The language conflict in Belgium between Wallonia and Flanders, communities that speak French and Flemish respectively, has molded the country into its current state of ethnic, linguistic, and economic division. This conflict between the majority Flemish-speaking and minority French-speaking communities has its roots in 18th century geopolitics, and has continued up until and ever since the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1831.
Contemporary Belgium was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, before becoming incorporated into Austria in 1713. It was “saved” by the French in 1795, leading to a twenty-year annexation, during which a rigid class and language barrier emerged between the Walloons and the Flemish. While the upper classes largely spoke French, they were, and remain, the smaller population. This imbalance bred resentment towards French control over native Belgians (largely Dutch and Germanic peoples), specifically in regard to linguistic inequities. In 1962, the country established an official language border, separating it into four linguistic territories; French-speaking, Dutch-speaking, German-speaking, and Brussels (the capital, and only bilingual region of the state).
The area that is today the Kingdom of Belgium is part of what was once the region inhabited by a confederation of (likely) Celtic tribes, known to the Romans as Belgae. These tribes occupied the northern third of Gaul and were absorbed into the Roman Empire along with the rest of Gaul during the 1st century BCE. By the end of the Roman Empire, the Celtic populations of this region had been replaced by Germanic tribes. During the Middle Ages, the territory comprising Belgium was ruled by Frankish Merovingian and then Carolingian kings, until being absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the 9th century. Later, for a period lasting over five centuries from the end of the Middle Ages, rule over Belgium repeatedly changed hands among a succession of empires. The earliest known French attempt to assert influence over the area ended in 1302, when France was defeated in the Battle of the Golden Spurs by Flemish forces [Blockmans, Koojmans & Kieft, 2018]. Two centuries later, in 1519, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, added the “Low Countries”—present day Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg—to his dominion. In 1713, the bulk of present-day Belgium was shifted to Austria’s rule following the War of the Spanish Succession, as agreed upon in the Treaty of Utrecht. After only eighty-two years of Austrian control, the French annexed the territory in 1795 [Murphy et al., 2021]. This opportunity had been hundreds of years in the making for France, and they hastened to assimilate Belgian culture into French social and linguistic norms. In 1814, the Low Countries were once again united, this time as one country: the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was ceded to William I of Orange following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Finally, in 1830, the Belgian state gained its independence [Murphy et al., 2021]. In part because the Belgian territory has changed hands so often throughout its history, the Northern part of Belgium (Flanders) primarily speaks Dutch, and the Southern part (Wallonia) primarily speaks French [Davies & Dubinsky, 2018].
Around the time of the Belgian Revolution (1830-1831), French speakers dominated the elite class. French speakers led the revolutionary charge, and at the onset of independence, French culture was so strong that French was established as the official language, despite the majority language being Dutch [Davies & Dubinsky, 2018]. Brussels was designated as the capital, and slowly became populated with French speakers. In the 1850s, Flemish calls for recognition were acknowledged, and in 1898 the Equality Law was passed, ensuring that the two languages were treated equally by the government for the first time [Davies & Dubinsky, 2018]. This was just the first of multiple constitutional reforms that have furthered autonomy in both the North and the South.
There are three regions in today’s Belgium: the Brussels Capital Region, the Flemish Region in the north, and the Walloon Region of the south. The German and French Communities both fall within the Walloon region, and the Flemish Region is uniformly populated by the Flemish Community [Billiet, Maddens, and Frognier, 2006]. Each region has its own government, people rarely engage in politics outside of their own region, and the media is targeted towards specific communities rather than the country as a whole. The Flemish community has gained influence in recent years after a long period of suppression, and the regions are now more divided than ever.
On December 13, 2006, a special news report, “Bye Bye Belgium,” was aired on the French-speaking Belgian television channel RTBF. Orchestrated by Philippe Dutilleul, the broadcast reported that the Flemish Parliament had decided the independence of Flanders from Belgium [Collar, 2014]. It was announced that the King and Queen were fleeing the country to the Congo, and “live” crowds were filmed cheering and celebrating, holding Flemish flags. The report also showed traffic jams at the airport, and trams unable to cross the Flemish/Walloon border, causing thousands of Belgians to make outgoing panicked calls [BBC News, 2006]. It was not until 30 minutes into the program that messages were placed on the screen warning that the report was false, and reporters gave verbal warnings as well. Regardless, the program left people confused, with surveys indicating 89% of viewers believed what they saw for a while, and that 5% continued to believe the program. Only 5% said they never believed it [Euwema and Verbeke, 2009]. The goal of the program was to expose the intensity of the country’s linguistic tensions and warn the nation of the possibility of secession. This was not, however, enough to bring about reform, and the country fell into a period of political crisis the following year (see Timeline Event 2007-2011 Political Crisis in Belgium).
