Before I had time to answer, the girl turned to him, and almost as if frightened, asked what language we were speaking.
"Don't you know English when you hear it?" said Carl, giving me a glance which said I told you she wasn't very bright.
Blushing with confusion, the girl explained quickly that it sounded at first like German, or perhaps Belgian.
"There is no Belgian!" snorted Carl. (...)The truth in Carl's remark might be obvious to some, but you don't have to be ignorant or illiterate to assume that Belgians speak Belgian. To make it absolutely clear, they don't. The official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch, and German.
Why not Belgian? The answer is, as many things regarding this little country are, complicated.
In fact, there may have been a Belgian language once. It was first hypothesized by the Flemish linguist Maurits Gysseling (1919-1997). He proposed that the Belgae, a tribal people who inhabited northern Gaul around 300 B.C., spoke a language different from that of their neighbors, the Gauls, who were a Celtic people. This claim is supported by Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War, which details Caesar's conquest of, among many other tribes, the Belgae. In the Commentaries, Caesar mentions that the Gauls and the Belgae spoke different languages.
After Caesar's conquest, the Belgae became assimilated into Celtic culture, losing their language in the process. Carl is right; there is no Belgian.
Since Caesar first invaded Gaul, the territory we now know as Belgium has changed hands a number of times. (If you want a closer look at the region's complex history, here's an impressive timeline of the Low Countries from Wikipedia.)
Two major powers have influenced the culture and languages of the region more than any other: the Netherlands and France. This is why the northern half of Belgium (Flanders) speaks mainly Dutch, while the southern half (Wallonia) speaks mainly French.
The Belgian Revolution of 1830 gave rise to a language struggle which continues to this day. While the two language communities were roughly equal in size, the Revolution was decidedly pro-French, dominated by the French-speaking cultural elite and the then-strong economy of the industrialized, French-speaking southern part of the country. As a result of this, French became the official language of Belgium.
The Belgian Revolution of 1830 placed French firmly at the top of the
Belgian language pyramid, where it remained for almost a century.
Painting by Gustave Wappers (1803-1874).
It wasn't until the early 20th century that Dutch became the official language in the northern provinces and was also given equal status to French in the Brussels capital region. In 1962 Belgium's official language borders were defined, which significantly raised the status of the different languages in their respective areas. In addition to the French-speaking south, the Dutch-speaking north and the bilingual capital region, nine of the easternmost municipalities in Belgium now have German as an official language. They are part of the East Cantons, which were annexed from Germany after World War I.
The Belgian language may died two thousand years ago, but in the meantime, the Belgians have found no fewer than three worthy replacements. Since then, the challenge has been how, when and where to use and impose these languages. Meanwhile, the status of the Belgian regional dialects is shaky at best. But that's a story for another time.