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LANGUAGE(S) IN BELGIUM

By Rudi Thomassen

In spite of being a small country, Belgium is very multilingual (not even to speak about the large variety of dialects). In the bigger towns like Brussels, Antwerp, Gent, Bruges, Louvain, Ličge… you’re likely to hear more than one language being spoken in the streets: apart from Dutch (in its Flemish variety), French and German, the three, let’s say ‘original', languages in the region, English, Maghrebine Arabic, Turkish, Spanish and Italian are very likely to reach your ears. (And, especially in Antwerp and Brussels, also Jiddish, Hebrew, Russian and and and...)

But let us focus on the three 'original' languages for a while, because apart from rather widespread apprehension to any of the ‘newcomers’, especially in Flanders, it is the tensions between the three ‘home’ language communities, and in fact mainly between the Dutch and French speaking communities, that keep playing a role in today’s Belgian politics.

The author of a recent (summer 2012) book about the language issue in Belgium, Brigitte Raskin, sees two, or in a way, three different kinds of ‘language border’:

  1. the north-south one, not changed a lot since the Romans, not really problematic;
  2. the social one: French speaking upper classes, Dutch speaking lower classes; until mid 20th c.; partly still playing in the minds of some people;
  3. the legal border, first drawn in 1962; the remaining problem is mainly that French speakers (partly French speaking Flemings!) refuse to use Dutch after they have come to live in the originally Dutch speaking area, particularly round Brussels.

Let’s first have a closer look at the first one, as it is probably the one that has lead to the other two.

Historic north-south language border

Around 52 B:C.: Julius Caesar conquers the area.

Locals probably spoke Germanic and (some) Celtic languages, Romans spoke Latin, of course.

In the following centuries Romans conquer the area up to the Rhine.

Latin becomes the language of political and cultural organisation.

In the 4th-5th c. more and more Germanic invaders, mainly Franks, settle down in the area. Angles and Saxons 'pass by' along the north and northwest coast, most of them cross over to Britain. The Roman empire starts crumbling down, loosing its grip on the more remote areas, which allows local rulers to gain power and become more independent.

As the north half of what is now Belgium was, as far as we can know, less populated (and was probably scarcely brought back under what remained or was revived of Roman administration), the new inhabitants keep their language, whereas in the south they merge with the Gallo-Romans and, as the Roman culture and administration are more sophisticated and developed, the newcomers there take over habits, organisation and language: Latin for official documents, the popular Latin spoken by then being used for everyday communication.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the church organisation remains the only stable element: Latin remains the church language and after the 'renaissance' under Charlemagne it continues being used in church education and political documents for several centuries.

The popular Latin spoken gradually develops into French south of the language border.

Until mid 16th c. the dioceses remain as they are to be seen on this map,going across what are now country and language borders:

The oldest surviving records of 'Dutch':

  • 6th c.: Lex Salica : a number of words and a short formula in what can be considered 'pre-Dutch'; they are 'glossae', i.e. words written next to the Latin text to help the reader understand.
  • end 8th c.:
    • Utrecht Saxon baptismal vow: text in Latin and Frankish words;
    • a few charm formulas
  • 11th/12th c.: On the cover of a manuscript, now in the Bodleian, Oxford, maybe as a tryout of the pen, we find a sentence that may be considered ancient Dutch, although it is a kind of 'glossa', as we find it just under the Latin sentence with the same meaning, and although some scholars now say that it might as well be a form of Old English... (Click here to read more.)
  • 12th c.: Tesi samanunga was edele unde scona et omnium virtutum pleniter plena:
    a remark written on a free page in a 9th c. gospel manuscript: 'This community was noble and beautiful..' (The community referred to most probably being one in what is now Bilzen, in the Belgian province of Limburg. There is no doubt that this sentence is to be considered ancient Dutch indeed.)

'Dutch' by the way, 'Diets' is used in those days to denote the vernacular, not necessarily meaning the language we call 'Dutch' now.

Some steps in the evolution

1096: Godfried/Godefroid of Bouillon is mentioned as being the ideal leader for the first crusade, because he is able to deal with 'Francos Romanicos et Teutonicos'. (Remember that the Franks had, after settling down in our regions in late Roman times, adopted Latin (which would then gradually turn into French) where Roman administration was still stronger, and kept their vernacular(s) where it wasn’t.)

1171: first romance of chivalry (chanson de geste) in (pre-)Dutch ('Old Low Frankish'), by Henrik van Veldeke, who probably wrote in a, East-Franconian dialect; most of his work though has come to us in Middle-Geman translations.

Around 1250: the nun Beatrijs van Nazareth writes Van seven manieren van heileger minne. Beatrijs is the first mystic writer in the vernacular and the first still known to have written in prose, as well as the 2nd to be known by name (after Veldeke).

