in use in a lot of Belgium family names, e.g. Verbrugghe – while Dutch versions of these names have a tendency to be written as Verbrugge.
    The same goes for -ck- to -k- and possibly other spellings as well.


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