How their Linguistic Roots Shaped the Politics of Belgians

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.

BACKGROUND

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“Flemmings come over, the Germans will not shoot”. Image source: Flamenpolitik — Wikipedia

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.

Luxury Industry professional, former Head of Design and Competitive Research at the Longines Watch Company

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