Friday, August 31, 2012

Why don't the Belgians speak Belgian?

In Henry Miller's outrageous 1956 novel Quiet Days In Clichy, the following exchange takes place between a couple of American expats and a young French girl:
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.

So which languages do the Belgians speak, and how come?

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.


  1. I actually always explain it to foreigners as: we are on the crossroads of Romanic and Germanic languages, we are the tiny spot on the map that forms the divide between both. This is why Belgians tend to be very well in speaking different languages fluently, because we are surrounded by countries speaking Germanic and Romanic languages, and thus easily adapt to learn French or Spanish equally easy as English or German.

    That way, the complex situation is explained in a positive way. And without lying: Belgians are, in other countries, often in demand for jobs where multilingualness is key. People seem to think every Belgian is fluent in at least 3 languages, and the nice part of it: in many cases it is true.

    I think our multilingualless is a bonus rather than a downside. It has some bureaucratic problems maybe, but look at the positives. Indeed many Belgians speak several languages fluently due to the influx of both French, English and German. I would say this is something we should be proud of, rather than trying to split the country in order to create a 1 language micronation.

    As for the Revolution and its pro-French attitude: the one remainder we mainly see of it today is that Brussels is 80 percent Francophone. I have no issues with that. When I am in Brussels, I speak French spontaneously unless someone really insists on Dutch. I have no feelings like "I am betraying my mothertongue". For me it is a natural thing to speak French in Brussels. I also oppose initiatives such as De Gordel because capital cities growing and thereby swallowing the surrounding towns is a very normal thing. It happens everywhere. In a lot of cities I lived in, some suburbs used to be independent of the big city, but became part of the city after a while. It is a very natural process, not one that should be stopped. If this means municipalities like Wemmel, St Genesius Rode, Kraainem etc become French-speaking: so what? I got no issues whatsoever with that. Last time I was in Jette I talked to a guy who fled Brussels and only visits the city for watching his favourite football team once a week. He said he did no longer feel at home in Brussels. "Once a Flemish, forever Flemish", he said. At that point it became clear to me that, while born in Ghent, I feel Belgian rather than Flemish. I really don't share the sentiment that Brussels becoming a French speaking city is a negative thing, and I really feel no association with the Flemish separatist movement. I don't feel Flemish, I feel Belgian.

    There is actually a language still existing, which is called Walloon. It is not a dialect of French but a proper language. Some villages still have street name signs in both French and Walloon. There is an organisation teaching Walloon to keep the language alive. Studies showed that only a minority of Wallonia's people however still speak the language, and only a very tiny minority speaks the language regularly. There are no media in Walloon language neither. The language is alive but comatose as in: few people realise it exists, and those who know it seem to make not much efford to keep it alive. So I'm afraid that at some point it will vanish completely indeed. If 1 or 2 percent of Wallonian citizens can speak Walloon fluently right now, it would surprise me. I think it's a bit like Latin or Celtic languages: they are alive but the number of people using them is very very very limited. But as long as the language survives, it may be the closest to "Belgian" we have.

  2. Thank you for pointing out that Dutch, French and German are certainly not the only languages existant in Belgium. In addition to Walloon, Wikipedia lists eight regional languages. I may get back to these in a later post, although I fear it will get excessively technical.

    As always, thanks for the input :)