Brussels Sprouts

Brussels is one of my favourite cities to visit, I think because I feel that it appeals to me a lot as a linguist. Brussels is bilingual, and in this post I thought it worth walking through some Belgian history to understand how a country can come to exist with two very different languages and why it’s good to visit such places.

Belgium’s existence owes a lot to a period in history that we don’t seem to study so much in history any more.


Brussels skyline from Parc de Bruxelles, where much fighting in the revolution took place

The Spanish Netherlands, which consisted of a number of formerly semi-autonomous provinces of the Holy Roman Empire, included modern day Flanders (mostly Dutch-speaking) and the Duchy of Luxembourg (where a variety of languages were spoken, but the language of government and high society was French). These two regions were separated by the Bishopric of Liege, a semi-independent French speaking territory ruled by a Bishop. During some internal strife, the Spanish crown lost the territory to Austria in 1713-14. During these periods, citizens were not pushed towards any particular language so remained speaking whatever language they were most comfortable with, because Latin would have been spoken as a common language.


Despite their relatively short history, Belgians are proud of their country

The Austrians lost the territory to the first French Republic shortly after the revolution started in 1789: the territory was completely integrated into France, as was the Bishopric of Liege. The French rule was mostly unpopular for many reasons: the Dutch speakers in Flanders had much of their language and culture repressed, while both Dutch and French-speakers felt the pinch of the Republic’s anti-religious sentiments, being very much strong Catholics.


Maelbeek/Maalbeek station Memorial Wall, remembering the 2016 terrorist attacks

The French were kicked out in 1814, and after Napoleon was defeated and sent off to St Helena at Waterloo, the major powers decided what to do with the territories: their decision was to unite the former Austrian Netherlands to the former Kingdom of Holland to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, the people of the South suffered similar problems to what they had under the French. The new Protestant King ruled as a despot, and the constitutional arrangements disproportionally favoured the north. The Catholic church was denied the privileges it had been given prior to the French rule, and made it policy to make dutch the language of government and so the majority- Catholic and French-speaking population grew hostile to the government.

Revolution broke out in 1830, following a particularly rousing opera in Brussels, which the Dutch government was unable to supress. A cease fire was ordered in November in that year and it was decided (again, by “great powers”) that a country called “Belgium” would be formed from the Southern Netherlands (excluding Luxembourg). This was finally accepted by the North in a treaty 1839, with some territories being transferred to France, to the Netherlands, and to Germany.


Bourse-Beurs, the old stock exchange, in the city centre

Not learning from history, French was declared the official language of government, meaning the Flemish-speakers to the north were essentially reduced to second-class citizens- this was not resolved until the 1930s when the government allowed local government to be conducted in Dutch in the northern regions, while the region of Brussels, by now carved out of the Brabant province, was officially Bilingual.

Belgium was to remain politically neutral, meaning that it was not to be touched by any power over the course of war. The German Empire didn’t much care for this (they referred to the Treaty of London as “a scrap of paper!”) and decided to use Belgium as a short-cut to attack Paris. Britain had no choice but to honour the Treaty of London and enter World War 1. Eventually, the Germans surrendered and as part of the reparations were forced to give up land to Belgium (mostly the land around Eupen-Malmedy and, strangely, the bed of a railway called the Vennbahn). When Belgium received these territories, it decided to allow them to continue conducting their business in German, and so German was granted official language status.

Ambiguities surrounding what languages are spoken and where were resolved by creating a “language border” in the ’60s, roughly dividing the country in half lengthwise.


Manneken Pis

Brussels still remains bilingual, although to all intents and purposes, it is a French speaking city. As a linguist, it is interesting to see how the French speakers pronounce words that are obviously Dutch in origin (the municipality of Auderghem is called Ouderghem in Dutch). I remain confused as to how to pronounce the name of one of my favourite Belgian beers, Kwak, in French (the last time I tried, they gave me a Coke).

I guess the reason I love it so much is not for the chips and the beer (though on a summer’s day a carnet with a can of Jupiler would make it perfect), but more that when you walk round, it feels like you could be anywhere in Europe. When I visited the first time it wasn’t that much different in feel to a large-ish English city, but it could just as easily have been in France or Germany. It feels very much like Europe’s crossroads and the combining of Dutch and French, two very different languages, everywhere makes me excited that language differences need not be a barrier to doing things and doing them well, even if the circumstances of them coming together were not the happiest.

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