Straight Outta Fourons: Belgium’s Linguistic Madness

It is an old jibe in the UK, especially among Euroskeptics, that Belgium is not a real country. It was formed in response to complicated geopolitical exigencies in 1830, mashing together French-speaking Walloons with Catholic Dutch-speaking Flemings who wanted to secede from the Netherlands. The name comes from an ancient Roman province, itself named for a long-extinct Celtic tribe. The first king was a German prince chosen specifically because he would be neutral (both between the language communities and among the great powers), but it quickly became pretty obvious that French was the dominant language of the new state.

But half his subjects refused to let Dutch go into the night. At every government attempt to make everyone learn the national language, Flanders was a linguistic porcupine. Flemings elected legislators whose chief concern was promotion of their language, until finally by the mid-20th Century Dutch achieved fully co-equal status with French.

And never the twain shall meet (I am not sure why this map excludes the German region in eastern Liège)

Belgium is roughly equally split between the two language communities. Today, 55% of Belgians are native Dutch speakers (with 13% speaking it as a second langauge), and 36% speak French natively (plus 45% learning it). There is also a small German community on the German border. German speakers are less than 2% of the population, and all of them also speak French, but a significant share of Belgians learn German, especially since it is very easy for those who already speak Dutch (there are even dialects in Liège that are liminal between Dutch and German).

The capital, Brussels, is the only part of Belgium that is legally bilingual. Although it lies in Flanders, and no one would dare take a poll, it is obvious to anyone there that it is mainly a Francophone city. As one might guess, about half of Belgian citizens have something to say about that.

An outsider might guess that the achievement of linguistic equality in Belgium was yet another egalitarian liberal triumph of the middle of last century. But even its enshrinement in the constitution has scarcely made things less testy.

In fact, Belgium has basically reached a state of linguistic apartheid. With few exceptions, public services like schools and courts can only be offered in the region’s language, even if someone would prefer the other. TV and radio stations must toe the line. Things have gotten more acrimonious in recent decades, as Belgium has become something of a microcosm of Europe’s troubled economy. The wealthy Germanic people in the north resent being forced to support poorer, unemployed Romance speakers in the south. Walloons tend to be more left-leaning, and Flemings more conservative, which adds another dimension of political toxicity in a country where legislators already literally debate one another in different languages.

The charming village that brought down the government

Thankfully, Belgium has not spiralled like, for example, Bosnia, but conflict over language seriously bedevils the nation. In 1983, the 4,000-or-so mainly French-speaking inhabitants of the village of Voeren elected a French-speaking mayor. But Voeren, or, as Mayor José Happart and his ilk call it, Fourons, is in Flanders. Happart refused to conduct his official duties in Dutch, and was even accused of supporting the Francophone gangs who ran amok defacing Dutch signs. Flanders exploded. Voeren became the epicentre of a national crisis that ultimately brought down the prime minister.

Lest anyone think time might heal any wounds, conflict erupted again just a few years ago. The leafy Brussels suburb of Linkebeek is in Flanders, but most of its inhabitants speak French. Rather than being forced to speak a minority foreign language, they hoped at least to achieve the same convivencia as in the capital, where, for example, schools teach in both languages (albeit with students from either community physically segregated from each other).

Flanders would not have any of it. The suburban civil dispute predictably provoked a national crisis in 2008, culminating with Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigning after just five months in office. In late 2009, Leterme was persuaded to have another crack at forming a government. A few months later, Flemish MPs stormed out of parliament chanting, “Long live Flanders, may Belgium die!” Having lost his coalition partners, the PM was forced to resign again. The crisis finally ended with the Constitutional Court ordering the people of Linkebeek to speak Dutch.

Brussels’ main square: Grande Place, or Grote Markt?

In spite of all this animosity, most Flemings have at least some proficiency in French. French speakers traditionally ignored Dutch, but economic opportunities in Flanders have boosted interest. Today, everyone on both sides wants to learn English. Future generations will most likely be more comfortable with the foreign tongue from across the Channel than with that of half their own countrymen.

In addition to its role as a national capital, Brussels is the de facto seat of the European Union. European language politics are at least as complicated as Belgium’s- late last year, down-to-the-wire Brexit negotiations were held up due to difficulties translating documents into the union’s 24 official languages- but at the current relatively low level of integration, this is rarely an issue outside Brussels. As integration progresses, however, it could hit Europeans closer to home. In most ways, all of Europe becoming more like Belgium would not be a bad thing. But the stories of Voeren and Linkebeek prove that ever-closer union can also get complicated.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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