In the 20th century, Belgium holds the record for the longest time after universal suffrage without a formal government. The linguistic borders have been set into stone in the 1960s, and that is the root of many political disagreements in the country: over the decades, Flemish communes have seen more and more French-speakers moving in and “having the audacity” of expecting everyone to speak French with them.
For the backstory, 2,000 years ago no one in Belgium spoke neither Flemish nor French. There was a distribution of Celtic and Germanic languages.
The Romans came and left Latin, which evolved into the Walloon dialects, and the North of the country received an influence from West Germanic languages that led to the Flemish dialects. Every one switched from their first, pre Roman language to a second, main language: One of the variants of Walloon, and one of the variants of Flemish.
The territories that compose modern day Belgium change hands over centuries, so this also contributed to shape the current language distribution.
WALLONIA, FROM A PATCHWORK OF DIALECTS TO A CANVAS OF FRENCH
Both languages conveyed the local culture, but in Wallonia, the authorities realised that it was impractical to have multiple variants of a language, which made it impossible to agree on vocabulary and grammar. This is the type of foundation that is needed in order to create a dictionary.
Unifying the Walloon language would require each one of the dialects to make a compromise and learn a new set of rules, so instead it was decided to push the population to learn French which was an international language at the time like english is today.
Walloons gradually switched to French as their main language. My grandfather was the second generation in his family from the French-speaking city of Mons to go to university. He needed an interpreter to talk to Walloon farmers and factory workers in the 1930s. It is only after the war that Walloon households completely switched to French. By the end of the 20th century there were barely any households left were Walloon was spoken and the language is more of an oddity and a fluent Walloon speaker is seen as a somehow comical relic of an era when the economy was mostly in the primary or secondary sector (i.e. framing and assembly lines).
FRENCH SPEAKING WALLONIA: A SUCCESSFUL SOCIAL EXPERIMENT
Many European countries have attempted to unify their language, but I think that Wallonia is one of the most successful experiments. The region was the biggest market for the Bescherelle grammar book, that was first published in the 19th century, which suggest how eager Walloons were to perfect their French.
Detractors of language unification are often afraid that the culture and the spirit of an ethnic group will disappear with the words used to convey it, but Walloons didn’t implode: they speak a language that is 99% similar to the one spoken in France, Luxembourg and the French-speaking part of Switzerland. There are however local words that made it into modern language, but the Walloon language has almost become a set of dead languages.
As a Belgian I know the dozen or so words that I have to switch to, and anyone I talk to in France or Switzerland will think that I must be from some part of France, without being able to put their finger on it.
In Italy for example, each region used to speak a slightly different dialect. The Florentine version was chosen to build a unifying modern Italian language that is now used as the main by 80% of the population.
There have been similar attempts to unify the language in Germany following the work of religious reformer Martin Luther, which gave birth to a German Standard German.
FLEMISH, A 21ST CENTURY PATCHWORK
In Flanders, they didn’t want to risk jeopardising the local culture to impose a unified language. Instead they did very much like the Swiss Germans, who imported a foreign language to use to communicate in government and across provinces.
The Swiss German speak their dialect at home and use high German, also called German Standard German, at school and for most printed material. The Flemish also speak their dialect at home and use Standard Dutch, which is used at school and for printed material and shared with a majority of the population in The Netherlands.
If you paid attention to my description of Wallonia, the people there gave up their dialect to switch to a more international language. If a foreigner wants to settle in Wallonia, all they have to do is study the official language and they will be fine.
LEARNING BY PRACTICE
If someone wants to settle in a Swiss German canton or in Flanders, the academic language that they can study (German Standard German or Standard Dutch) will not be a universal solution, as they still have to learn the local dialect on top of it. The only way to learn one of the Swiss German dialects is by practicing it with the locals. There are neither dictionaries nor grammar books, so you cannot study it beforehand.
The same goes for the Flemish dialects. The only comprehensive material available are dictionaries and grammar books of Standard Dutch. In order to learn a Flemish dialect, you have to live amongst the locals and learn it by practice.
So under those conditions, the Flemish dialects are somehow made less accessible to any Walloon or foreign speaker. The Flemish will however retort that they can converse in Standard Dutch, so it’s not like there are no options.
A TOUCHY SUBJECT
During WWI and WWII, Germany played in the linguistic differences to try and divide the Flemish and the Walloons. Hitler commissioned as research on Germanic languages and leaned on a common cultural and racial lineage of the Flemish with the Germans. I think they mapped out 29 dialects in total across Flanders, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein.
Another component is an inter generational shame about speaking Flemish. When I studied in the French speaking city of Liège, one of our classmates was from Flanders, and some of her relatives and friends felt that her decision to study in a French speaking college was so that she could brag about fluently speaking French. This comes from a long tradition of French being the language of diplomacy and the nobility several centuries ago.
From what I can understand, until a few decades ago a good share of Flemish were convinced that they were looked down upon by French speakers. It has to be said that speakers of Walloon dialects also have that image, so it’s an even field. The only difference is that most of the Walloons got rid of the stigma by switching to French as their first language. Not that I support the idea that dialects should be looked down upon.
There have also been tales of unfair treatment, such as Flemish soldiers being given orders in French and getting killed for not being able to understand them, but the same can be said about Walloon soldiers.
But to compare apples with apples, the Walloons are at their 3rd main language (from Celtic to Walloon to French), which the Flemish are only at their 2nd main language (from Germanic to Flemish). Belgium also has a German speaking population, who doesn’t really get much say in those debates.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES
Flanders was more prosperous during and after the Renaissance (and most of the historic architecture in Flanders is from that era), while Wallonia had to wait for the 18th and 19th century to have its golden age. The presence of coal across Wallonia helped it to thrive during the industrial revolution. It was able to move from a primary sector (farming) to a secondary sector (production of goods), while Flanders was stuck into the primary sector.
Towards the end of the 20th century, Flanders managed to catch up and take over Wallonia in the tertiary sector (services). Even though prosperity has zig zagged across both regions for centuries, some Flemish think that now is a good time to sever all ties with Wallonia.
To summarise, the relationship between French speakers and Dutch/Germanic speakers is very similar between Belgium and Switzerland: on one side you have a Dutch/Germanic speaking group who can easily find a book and learn the French language, and on the other side you have a French speaking group that is accused of being lazy, even though the spoken language to learn is vastly different from what they can learn from a book. Are French speakers inherently lazier, or should we factor in how accessible a dialect is?
In Belgium, the Flemish are insisting on having Dutch or Flemish spoken on assigned land, but the natural flow of population doesn’t really follow such abstract rules.
In Switzerland, they have taken the approach of updating the definition of the language border based on census. The cities of Bienne and Fribourg for example, have historically been French speaking, but the flow of population means that they have switched to a Swiss German speaking majority. If there is a language border, it has moved to include Bienne and Fribourg in the German speaking side.
The Swiss also try to reduce red tape, so in some cases it is possible to interact with the public administration through documents in any of the four national languages: German Standard German, French, Italian (or Romansh, but that’s pushing it). Corporate web sites are usually made in 3 language versions (DE, FR and IT). Interestingly, the majority of trilingual Swiss nationals are from the Italian speaking part. Since they represent less than 10% of the population, they make an extra effort to be fluent in German Standard German, and it is rather easy for them to learn French. I would speculate that the German speaking Belgians have learned to be as flexible as the Swiss Italians.
In Belgium, the language border cannot be changed, and one is expected to use the assigned language with the public administration. Perhaps Belgium should borrow from the Swiss playbook, because Switzerland doesn’t need 600 days to form a government after holding elections…