The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #9 May / June 2014
Language Conflicts
Flemish vs. Walloon
May / June 2014 | 

Many of us who study languages do so in the hopes of crossing the bridge of understanding into other cultures. Through learning another language, we can learn another way of life. But what happens when cultures clash because of language differences? These conflicts can range from simple distrust and anger to outright war and destruction.

Belgium is a country that is torn by language, although it is on the lesser extreme of the conflict spectrum. The country is a convergence point of both Latin and Germanic cultures, having been ravished by many greater nations over the centuries. The Spanish, Austrians, French and Dutch, each one marching into Belgium, battling with other nations, and plundering the land, has ruled it.


At the end of the Middle Ages, a region of Europe emerged called "the Low Countries". Most of these Low Countries were coastal regions bounded by the North Sea or the English Channel, giving them good potential as ports. Those neighbouring countries without access to the sea aligned themselves both politically and economically to those with access, forming a union. These territories would eventually become modern Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Map of Belgian municipalities with language facilities for speakers of the minority language.

It was in this region that early northern towns were built, and they quickly developed a dense population similar to that of northern Italy. Figurehead rulers, along with guilds and councils, governed these cities, and all these regions depended mainly on free trade for their continual survival.

With the rise of the Kingdom of France and the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, the Low Countries felt the domination of both, and so they loosely aligned themselves with one or the other. The southern part of this region became divided politically and linguistically, but not along the same borders. This caused some of these new fiefdoms (property under the control of an overlord for the sake of service and protection) to have both Franco and Germanic speaking regions. This did not bother the rulers, who were at this time primarily the French and the Dutch, and did not normally speak the language of the population.

In some areas, you can literally cross the street and go from a Flemish to a Walloon neighbourhood.

During the 1800s, as these fiefdoms became stronger, developing into their own states, power struggles became very heated. The French replaced them with departments that more closely followed linguistic borders. There were two the exceptions, Dyle and Forêts, which went on to become the provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and, eventually, of Belgium. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was primarily formed to prevent further expansion of France, and in 1815, the territory which made up Belgium was incorporated into it. However, this put the French-speaking population of Belgium under the control of the Dutch, and the Belgians resented the Dutch dominance. This led to a revolution in 1830, which gave Belgium its independence. They chose an uncle of Queen Victoria (of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), Leopold I, as their first King. However, the country's troubles were far from over.

"Belgium" wasn't even known by that name. Instead, its regions were named by the major count ruled "counties" and duke ruled "duchies", such as Hainaut, Brabant, and Flanders. The name "Belgium" comes from the Roman named "Belgii" tribes of northeast Gaul.

Modern Day

Despite having been under the rule of the Dutch, French was the only official language of Belgium until 1898. The government refused to acknowledge Dutch as an official language, which led to hostilities between the linguistic groups. The 1898 Equality Law made Dutch an official language of Belgium, but French remains the language of the aristocracy.

Now, Belgium is divided mainly along its Latin and Germanic heritage. The Latin-evolved language of French has prominence in the region known as "Wallonia", and the dialect of French spoken there is called "Walloon". The Germanic-based language form of Dutch has its place in the northern areas, and its dialect is called "Flemish". There is also a rising German presence along the borders of Germany, just to make things more interesting.

A bilingual French-Dutch traffic sign in Brussels

The language areas of Belgium were established in 1963, and these divisions were included into the Belgian Constitution in 1970. They roughly assigned Flanders to the Dutch language area, Wallonia to the French language area, and Brussels to the bilingual language area. There is a fourth region on the eastern border between Wallonia and Germany where German is spoken.

These "linguistic lines" are very obvious throughout most of the country. In some areas, you can literally cross the street and go from a Flemish to a Walloon neighbourhood. Everything changes between those: the spoken language, signs, billboards, etc. Even while driving along the highways, you can see the names of the locations on the signs changing, depending which "section" you are in. This can be very confusing to just about everyone.

Each region has its own administration and government. Public libraries, fire houses, unions, even churches are all duplicated between the Flemish and Walloon languages. The countries capital Brussels is in the Flemish northern half, and is supposed to remain bilingual, but is predominately French. Dual-language signs do exist, but they are often the targets of graffiti, which is used to deface one of the two languages.

The conflict between the two sides has been expanding over recent events, including the introduction of French-speaking cable TV and a festival of French films, the latter of which was cancelled due to a demonstration of a Flemish group in the school the festival was to be held.

Perhaps the biggest issue is economics. The economy is struggling, and the country's debt is one of the largest in Europe, lower only than the debts of Greece and Italy. Wallonia is mired in the countries old industrial structure, which has made it difficult to compete in the modern marketplace, and the defenders of it argue that Flanders should show more solidarity by helping it. Meanwhile Flanders, which has been actively modernizing its microelectronics industry and rivals the US Silicon Valley, regards Wallonia as lacking strength and character.

Belgian nationalism

Demonstration in Brussels, Sunday, November 18th 2007, for the United Belgium (against the separation of Belgium)

This doesn't mean that some efforts haven't been made to unify the country. Belgian nationalism began to emerge in the late 19th century as an effort to overcome the ethnic and linguistic divide and create a national culture. Critics argue that the attempts to forge a national identity and culture have been unable to prevent rivalries.

Both sides, Flemish and Walloon, want to become the dominant one in controlling the country. Compromises have continued to keep the balance in check without leading to violence or division, but how long that remains is unknown.

Language Conflicts: Flemish vs. Walloon
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Willy / Pastranec / gpvos: Map of Belgian municipalities with languages
tillwe: Bilingual French-Dutch traffic sign in Brussels
Didier Misson: Demonstration in Brussels
PD: Buildings
• "Fleming and Walloon" Encyclopædia Britannica <>
• "Walloon language" Wikipedia <>
• "Flemish people" Wikipedia <>
• "Flemish" Wikipedia <>
• "The language divide at the heart of a split that is tearing Belgium apart" Ian Traynor, The Guardian <>
• "A nation divided - Belgium's identity crisis" Bruno Waterfield, The Telegraph <>
• "Partition of Belgium" Wikipedia <>
• "No Love Lost: Is Belgium About to Break in Two?" Leo Cendrowicz, Time <,8599,2000517,00.html>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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