Monday, April 7, 2014

F is for French and Flemish

Fran├žais—French.
Vlaams—Flemish.
Phlegm—phlegmish?


The United States has one official language (English), Canada has two (English and French) and Belgium has three official languages (French, Flemish and German). Meanwhile Phlegmish is only spoken by me when I have a bad cold.

Belgium is a young nation in a very old country. Over 2,000 years ago Celtic and Germanic tribes—including the Belgae—lived on lands between the Rhine River and the English Channel. When Julius Caesar arrived in Gaul and its surrounding territories he ordered his Roman soldiers to conquer the native tribes and fold their lands into the Roman Empire. Most of the Gaulish tribes capitulated quickly, but one Germanic tribe—the Belgae—fought long and fierce against the Romans. This fact frustrated Caesar while also earning his respect. In his book Conquest of Gaul, Caesar claimed: “Of all the Gauls, the Belgae are the bravest.” He also said: “They make the best chocolate.”

Eventually in 57 BC the Belgae capitulated to the well-trained Roman army and became part of the vast Roman Empire. In greater Gaul—including the southern lands of the Belgae—the Romans introduced roads, bridges and Latin. Eventually this Latin morphed into the French language. In the northern part of the Belgae’s lands, the population continued speaking Germanic languages which grew into Flemish. Flemish is very similar to the Dutch language as both share the same grammar and syntax. The differences that exist between the two lie in some vocabulary and accent. In other words, Flemish is to Dutch as American English is to British English. They are mutually comprehensible minus a “lorry” (truck), “lift” (elevator) and the Cockney accent. While Americans say we speak English not “American”, Flemish people living in Flanders prefer saying they speak Flemish not Dutch.

Running south of Brussels, an east-west language border, bisects the country into Flemish speakers in the northern part of Flanders, French speakers in the southern part of Wallonia and chocolate eaters everywhere in between.

Until 1794, both Flemish and French were spoken in this area. When Napoleon invaded and conquered Flanders and Wallonia he made only French the language of government, administration and the universities. Thirty-four years later when Belgium became an independent country with a king of its own, French was further established as the language of the aristocracy, the judicial courts, culture, the press, ranking military officers and the Belgian constitution. Strange but true: in a country with two languages, the country’s constitution was only written in one of them. Taken together these reforms effectively made Flemish a second-class language and discriminated against Flemish speakers.

There is a story from during World War I, when Belgian forces met German troops. The French-speaking Belgian officers ordered their troops to retreat, but unable to understand the French words, the Flemish-speaking soldiers instead attacked the Germans. It was a massacre. Unfortunately, that incident reoccurred several times during that war. 

After World War I and through the Treaty of Versailles, a small region of western Germany became part of eastern Belgium. To this day, some 80,000 residents of this area still speak German. Language traditions are hard to break. Just ask Caesar.

It was only in the freedom-loving, open-minded 1960s, that Flemish people won rights for their native language including: having the Belgian constitution written in Flemish, being able to attend schools and universities in Flemish and running for government office in Flemish. Likewise, it was just in 1991 that the Belgian constitution was translated into German.

Debates over Flemish and French—and which language to use where—have threatened the fabric of the nation because people become passionate when others limit their language use and by extension, limit them. Remember what Caesar said: The Belgae are fighters.

Today Belgium has a population of 10 million people, 56% of whom speak Flemish; 38% speak French; and 1% speak German. In Belgium this official language business means that in each region—Flanders, Wallonia and the German-speaking region—the laws, education and all government business must be conducted in the language of the region. This makes for many official languages for such a small nation. But then it’s important to remember that the languages existed before the nation. 

It’s also good to remember what else Caesar said about the Belgae: “They make the best chocolate.”