Suppression Of Language In Belgium

La Belgique, Belgïe or Belgien? These three words all mean ‘Belgium’ in French, Flemish and German, the three official languages of Belgium, respectively. As a trilingual state, Belgium’s relationship with language remains sensitive and challenging. Indeed, in multilingual Belgium, language, as is the case in many nations, is proving to be highly decisive in contributing to regional nationalism. This is because language is a strong component of individual identity which crucially contributes to the foundations of national identity. In sharing a common language, people are immediately unified in a way unparalleled by other common traits. This fundamental power of language to unify also invites entrenched division between peoples. A case study of Belgium, focusing on Flemish and French, will be utilised to demonstrate the latter capability of language in its extreme form.

Before continuing the dissertation, it is appropriate to address what is meant by language and how it exactly contributes to identity and tension. Language, according to the Oxford dictionary, ‘is a system of communication used by a particular country or community’. Therefore, in serving as a repository for culture and history through grammar and vocabulary, language can become the single most affirming factor for one’s individual and collective identity and then as a means of portraying this identity to outsiders. One can look to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder’s perspectives on language and nation in order to justify the theoretical legitimacy of language as a source of Flemish nationalism. In asking “Has a nation anything more precious than the language of its fathers?” (Herder 1772) it is immediately established that Herder regarded language as an emblem of identity and therefore a most critical source of nationalism. Herder’s ideas are valuable in answering whether language is a central cause of regional nationalism in Western Europe. Herder (1744-1803) and his ‘Treatise upon the Origins of Language’ (1772) are often cited on account of the academic community considering his theorisation to be highly reputable and of an innovative quality. Therefore, in evaluation, this source provided by an initiator of nationalism is useful to the dissertation, despite minimal currency, as it is considered a definitive account that crucially linked language with nations. The qualified conclusions that language is a natural component of the ‘Volksgeist’ meaning ‘spirit of the nation’ is highly applicable to the Flemish movement.

Much of the broad theoretical framework around language and nationality establishes a unifying relationship that creates a nation. However, arguably when language is subjected to historic suppression, the resulting herd mentality of the repressed allows language to equally be a source of regional nationalism. Nationalism is a movement promoting the homogenisation of people to then give these homogenised people sovereignty. Therefore, the preservation of nationalism, fiercely sought after in a globalised world, has become incongruous for a multilingual country such as Belgium, where the separation of Flemish speaking Flanders and French speaking Wallonia is increasingly conceivable.

As a result, to answer the main question, this essay will delve into the evidence of suppression of language in Belgium from the 19th century to current day, evidence of language acting as an emblem of identity thereby invoking regional nationalism and the opposing arguments for the existence of regional nationalism in Belgium.

In Belgium, unsurprisingly, due to the strikingly noticeable tension generated by language, reporters have described the contemporary commitment to monolingualism in Flanders as reaching “the point of farce” (Rennie 2006) in the Telegraph British newspaper article titled: Belgium 'an accident of history with football and beer’. Notably, when evaluating, one must recognise the Telegraph is a conservative leaning publication therefore more politically aligned with Flemish politics. Additionally, the writer, David Rennie, was based in Brussels at the time allowing for a primary source where lived experience strongly contributes to the message, heightening its credibility as an insight into early 2000s Belgium, when this tension returned to the forefront of politics. To understand the rise of regional nationalism and this increasingly severe mono-linguistic stance, one must explore the differing historic societal experiences of linguistic suppression on the French and Flemish sides, which creates a culture of “them” and “us”, crucially a mentality confirmed to fuel nationalism.  

07 July 2022
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