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The Language Border nl  I  fr  I  en  I  de
A geographical language border
On the map of Belgium, the language border is a wavy horizontal line. It runs from west to east just below the capital city of Brussels, and appears to more or less divide the country into two equal halves.
The language border demarcates two language regions: a Dutch and a French-speaking region.
An age-old border...
It is difficult to say precisely how old this language border is. It probably dates from the first centuries of our calendar. In all this time it has barely changed. This is remarkable as it does not coincide with a natural border or boundary. In the West, the North Sea border, it has shifted to the north in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Now it more or less coincides with the border between Belgium and France.
The border between the Dutch and French-language regions in Belgium, between Flanders and Wallonia, is a language border-not an ethnic border.
...initially without political significance
For centuries the language border played a very insignificant political role. In the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of the church and of science, as well as being largely used by the authorities. Later on in the north (today's Flanders), French was spoken at court and by the upper classes. The anonymous masses, consisting of labourers, manual workers and farmers, spoke the Flemish vernacular. Cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels were all governed in the vernacular. Most Flemish cities remained highly prosperous centres of trade until well into the sixteenth century, and defended their autonomy with great tenacity.


The Frenchification of the elite
The language situation remained largely unchanged until the end of the eighteenth century. However, the prestige of French as a language of culture continued to grow over the centuries. Just as in the rest of Europe, the social elite in Flanders spoke French, the language of a powerful monarchy and an influential culture. In Flanders too, French gradually came to be used in secondary school education. Nevertheless, the administrative language was still mainly Dutch. Even the middle-classes very often spoke the vernacular within the family circle. The elite and the rest of the population lived in two completely different language worlds with hardly any contact between the two.
In 1795, the Belgium we know today was annexed by the revolutionary French Republic. The new government used administration, law, the press and education to further the cause of Frenchification. The elite no longer regarded it as simply a matter of course that Flemish be used as the administrative language. This process of Frenchification continued for some time, even after Belgium was annexed by the Netherlands, following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It was only after a number of years that the government of the Netherlands brought in new measures to Dutchify Flanders. However, this language policy was still too new to have had any real effect by the time Belgium seceded and became independent in 1830.
A social language border
Belgium, 1830: French as the official language
The Belgian constitution, which was fairly progressive for its day, guaranteed a number of fundamental rights and freedoms. One of these was the freedom of language: in the new kingdom all citizens were allowed to speak the language of their choice. But at the same time, the new government unequivocally chose French as the state language. It was the language of government and parliament, of administration, the army, legislation, justice, all levels of education, diplomacy and commerce.
In practice therefore, the freedom of language did not amount to very much.
Language and social status
As the official state language, as well as that of the political economic elite, French became a status symbol. It was associated with progress, culture and universality. As the language of ordinary people, Dutch was associated with ignorance and backwardness. Rarely taught in schools, it had little cultural prestige and had not yet developed into a standardized language. It may have been deemed suitable for day to day communication within the family circle, but anyone who wished to better himself would be wise to learn French and at least become bilingual[1].
In this way a new link was laid between spoken language and social position. The new Belgium was divided by two language borders: the age-old territorial language border running from east to west separating Flanders from Wallonia, and the social language border. It ran right through the population of Flanders (including Brussels), separating the elite[2] from both the middle classes and the group consisting of labourers and farmers.
Brussels, a Frenchified capital
The fact that French became the official state language of Belgium had far-reaching consequences for Brussels, the capital city of the new kingdom. Brussels was a Dutch-speaking city, but after 1830 it became the centre of a centrally governed unitary state, where the Royal Court, government and parliament were ail seated. A financial-economic elite as well as a fashionable and cultural elite began to develop around this political centre. Brussels soon had a French-speaking upper and middle class. And so the basis for the Frenchification of the capital was laid.
A century of language legislation
Flemish resistance against the French-language monopoly developed slowly. The struggle for emancipation would ultimately last for more than a century. Every concession made by the French-speaking elite had to be fought for long and hard. The more the Dutch language gained in power and self-assurance, the tougher the demands made by leading Flemish intellectuals became.
In this independent Belgium, the Dutch-speaking population was numerically in the majority. It would take quite some time before it was able to convert its demographic superiority into political influence. Part of the reason had to do with its limited suffrage[3]. Until well into the nineteenth century, the handful of supporters who wished to achieve the recognition of Dutch as an official language in Flanders was dependent on elected French-speaking members of government. And these, of course, were utterly opposed to the idea of having two officially recognised languages in one country. Indeed, it would endanger the state and threaten the unity of the country. Moreover, the French-speaking members of the population were apprehensive of the social-economic consequences of such a move. With French as the official language throughout Belgium, Walloons, without being able to understand a single word of Dutch, could nevertheless be appointed in Flanders as civil servants, judges, teachers or army officers. In a bilingual Belgium, the chances of unilingual Walloons making a career for themselves would be considerably reduced.
