Brussels Sprouts

Brussels is one of my favourite cities to visit, I think because I feel that it appeals to me a lot as a linguist. Brussels is bilingual, and in this post I thought it worth walking through some Belgian history to understand how a country can come to exist with two very different languages and why it’s good to visit such places.

Belgium’s existence owes a lot to a period in history that we don’t seem to study so much in history any more.


Brussels skyline from Parc de Bruxelles, where much fighting in the revolution took place

The Spanish Netherlands, which consisted of a number of formerly semi-autonomous provinces of the Holy Roman Empire, included modern day Flanders (mostly Dutch-speaking) and the Duchy of Luxembourg (where a variety of languages were spoken, but the language of government and high society was French). These two regions were separated by the Bishopric of Liege, a semi-independent French speaking territory ruled by a Bishop. During some internal strife, the Spanish crown lost the territory to Austria in 1713-14. During these periods, citizens were not pushed towards any particular language so remained speaking whatever language they were most comfortable with, because Latin would have been spoken as a common language.


Despite their relatively short history, Belgians are proud of their country

The Austrians lost the territory to the first French Republic shortly after the revolution started in 1789: the territory was completely integrated into France, as was the Bishopric of Liege. The French rule was mostly unpopular for many reasons: the Dutch speakers in Flanders had much of their language and culture repressed, while both Dutch and French-speakers felt the pinch of the Republic’s anti-religious sentiments, being very much strong Catholics.


Maelbeek/Maalbeek station Memorial Wall, remembering the 2016 terrorist attacks

The French were kicked out in 1814, and after Napoleon was defeated and sent off to St Helena at Waterloo, the major powers decided what to do with the territories: their decision was to unite the former Austrian Netherlands to the former Kingdom of Holland to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, the people of the South suffered similar problems to what they had under the French. The new Protestant King ruled as a despot, and the constitutional arrangements disproportionally favoured the north. The Catholic church was denied the privileges it had been given prior to the French rule, and made it policy to make dutch the language of government and so the majority- Catholic and French-speaking population grew hostile to the government.

Revolution broke out in 1830, following a particularly rousing opera in Brussels, which the Dutch government was unable to supress. A cease fire was ordered in November in that year and it was decided (again, by “great powers”) that a country called “Belgium” would be formed from the Southern Netherlands (excluding Luxembourg). This was finally accepted by the North in a treaty 1839, with some territories being transferred to France, to the Netherlands, and to Germany.


Bourse-Beurs, the old stock exchange, in the city centre

Not learning from history, French was declared the official language of government, meaning the Flemish-speakers to the north were essentially reduced to second-class citizens- this was not resolved until the 1930s when the government allowed local government to be conducted in Dutch in the northern regions, while the region of Brussels, by now carved out of the Brabant province, was officially Bilingual.

Belgium was to remain politically neutral, meaning that it was not to be touched by any power over the course of war. The German Empire didn’t much care for this (they referred to the Treaty of London as “a scrap of paper!”) and decided to use Belgium as a short-cut to attack Paris. Britain had no choice but to honour the Treaty of London and enter World War 1. Eventually, the Germans surrendered and as part of the reparations were forced to give up land to Belgium (mostly the land around Eupen-Malmedy and, strangely, the bed of a railway called the Vennbahn). When Belgium received these territories, it decided to allow them to continue conducting their business in German, and so German was granted official language status.

Ambiguities surrounding what languages are spoken and where were resolved by creating a “language border” in the ’60s, roughly dividing the country in half lengthwise.


Manneken Pis

Brussels still remains bilingual, although to all intents and purposes, it is a French speaking city. As a linguist, it is interesting to see how the French speakers pronounce words that are obviously Dutch in origin (the municipality of Auderghem is called Ouderghem in Dutch). I remain confused as to how to pronounce the name of one of my favourite Belgian beers, Kwak, in French (the last time I tried, they gave me a Coke).