1260: Van den Vos Reynaerde (Willem die Madock maecte, area of Ghent

13th c. and onwards: Many romances are translated from French into Dutch

1285 Rijmbijbel by Jacob van Maerlant, who earns a lot of criticism for the Bible is not supposed to be 'translated' in the vernacular. Van Maerlant also writes 'Der naturen bloeme', which can be considered a first encyclopaedia in the vernacular.

As Flanders, is then one of the two most urbanized areas in Europe, the other one being northern Italy, the word 'Vlaams, Flamand, Fiammingho, Flemish' comes to be used in Europe to denote anybody from what is now Belgium and (the southern half of) the Netherlands, more or less the ancient Provincia Belgica of the Romans. (cp. the use, later, of 'Holland' to denote the Netherlands of which it is only a part, be it the most urbanised one!)

So ‘Flemish’ is then used for both Dutch and French speakers from the area.

Some parts of the County Flanders (belonging to what Flanders 'lost' to France under Louis XIV) were (mainly) French speaking. But language then was not a real issue yet in the struggle for (more) independence.

During the whole of the Middle Ages Flanders is under the French crown, Brabant and the other parts of what is now Belgium belong to the German empire; yet in both regions the court is dominantly French speaking, although in documents for local use Latin gradually starts being replaced by ‘Dutch’ (which was probably spoken in its regional varieties whereas in writing it was getting more uniform.)

Around 1350 we see the first examples of ‘handbooks’ to learn French in Flanders, which shows knowing French is considered essential there; handbooks for other foreign languages appear only some two centuries later. (Let us not forget that also the English kings, in many cases important partners of Flanders in the struggle against the kings of Île de France (the wool trade being an important issue), were French speakers at that time.)

In 1425 The Low Countries get their first university in Leuven (Louvain).

In the course of the 15th c. a large part of what is now the area of Belgium and the Netherlands gets under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy. More..

In 1477 the reigning House of Habsburg (Maximilian married the daughter of Charles the Bold of Burgundy!) decrees that official documents in Flanders should be written in Dutch, not French, although French remains the language spoken among a larger part of the nobility -- many of them being of French origin anyway.

In 1548 the then emperor Charles V (born in Ghent!) decrees that 'the Low countries' – a term used as an official one for the first time then – will form a more or less independent unity, taking Flanders away from under the French crown.

In 1584 a first grammar of Dutch appears: Twe-spraack van de Nederduitsche letterkunst.

Towards the end of the 16th c. about half to two thirds of the population in what is now Belgium flees to what is now the Netherlands, in order to escape from the Spanish repression of Protestantism.

The North (= the now Netherlands) manages to become and stay independent, and develops into a prosperous, mainly protestant, confederation.

The South remains under Spanish, catholic, rule. The population is far less involved in government, which entails national feelings to be local rather than general, in contrast to the 'Netherlands' where at least the better-off take part in ruling the country.

1637 Statenbijbel: (protestant) translation of the bible made by a commission of which a large part of the members is of Brabant origin; very much like Luther’s translation in Germany, this translation spreads over the Dutch-speaking area very broadly, thus becoming a kind of standard to modern Dutch, which can thus be considered a standard on a strong Brabant basis but further developed in Holland.

In Flanders and Brabant the population keep speaking their Dutch dialects, but as the Bible is not as widespread in catholic areas as it is in protestant ones, a standard does not arise in people’s minds; this might have consequences until today, as we shall see.

Social language 'border'

In the meantime the region of Belgium is (further) ruled by mainly French speaking rulers, under the Habsburg crown, first Spanish, from 1714 on: Austrian.

In fact, as the nobility in Flanders, and for most of the time also in Brabant and part of the time also in Holland, spoke French since the early Middle Ages, the social language border already existed then. (there was a similar situation in medieval England too!)

Yet, it was not until the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th c. that a direct association between the idea of a nationality and the language was made, which would gradually turn the social language border into a regional, viz. nationalist one.

Three moments that might perhaps have led to a more definite language situation in today’s Belgium:

  1. Battle of Namur: had Louis XIV’s army won, almost the whole of what is now Belgium would have become French and French speaking.
  2. Waterloo: Had Napoleon won, today Belgium and perhaps even the Netherlands would have become a number of French ‘departements’, very likely to be French speaking.
  3. 1830: Had king William (and his government) understood the importance of the religious (and cultural) differences between the Dutch and the Flemish (in the actual, broader sense of Dutch speaking Belgians), and taken a more open-minded position, what is now Belgium would still have been part of the Netherlands and consequently Dutch speaking with possibly a French speaking minority in Wallonia.