The Catholic University of Leuven, founded in 1835, was originally one of Belgium’s most prestigious institutions of higher education. Though it was located in Flanders, the preferred academic language at the time was French. For almost a century, classes were offered solely in French until, in 1930, the Flemish Movement in Belgium forced a change the policy to include both Dutch and French courses. This was not enough to appease the growing number of Flemish students that felt it was impossible to reconcile a unified institution with intermixing French and Dutch speaking students, faculty, and staff [James, 1997].
Protests began in 1967, when thirty thousand Flemish activists marched in Antwerp, the most populated city in Flanders. These protestors demanded a shift to monolingualism, with Dutch as its only language. They were followed by more activists in Leuven itself, and tensions quickly grew between students. The Catholic Church attempted to broach a compromise between the warring sides, but negotiations crumbled. In June 1968, the Catholic University of Leuven announced its intent to split into two universities: the Université Catholique de Louvain and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Confusion between the two universities is common, largely due to the various versions of “Louvain” and “Leuven” used in the country [James, 1997]. This monumental shift of the Catholic University of Leuven reflected a growing dissimilitude between French and Flemish intellectual and activist groups; it was only the beginning of the period’s fractures of higher educational institutions along linguistic lines.
The Dutch language in Belgium is also known as Flemish (Vlaams) Dutch or Belgian Dutch. It is the only official language in Flanders (i.e., the provinces of Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, Limburg, and East Flanders and West Flanders). Dutch is also an official language of Brussels along with French. Flemish Dutch has four dialects within itself: Brabantian, East Flemish, West Flemish, and Limburgish. Both Standard Dutch and Flemish Dutch are often referred to collectively as “Netherlandic” by linguists, but the distinction between them is exemplified by their different social, cultural, and political meanings. Linguistically, Flemish is much more influenced by French, while traditional Dutch nowadays shares more with English. French and Flemish thus share several words, particularly in the intermixing atmosphere of Brussels [Lichfield, 2007].
Image: Provinces of Belgium. Retrieved 9 August 2021 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Belgium_provinces_EN.png.
Image: Official languages of Belgium: Dutch (yellow), French (red) and German (blue). Brussels is a bilingual area where both Dutch and French have an official status. Retrieved 9August 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_in_Belgium.
Belgian French is the variety of French spoken primarily by the French population in the southern region of Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region. It differs slightly from the varieties spoken in France and Switzerland, such as it includes some lexical items that are considered archaic in today’s France, as well as borrowings from neighboring languages (i.e., Walloon, Picard and Dutch). French became the regional language of literature in the 13th century in Wallonia as a result of significant cultural influence of France on the region over the past few centuries. Walloon remained the majority language of Wallonia until the 20th century, and most speakers were bilingual in French and Walloon. While the French spoken in Wallonia was influenced by local languages, the variety spoken in Brussels was influenced by Dutch, specifically its Brabantian dialect. In Brussels originally only Dutch was spoken. However, French influence began in the 19th century and continued throughout the 20th century. Today, many Dutch expressions have been translated into French and are used in the language in the Brussels area [Lebouc, 2006; Rousseau, 1967].
Dutch includes 22 consonants and 13 vowels. Vowels are distinguished by length (i.e., long and short). Additionally, non-native vowels can be included in the Belgian Dutch vowel inventory. They can be either oral (/iː/, /yː/, /uː/, /ɛː/, /œː/, /ɔː/) or nasal (/ɛ̃ː/, /œ̃ː/, /ɔ̃ː/, /ɑ̃ː/). The nasal vowels /ɛ̃ː/, /œ̃ː/, /ɔ̃ː/, /ɑ̃ː/ occur only in loanwords from French [Booij, 1999; Gussenhoven, 1999; Verhoeven, 2005].
Belgian French includes 21 consonants and 13 vowels, plus additional nasal vowels /õ/, /æ̃/, /œ̃/, /ɒ̃/ [Ladefoged & Maddieson, 1996; Fougeron & Smith, 1993].
Morphology and Grammar
In both standard and Flemish Dutch nouns are marked for number (singular and plural) and for gender (masculine, feminine and neuter). Gender is not overtly marked on nouns either, and must be learned for each noun. Dutch has both a definite article (“the”) and an indefinite article (“a” or “an”). Dutch verbs inflect for person and number, and for two tenses (present and past) and three moods (indicative, subjunctive, and imperative). The indicative mood is used for general statements. The subjunctive mood is used for statements that are perceived as hypothetical or desired. The imperative mood is used for commands. A typical word order is subject-object-verb (SOV) [Oosterhoff, 2015].