I guess the reason I love it so much is not for the chips and the beer (though on a summer’s day a carnet with a can of Jupiler would make it perfect), but more that when you walk round, it feels like you could be anywhere in Europe. When I visited the first time it wasn’t that much different in feel to a large-ish English city, but it could just as easily have been in France or Germany. It feels very much like Europe’s crossroads and the combining of Dutch and French, two very different languages, everywhere makes me excited that language differences need not be a barrier to doing things and doing them well, even if the circumstances of them coming together were not the happiest.

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Strong, Stable Leadership (or, let’s change the record)

The Prime Minister has been happy to promise us a “strong and stable leadership”. A lot. Sadly, she has been less than happy to eat a poke of chips.

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(For a little bit of balance, here’s a clip of Ed Miliband doing something similar a few years ago as well as his infamous bacon butty pic, above. British politics is a satirist’s dream.).

The aim is of course to associate these themes with the person saying them, providing re-assurance in the voter’s mind. It doesn’t always work- when Howard in the Big Bang Theory repeatedly listens to Elton John’s Rocketman when speaking to his fellow astronauts (let’s leave the absurd premise of Howard going to space for now) to earn the nickname Rocketman, but they instead plump to call him Froot Loops after an unfortunate interjection from his mother.

Repetition to reinforce a point isn’t anything new. In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar decides it’s time to set up a statue of himself. His instructions are somewhat lacking in brevity, but they are repeated often. It’s hard to miss and it makes for a rather lengthy read:

Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages,  that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.

 And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.”

Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Later on in the chapter, we see two more repetitions of the music list, one more of the list of government officials, and several of the three men Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and a burning fiery furnace.

So why all the repetition? Why not just say “music”,”the image”, “government officials” and “the three friends”? Would this not make the passage shorter (and less of a pain to read out in church or small group)?

Well, yes it would, but I think Daniel is emphasising a point- in the first part, it’s emphasising the king’s unquestioned authority. What he says, happens. All the government officials are called- and all government officials come. All the people are to bow down to all the music- and all the people bow down to all the music. Anyone disobeying the king’s command is to be thrown into a burning fiery furnace and the three men are thrown into a burning fiery furnace.

In the second part, however, we see that the names of the three men are repeated over and over again, while the previous repetitions are reduced. Eventually, after the men are miraculously delivered from the burning fiery furnace, the king gives a new decree:

“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.

Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”

Instead of the list of music and the image he set up, we now see the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the fiery furnace is gone, and instead of an image he set up, there’s now a god who is seen to deliver people. In this way, God has shown the king who really has authority and he has reacted accordingly. For now.

In Jesus’ time, we see the effect miracles and teaching have on those watching, and not just the Jews. A centurion, on asking Jesus to heal his servant, remarks:

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.

He is recognising Jesus’ authority. He tells men what to do, yet recognises Jesus as a higher authority than he. This gives great comfort when dealing with earthly rulers, but also serves  as a reminder as to whom it is we are really serving.


(Most of this was borrowed from a blog post I already wrote a couple of years ago, but thought I would re-use it for topicality. I haven’t written in a while, so thought I would ease my way back in to it!)

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Son of the Manse

A few people have asked me lately what it’s like growing up as a minister’s child. The below is a few disjoint  thoughts (I wrote a blog on this some time ago, but it’s good to refresh the memory!).

Ministers have a tough job, but tradition has it that their wife’s “job” is just as tough. Ministers are very busy folk. My dad was often away in the evenings with home or hospital visits or Presbytery or Union Commission meetings, so mum was often left to “hold the baby”. Couple that with the expectation that the children are supposed to behave like little angels (it’s there, I’m afraid), I’m surprised my mum never seemed to be overwhelmed by stress. Maybe the matching Sunday morning outfits helped, I’m not sure.

When we were growing up, the older ladies in the congregation doted on us. If we hung around after Sunday School long enough, one of them (she owned a sweet shop) would give us sweets-my brothers and I would spend ages putting the chairs away afterwards to make sure we caught her attention. Prayers were often offered for the “Manse family” (a term I never really liked), and while there’s nothing really wrong with that, it always engendered in me a certain amount of discomfort as I didn’t feel my brothers and I to be particularly “special” in relation to other kids. Though mum was never short of potential babysitters! The downside was that I really struggled with being well-known and not really wanting all that much attention from people. People would constantly ask me if I wanted to be a minister like my Dad and I’d say no, and I’d wonder if I’d said the wrong thing.