In addition to this, the French-speaking population found it unthinkable that Wallonia too would become bilingual. The French-speaking inhabitants of Wallonia therefore resolutely stuck to the territorial principle: the principle by which a single official language would be used in a demarcated territory[4].
Their aim was no longer the recognition of French and Dutch as two equal languages in a completely bilingual Belgium. From the beginning of this century their demands for the territorial principle to apply in Flanders as well, became more insistent. In their view the motto for Wallonia, local language = administrative language, should also apply to Flanders.
The Law of Equality (1898) recognised Dutch as the official state language on a par with French. Wallonia remained unilingually French-speaking, whilst Flanders became bilingual. However, the equality of language did not apply in all fields: Moreover, in both Flanders and Brussels French remained the language of the social elite. Nowhere was it possible to follow university courses in Dutch. This is why, during the first decade of the century, the Flemish struggle focused on the Dutchification[5] of the University of Ghent. This battle was won in 1930. But it would take until 1968 before the age-old Flemish University of Leuven became unilingually Dutch-speaking.
In 1921 Belgium was divided into two unilingual regions, Flanders and Wallonia, and one bilingual region, Brussels. This meant that the language of the region was also supposed to be the administrative language. So the country's political elite did recognise that Flanders had a full-blown language and culture, but still guaranteed the language rights of the French-speaking bourgeoisie in the Flemish towns and cities.
In 1932 the language legislation was adapted entirely to the territorial principle. From then on the rule in Flanders was: local language = administrative language. And yet transitional arrangements remained in force for the French speakers. Moreover the language border had still not been established. Every ten years it could be adapted to the results of the language census. These adjustments were almost always made to the detriment of the Dutch speakers.
Language legislation acquires a definite form
After the Second World War, language legislation acquired a more definite form. Flanders was gradually able to translate its demographic superiority into political power, which Flemish politicians then used to introduce a strict unilingualism into Flanders. In order to safeguard this unilingualism, the language border had to be fixed permanently. After all, the system of the language census opened the door to Frenchification, especially adjacent to the language border and around Brussels. If the language border were to become fixed, it would prevent conflicts. After negotiations between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking politicians had taken place, the language border was given definite form in 1962. This was achieved with a democratic majority of the Flemish and the French speakers. The language censuses had already been abolished in 1961. From now on, any changes to the border could only be made by means of a majority vote in parliament. Belgium was divided into four language regions [6]: a Dutch-speaking region (Flanders), a French-speaking region (Wallonia), a German-language region (near the German border), and a bilingual French Dutch region (the 19 municipalities of Brussels). On both sides of the language border local municipalities which so far had been regarded as bilingual were now given a unilingual statute. Every municipality henceforth belonged to one - and only one - of these four language regions. A number of border corrections were also made during these negotiations. Comines and Mouscron were transferred to Wallonia, six municipalities in the Voeren region were transferred to Flanders.
One year later the language laws for administrative affairs were thoroughly reformed. In the administrative language law the concept of language border was associated with the concept of language region. These language regions were also enshrined in the Constitution in 1970. This was also achieved with a democratic majority of the Flemish and the French speakers. Immediately and once and for all it was agreed how the language borders and language regions could be changed in the future. The aim was to prevent such changes from occurring at every turn. If every new government would also introduce a new language border this would make the co-existence of the language communities in Belgium impossible. Also the objective was to prevent one language community from having the power to adapt the language border on its own[7].
Language facilities
The territorial principle suddenly seemed to have been realised in every way. It was compulsory for all businesses to use the official language of the region in their dealings with clients, employees and local government. However, one exception to the strict application of the territorial principle remained. A number of municipalities on both sides of die language border and in the Flemish periphery around Brussels were given a special language statute. Inhabitants who do not speak the language of the region enjoy so-called language facilities. If they wish, they can use their own language when dealing with local government. This means that French-speaking inhabitants of the Flemish periphery around Brussels may request various documents to be sent to them in French. Primary education can also be arranged for them.
Very strict conditions
The language border can thus only be changed if there is a special majority in the Federal Parliament. This means that the proposed amendment requires a two thirds majority in both chambers of the Federal Parliament and that a majority of the MPs in every language group has to back the law. The language border can thus only be changed if a majority of Dutch-speaking and French-speaking MPs is in favour of doing so. Neither the Flemings nor the French-speakers can thus unilaterally change the law.