As it went now, in 1830 Belgium became a state with French as its only official language.

This unavoidably led to the language becoming a social issue more and more. Already after a few years, among others under the influence of the books by Conscience (whose father was a Frenchman, by the way!) the struggle for recognition of Dutch as an official language for the northern part of Belgium gradually started.

Political language border

Belgium in 1830 was organized as a state with French as its only official language.

A first language law is made in 1873: law cases should be held in Dutch for Dutch speakers.

It was not until 1898 though that Dutch reached the status of an official national language (“gelijkheidswet” = law of equality).

The constant language frictions between French speaking officers and Flemish soldiers reinforced the tendencies towards a more nationalist language struggle during and after the first World War.

Very slowly a sort of countermovement or identity feeling started growing on the French speaking side, in fact, first in Brussels and in circles of French speaking bourgeoisie: they probably felt that their dominant position was becoming less evident.

The following, slow, steps were:

  • 1921: first territoriality principle: administration in Flanders in Dutch, in Wallonia in French; in Brussels: mixed in theory but in practice French kept being dominant. This, in fact, politicized the existing historic border, making Brussels sort of an island in Flemish territory.
  • 1932: University of Ghent the first to have a full programme in Dutch only.

Mainly in, or starting from, Brussels the tensions gradually grew and gave rise to political parties focusing on the ‘language conflict’ on both sides.

In the 1960s the economic centre of gravity shifted to Flanders; social unrest in Wallonia (where mines and factories gradually closed down) stimulated the general tendency towards federalism and sharpened a kind of Walloon identity feeling, which had scarcely taken form until then.

1968: The university of Leuven is split: the French speaking part is moved out to Ottignies in Wallonia, some 25 km away. This is a turning point in Belgian politics:

In the wake of this split, he CVP (Christian People’s Party), as the first party, splits up into a Flemish and a French speaking party, followed by liberals and socialists during the 1970s.

The language difference starts showing more clearly a political difference too, as in Flanders politics remain largely dominated by Christian or rather right wing parties, whereas in Wallonia the Social Party is absolutely dominant. In Brussels extremist parties on both sides gain influence.

In the 21st c. the ‘language’ conflict has constantly been clearly present as a tenor in politics, without, however, apart from a few minor adaptations to the structure of the federal state, leading to very significant changes; in the last few years it mainly seems to block the functioning of Belgian politics rather than moving it. And in the 21st c the conflict has quite certainly become far more an economic one than a linguistic one. I feel tempted to compare it with the nationalist outcry in Catalonia, which is also very much an economic one: in both cases the richer region has started refusing to support the poorer one(s) any longer. And in both cases feelings of cultural and social oppression are being used as an argument, although the real oppression dates back to last century and today’s daily life is threatened by other elements much more. It seems tempting to me to compare this with the struggle in the North of the Irish isle, as well as expanding the comparison to many other conflicts over the world: in how many cases are religious, nationalist, language feelings used as a flag under which to struggle for economic or social power?

2012: the area Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde is officially split up in B (theoretically bilingual, although in reality already multilingual) and HV (Dutch speaking).

But in the municipalities around Brussels intolerance shown by French speakers keeps stimulating intolerance on the side of the Flemish, and V.V. of course.

Until now there haven’t been any significant problems with respect to the German speaking community: this may well be the group of Belgians in which the largest percentage are bilingual or even trilingual.

A difference between the Flemish part of Belgium and surrounding Western Europe:

The Flemish have not clearly agreed about a standard in their language yet: lots of regional differences remain and make understanding by those who have learnt Dutch as a foreign language difficult. (Remember that the aversion from a standard might have its roots in history: neither had the Bible taken its dominant influence in the 16th and 17th c., when standards were agreed upon elsewhere in surrounding Western Europe, nor had the foreign rulers taken any interest in creating a feeling of unity in the population ('divide et impera'?).

This leaves an identity question open: do the Flemish consider their language an integral part of the Dutch language (which it seems to be, in fact, comparable to American versus British standards both being considered English, Austrian and Swiss standards being German…) or do they, stressing the differences rather than the common aspects, see their language as a separate one? (And would this option be comparable to Irish vs. Scottish Gaelic?)

As a consequence, standard Dutch remains a kind of 'second language' to many Flemish. (As is standard German to many Swiss; but the Swiss standard of German is officially accepted to be one of the standards of German, as is the Austrian one, whereas in the Dutch language area there seem to be no signs yet of accepting that a language might officially have two somewhat different standards and yet be considered one language…)

Beginning of September 2012, at the start of the new school year, there was a discussion in the press about the kind of 'language in between' – sort of a mixture halfway between standard Dutch and Flemish dialects, and whether this should be used in lessons or not.

(cp. Switzerland)

October 2012