I think for me the biggest issues came at Prep school. It somehow came out (probably from me; my goody-two shoes attitude did not win many friends) that my dad was a minister. I guess it was because there was a lot of privilege there and some of the boys, myself included, would feel a sense of entitlement because their father was a politician or a lawyer or what have you. The other boys would say he was a priest (which, sadly, was meant to be an insult) or a paedophile. They’d try and get me to swear (at the time, I thought swearing was the worst thing you could possibly do), look at nude pictures (which didn’t interest me as an 11 year old) or rip me to shreds because I’d never watched a 15-rated film (or, later, go out clubbing). But I would later give as good as I got, since I knew I wasn’t going to be popular either way. In the end, however, I came to realise my problems lay because my identity and salvation were rooted in who my father was and not in Jesus.

I have come to realise that it’s great to have grown up with the gospel, even if I didn’t understand I needed to believe it for myself until I was 21. Every night after dinner, we would have a Bible study. We didn’t enjoy it, especially not the singing afterwards; we’d go through Junior Praise (later Mission Praise) and take it in turns to choose which song we’d sing (we’d start from the last one we sang and choose one from the next ten). Invariably, we would choose the shortest one, so Abba Father (Mission Praise 1) got more airings than I care to remember. I once got sent to bed early for refusing to do the actions to one song (I don’t remember which one; I thought doing actions was lame).

In Romans 3, Paul asks if there’s any advantage to being a Jew (and we can take it as meaning those who know the scriptures) and he responds in the positive: however, he goes on to make the point that having this alone doesn’t save you, and that you need to acknowledge that you are as much in need of Jesus as anyone else. Looking back, this is definitely applicable to every child that grows up in a Christian home, and I would count myself among the worst offenders at dismissing it. Thank goodness, then, for grace.

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Some photos of 2016 (free of Brexit and Celebrity Deaths)

I usually write a “year in review” type blogpost- I thought this time I would let some photos I took do the talking. Enjoy!



I got caught in the snow in January while in town…



But I made a new friend (he didn’t stick around long)


…and a few days out shopping


Spring came and Edinburgh lit up again

Ross County won their first major trophy. The Hibs fans who had occupied the vacant seats were able to celebrate later on.

I discovered that people will pay and eye-watering £75 for a t-shirt…


I enjoyed the new upgraded World of WarkCroft at Dave and Laura’s wedding

In May, Luke and I stumbled across a cycle race right in the middle of Edinburgh, surely the most scenic one in the UK


In the first of many celebrity sightings, I met the star of the new emoji movie

In July, I took a holiday to Bordeaux with some friends, where you can cool yourself down with water jets outside the old Stock Exchange building 

My brother (hi-viz vest) had his stag do in MK. It was a blast.


Then we swapped khaki for suits so he could actually get married


Edinburgh put on a natural show during the festival


Celebrity spotting 2: Eamonn Holmes struggling to control a dog during recording of This Morning in London

I saw a doubly patriotic display in Anstruther on the August bank holiday. Good chips too.

Morningside looked amazing in the late summer


Celebrity spotting 3: one of my childhood heroes

Helena and I at the end of the Great Scottish Run-many thanks to the people of Glasgow for the sweets and encouragement

In a happy place, at Formula One’s most famous corner

Nice wasn’t bad in October


The Mediterranean was inspiring

Flexible working days gave me the chance to see the centre of town at dawn

My rock, my refuge

I had a few trips away for work: this is the view in Berwick in November

Celebrity spotting 4: the Sheriff of Nottingham (or Baldrick, if you must) 

The West Bow got all lit up for Christmas

All I wanted for Christmas was a steakhouse, and boy did Edinburgh deliver

Good times with Cord. Even better times when a gas leak means you can have it at the pub.

We went to the Balmoral for a work night out, and the view was amazing.

Thanks for looking through- I’ll leave with a few words from John’s gospel to think about in the run-up to Christmas. Jesus is more than a baby, through him, we can have a closer relationship with God than we can ever imagine was possible.

Merry Christmas!

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.


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