[1] And this is precisely what happened. In 1846 3.2% of the total population in Flanders spoke French. In 1866 this rose to 4.1%. In the decades which followed, the number remained fairly constant, with the exception of the cities. What did change, however, was an increase in the number of bilingual Flemish Inhabitants, rising from 6% in 1866, to 12.3% in 1910.

[2] This tiny group of the elite also formed a very politically emancipated small minority. In 1830 the members of the Interim parliament were elected by 30,000 voters, for a population of more than 4 million people. Most of the voters were unilingually French-speaking or bilingual. In Flanders especially, the labourers and farmers were poor and illiterate and did not participate in public life. The legal school-leaving age of 14 would only become law in 1914.

[3] Before 1893 only a small social-economic elite had the right to vote. However, in 1893 a system of universal suffrage was introduced: all Belgian men were given at least one vote, but the elite were given two or more votes. This resulted in an increase in the number of voters by a factor of ten. Universal suffrage (one man, one vote) was introduced in 1919. And in 1948 Belgian women were given the right to vote for the first time. The emancipation of the Dutch language and of the Flemish people therefore coincided with the democratising of the franchise.

[4] The territorial principle thus focuses on language homogeneity. Immigrants are expected to apply themselves to learning the language of the region and to integrate in the new language region.

[5] The Dutchification of Ghent's university was not only symbolic. From 1883 young Flemings were able to follow part of their education in Dutch. When the first batch graduated, they found that they were only able to continue their education in French. The only university in a Dutch-speaking region was that in Ghent.

[6] The concept of language region is not merely descriptive. It is an effective legal concept. The Dutch-language region is not the actual region where people effectively speak Dutch. No, it is the region where Dutch is the official language for a number of domains which are expressly listed in the law government, education, justice and business. Anyone living in the Dutch-language region can use any language s/he wants in private. This rule does not apply to any acts of public authority and for legal matters: there Dutch is mandatory.

[7]There are more Dutch speakers than French speakers in Belgium. We also encounter this ratio in the Federal Parliament. It would therefore be conceivable that all Dutch-speaking MPs arrive at an agreement, across the party boundaries, to change the language border on their own. This was the one thing that was to be avoided at all costs. The Flemings thus agreed to not convert their numerical majority into a hegemony.

For more information:

  • Original version of the above text: Als goede buren, Ministerie van de Vlaamse gemeenschap (Ministry of the Flemish Community)

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