Saturday, 8 November 2003

Flemish, Dutch, Netherlandic, what the hell?

A few days ago, I received an e-mail of our friend Wouter to ask us to be very careful with the terms Flemish and Dutch. Now, we usually are, but it is maybe the time and place to explain why there could be confusion or wrong use of terms.

Although you can sometimes even find it in foreign linguists' works, Flemish is not a separate language, but the common name for the Dutch dialects spoken in Belgium. Even there, you make a mistake, because there is no such thing as a group of Belgian Dutch dialects.

Let me explain. Dutch is a West Germanic language, spoken by approximately 21 million people, mainly in the Netherlands, the Northern part of Belgium (usually called Flanders) and by a minority in the French department Nord (South Flanders). It is also the official language of the former Dutch colony Surinam and of the Dutch overseas autonomous areas the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. Furthermore, Afrikaans, a Germanic language spoken by six to seven million people in South Africa and Namibia, is a descendant of Dutch. On the other hand, Frisian, spoken by about half a million people in the Netherlands and a few thousand in Germany, is not a Dutch dialect, by a separate West Germanic language, closer to English, but heavily influenced by Dutch.

The Dutch language area consists of five major dialect areas: Flemish (roughly in the Belgian provinces East and West Flanders, the French South Flanders and the Dutch province Zealand), Brabantish (in the Belgian provinces of Flemish Brabant and Antwerp, the city of Brussels and the Dutch province North Brabant), Limburgish (in the Belgian and Dutch provinces Limburg), Hollandish (in the Dutch provinces North and South Holland and Utrecht) and Low Saxon (in the Dutch provinces Gelderland, Overijssel, Drenthe, Groningen and the non-Frisian speaking parts of Friesland). In linguistic circles, the Dutch language is sometimes also called Netherlandic. Note that the Low Countries were densely populated even in the Middle Ages and so each town has its own dialect. The five dialect groups are only an attempt to group them, mainly on political (provincial) borders, since there is a continuous dialect area without clear borders. The same is true for the border of the Low Saxon and Limburgish dialects with the Low German dialects in Northern Germany. Until the Second World War, there even used to be a continuous dialect zone from Calais in Northern France to Königsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Russia).

Now I have to tell you something about the history of the Dutch language and of the Low Countries. The first Dutch literature dates back to the 11th-12th century and is mainly written in the Limburgish dialects. In the 13th century, the county of Flanders was one of the most important regions in Western Europe. A majority of Dutch texts of this period is written in the Flemish dialects. During all of the Middle Ages, the people of the Romance countries called the Low Countries les Flandres (French), la Flandes (Spanish) or le Fiandre (Italian) and their Germanic language flamand, flamenco of fiammingo. In the 15th century, the centre of the Netherlands shifted to Brabant and in the beginning of the 17th century to Holland. Since the Burgundian period, the Low Countries were usually called Belgium in Latin. The distinction between Netherlands and Belgium dates only back to 1830: the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830) under King William I was called Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in Dutch and Royaume-Uni des Belgiques in French. The Germanic-speaking inhabitants of the Low Countries called their language dietsch or duytsch, from the old Germanic word þeoda (people). It was the language of the common people, as opposed to Latin and walsch (French), the language of the major part of the nobility. It is from duytsch that the English word Dutch is derived, as well as the German deutsch. Since the 16th century, the language was usually called Nederduytsch in order to make the difference with the (High) German spoken in Germany. It is only since the middle of the 19th century that the language is generally called Nederlands.

