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Belgium: Opposing Sides of a Story Told in Different Languages

July 31, 2018


Belgium's history of linguistic division is as old as the country itself. Traditionally, the northern half of the Kingdom of Belgium is Dutch or Flemish speaking, while the southern half of Belgium is French or Walloon speaking. Each large group of language speakers attempt to rule independently having essentially segregated governments for Flanders and Wallonia. From the most recent crisis, it was learned that while the northern Flemings want more decentralization and autonomy, the southern Walloons are against it. Although the southern region was more prosperous for centuries, the northern areas of Flanders is now the high-tech bustling area of Belgium.

Cultural differences begin with the unique languages and dialects that have created a Great Linguistics Divide. Like other areas of Europe, entire nationalities have been "trapped into" or "isolated from" lands where their native tongue is spoken. The split of Belgium can be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France, William of Orange and the Eighty Years War, Napoleon, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Belgian Revolution and through two World Wars. Moreover, those eras only cover the north-south division and doesn't address the German speakers living on Belgium's eastern borders. Although the Belgian Constitution does not specify an official language, Article 4 divides the federal structure by languages spoken.

Bilingual areas are common in the capital city of Brussels, which is considered part of the German-speaking area. Approximately 59% of the inhabitants of Belgium belong to the Flemish Community and 40% to the French Community. Although German speakers only make up a small percentage of the population, most reside in the area re-annexed following Nazi Germany's invasion during World War II. Walloon is the historical language of southern Belgium and mainly spoken by older people. Flanders on the other hand has numerous dialects and varieties of Dutch. Yiddish is also spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews living around Antwerp. Sign language is spoken in Flemish, Belgian, French and German by the hearing impaired. There is no official national narrative in Belgium, rather opposing sides of the story told in differing languages. Fortunately, although the divisions seldom interact, they also seldom clash.

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