In both French and Belgian French nouns are marked for number (singular and plural) and for gender (masculine or feminine). Verbs are inflected for tense (past, present and future), aspect, mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional, infinitive, or gerundive), and the person and number of their subjects. French has three articles: definite, indefinite, and partitive. The partitive article is similar to the indefinite article but used for uncountable singular nouns. A typical word order is subject-verb-object (SVO) [Heminway, 2012].
Lexicon and Vocabulary
Both Belgian French and Belgian Dutch include a significant number of words unique to these varieties which are called “belgicisms.”
In Flemish many borrowings are words and expressions that are compounds of Dutch and French roots. For example, droogzwierder is a compound of Dutch droog “dry” and zwierder “spinner” and means “centrifuge,” while in standard Dutch centrifuge is a loanword from French. Similarly to Belgian French, Belgian Dutch includes many belgicisms, which in modern Dutch are considered obsolete or formal [Wikipedia].
Overall, the lexical differences between Standard French and Belgian French are minimal. Among some differences are the terms for numerals. For example, septante for “seventy” and nonante for “ninety,” in contrast to Standard French soixante-dix (“sixty-ten”) and quatre-vingt-dix (“four-twenty-ten”). These Belgian terms occur also in Swiss French. Although they are considered Belgian and Swiss words, septante and nonante were common in France until the 16th century, when the newer forms started to become prevalent [von Wartburg, 1983].
Flemish alphabet is identical to the standard Dutch alphabet and consists of the 26 letters. Additionally, the digraph IJ is often included as a single letter into the Dutch alphabet [Omniglot].
The Belgian French is identical to the standard French alphabet and consists of the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet. Additionally, the vowel may have five diacritics and two orthographic ligatures (œ, æ), which are treated like the letter sequences oe and ae. The usual diacritics are the acute (é) and grave (à, è, ù) accents, the circumflex (â, ê, î, ô, û), the diaeresis (ë, ï, ü, ÿ) and the cedilla (ç) [Tranel, 1987].
Discourse/Sociolinguistic Factors/Influences on Development/History
The conflict between the French and the Flemish due to constant territorial skirmishes and regional battles, can be traced back to the earliest centuries [O’Donnell & Toebosch, 2008]. Modern day divisions stem primarily from the French linguistic colonization of Flanders during French annexation of Belgium, and even afterward. French was once considered the language of intellect and diplomacy, and the French empire effectively used language to influence other cultures. In Belgium’s case, though, Flanders remained separate and autonomous, and speakers of Flemish survived French attempts to diminish the language by cultivating their own separate ethnolinguistic identity. While today, French speakers no longer enjoy a legal position of superiority or greater rights than Flemish speakers, the repercussions, stigmas, and positional inequities of this historical linguistic rivalry still reside along the Belgian language line [Gross, 1993].
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Linguistic Background References
Booij, G. (1999). The Phonology of Dutch. Oxford University Press.
Fougeron, C., & Smith, C. L. (1993). Illustrations of the IPA: French. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 23(2): 73–76.
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Gussenhoven, C. (1999). “Dutch.” Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 74–77.
Heminway, A. (2012). Complete French Grammar. McGraw-Hill.
Ladefoged, P., & Maddieson, I. (1996). The Sounds of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lebouc, G. (2006). Dictionnaire de belgicismes. Lannoo Uitgeverij.
Lichfield, J. (2007). Belgium: A nation divided. The Independent. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
O’Donnell, P & Toebosch, A. (2008). Multilingualism in Brussels: ‘I’d Rather Speak English’. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 29 (2), 154-169.
Omniglot. Dutch. Retrieved 10 August 2021 from https://omniglot.com/writing/dutch.htm.
Oosterhoff, J. (2015). Modern Dutch Grammar: A Practical Guide. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.
Rousseau, F. (1967). Wallonie, terre Romane, Ed. Jules Destrée.
Tranel, B. (1987). The Sounds of French: An Introduction. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Verhoeven, J. (2005). “Belgian Standard Dutch.” Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 35(2): 243–247.
von Wartburg, W. (1983). Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Bonn, Basel.
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Coremans-De Vriendt law. (2019, November 01). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coremans-De_Vriendt_law#:~:text=The Coremans-De Vriendt Law,of linguistic equality in Belgium
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Posted: Sept 2021
Contributing Analysts: Anna Dowling and Reilly Leaver
Editors: Gareth Rees-White, Elena Galkina