The people in the Northern part of the Low Countries have always been able to use their language to communicate with the authorities. It has always been the official language and since the publication of the Statenbijbel (Dutch Bible translation ordered by the General States of the Dutch Republic) in 1637, a standard language has developped. This standard language is not only based on the Hollandish dialect, but contains a lot of Flemish and Brabantish idiom, since the major part of the Southern intelligentsia took refuge in the Republic after the fall of Antwerp in 1585. The Southern Netherlands have always been governed by foreign rulers: the Spaniards (til 1713), the Austrians (1713-1792/94) and the French (1792/94-1815). They usually issued decrees in French, although most of the local administration was still in Dutch. Voltaire even complained in the 18th century that Brussels was the European capital with the least Francophones (o quae mutatio rerum). The twenty years of French occupation left a totally French-speaking upper and higher middle class. King William I tried to counter this with language laws (1823), forcing the administration in the Dutch-speaking areas to go over to Dutch. Higher education, both in the North and in the South, was still in Latin though. The catholics, liberals and Francophiles made a mammoth alliance and in 1830 the Southern parts of the United Kingdom declared independence under the name Kingdom of Belgium. In this new state, the use of languages was free, but de facto, the official language was French. Some writers tried to create a historical Belgian identity, to proof Belgium's historical rights for existence. Some even went back to the Belgae, a Celtic tribe living in these areas in Caesar's period. Others searched their symbolism in the Middle Ages. One of those was Hendrik Conscience, author of De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (The Lion of Flanders), describing the heroic fight of the Flemish count Robert of Béthune and the burghers of Ghent, Bruges and Ypres against the French King in the battle of the Golden Spurs in Kortrijk (1302). Although the first intention was to create a reason for existence for the Belgian state in eyes of the Dutch-speaking part of the population, this symbolism was quickly recuperated by the emerging Flemish Movement. The Flemish Movement started as a cultural lobby in the 1840s, but quickly demanded language equality and later also autonomy in Belgium. This finally resulted in the reform of Belgium to a federal state since the 1970s. In 1970, Belgium got devided up in three language communities (the Dutch, the French and the German) and three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels). In 1980, the Flemish Regional Council and the Dutch-language Council merged to the Flemish Council. (So Wouter, that is why I used Flemish as one of the three language communities, since it is officially called that way. I don't say they are right to do so...)

Ironically, we have to thank the Belgian anti-Dutch governments of the 19th century that Belgium has Dutch as its official language and not some kind of Flemish. In the 19th century, the Dutch standard language was unknown in Belgium and everybody spoke his own home town dialect. Especially in West Flanders, there was a movement in the 19th century (headed by the priest-poet Guido Gezelle to create a separate Flemish language and identity, based on Mediaeval Flemish, because importing the Northern Dutch standard language would protestantize the poor Catholic Belgians. The Belgian government ignored them though and was in 1864 the first to officialize the new Dutch orthography designed by De Vries and Te Winkel (even while Dutch was not an official language in Belgium!). In the end of the 19th century, high schools started switching from French to Dutch and in 1930 the universities of Ghent and Louvain started offering their courses in Dutch. Since the arrival of the radio and television, the Dutch standard language was spread throughout the Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium. On the other hand, dialects seem to more persistent in Belgium than in the Netherlands. This often caused the creation of a regional in-between (not standard, but also not a dialect).

Finally, we are getting to my point. Since the coming of commercial television in the Netherlands and Flanders around 1990, the television is no longer a medium that combines entertainment with something useful (e.g. the teaching of standard language), but only an instrument of entertainment. The quality of language decreases rapidly and even news anchors tend to use non-standard language. This is especially true for Flanders (where Brabantish/Antwerp regional language is heavily present on television), although in the Netherlands the same is true for some Hollandish particularities. In Flanders, there is again a movement to create a separate Flemish language. So, I am asking those guys, where would it be based on? The advocates of this opinion are usually Brabantish or from Antwerp. They do not like to be told by some arrogant Dutchman how to speak. They seem to forget that the Dutch standard language is for a major part based on the Southern dialects. They seem not to understand that their tongue is as foreign for a West Fleming or a Limburger than Hollandish or standard Dutch. They have the impression that everybody from De Panne in West Flanders to Maaseik in Limburg speaks the same regional variant. The above should have made it clear that that is totally untrue. And even if it were true, think of what you would create. You would cause Flanders to enter the cultural desert. The Dutch language area has 21 million speakers and has enough troubles to resist the pressure of English and other big languages on the scientific and international level. If Flanders should get its own standard language, separate from the Netherlands, this would create a community of only 6 million people. And this would be a community of six million people without books, because very soon (20 years or so), every book in your libraries is incomprehensible for the average reader. Who is going to translate and publish in Flemish? Come on guys, get real! Dutch is the language of the Northern part of Flanders and if you want to counter the fact that the standard language evolves only according to what happens in the North, start speaking it!

The Flemish government should do a lot more to promote the standard language. I know a lot of foreigners here who try to learn Dutch, but the moment they come into the streets, they don't understand what is said to them. Nobody cares to speak standard. Often it is even ridiculized. What do you expect if even politicians, teachers, professors and media people don't want to speak it? A real pity. But then again, the Flemish have always been a klootjesvolk.