The Wisconsin Walloons13/06/2017

SignMyCar! Belgian Storytelling Tour is an interactive online documentary which focuses on the Belgian Community in the United States. Participants share their stories and sign my car! Their signatures are digitized, enabling viewers to either scan a signature on the car (or click on it online) to discover the life story behind it. SignMyCar! became a Brand Ambassador in 2016 and we write chronicles on this blog about surprising Walloon stories here in the United States!

Today, I am taking you to Wisconsin!

Imagine driving across endless highways in the American countryside. Imagine your GPS informing you that you need to turn left in 954 km… Then suddenly, you stumble upon towns called “Namur”, “Rosaire” and “Brussels”. Alongside the roads are tiny cute roadside chapels named in French after catholic saints. Don’t worry, you are not suffering from “road dizziness” as we call it here, you are simply in the Walloon Historical District in the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin!  

In the 19th century many Walloons decided to create a new life for themselves in Wisconsin. Life was very hard and the Walloon community was geographically isolated because of all the lakes and forests. But these lead the first settlers to create a close-niche community that protected their traditions and langue to this day! Indeed, after 200 years, Walloon is still spoken in Wisconsin and it has become very distinct from its Belgian roots. I decided to visit the Belgian Heritage Center to find out more.

During my visit I met two Professors of Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire : Dr Kelly Biers and Dr Ellen OSTERHAUS. Together they started an ambitious project: the Wisconsin Walloon Preservation Project.

The first Walloon settlers immigrated to the United States without a way to write down their language. They immigrated from the 1810’s to 1840’s while the first writing systems for Walloon happened in the 1850’s. The Walloon community also felt a lot of pressure to assimilate to the New World. During dozens of years, speaking Walloon or being Walloon was perceived as a negative thing. As a consequence, their language is now in danger of disappearing after 5 generations. There are less than 50 people who can still speak Walloon and all of them are in their 70’s or 80’s. Professor Kelly Biers want to change that.

His biggest challenge – outside of the race against the clock – is to create a writing system for the Wisconsin Dialect that makes sense for a native English speaker. The current system of writing for the Walloon language is based on French and looks very foreign to Americans. It creates an obstacle for the new generation to want to learn the language.

Dr. Biers meets with the community to create their own writing system based on the English language. He wants to create a “linguistic primer” with basic vocabulary, expression and grammar and let the Wisconsin Walloon speakers decide of the spelling of each word. This primer – alongside with hours of audio and video recording – is a great tool to preserve and promote the language. The University of Wisconsin and the Belgian Heritage Center are currently talking to regional school districts to maybe create a summer camp where high school students can be introduced to the language, learn about the culture and even try to cook some typical Walloon food!

“The Wisconsin Walloon Dialect isn't dead yet. Those types of tools have worked well in other communities whose language is under pressure. It is not done yet. There are multiple roads ahead of us.” Pr. Ellen OSTERHAUS.

Discover the full interview on SignMyCar! Website. The original interview is in English and is available with French and Dutch subtitles as well as close captioning. Thank you to AWEX and the network of Ambassadors for helping us promote Wallonia right here in the United States!

I will see you again on this blog early July for a new chronicle on one of the last Walloon Kermis organized in the United States.

A bientôt

Severine Dehon

Executive Producer