Dutch-Speaking Community :
paper by Zachār Laskewicz
The Dutch-Speaking Community: 'Hollands' and 'Flemish'
Gemeenschap: Hollands en Vlaams
The language which
English speakers call 'Dutch' is traditionally seen as being spoken in the Netherlands, a small country in Northern Europe.
Most people know that is related to English in some way, and also to
German, which is logical because this country is positioned between England and Germany. What many people don't know is that Dutch is
actually spoken in Belgium,
or in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of
this country. A great deal of people
to be a French speaking country despite the fact that more than half of the
populace is 'Flemish' speaking.
Flemish is the variety of Dutch spoken in Belgium,
and in this paper I will discuss the relationship between Flemish and
traditional 'Hollands' Dutch (that form
of Dutch spoken in the Netherlands). It will reveal itself to be a complex
relationship involved with both historical and social factors that act to
divide and subdivide the community.
Having lived myself for the last couple of years in both Holland and
Belgium I have been given the chance to gain a real insight into language, and
especially the way it varies depending on a wide range of different political,
social and economic circumstances. It
will soon be made clear that Bell's
Uniformation Principle is a living reality (Wardhaugh, pg. 18): the linguistic processes which can be
observed now are the same as those which operated in the past, so in order to
understand the attitudes of Dutch speakers today, we have to have an insight
into the history. In this paper I will
be discussing 'Dutch' in all its different forms, attempting to present an idea
of the incredible wide range of variation that occurs in such a small area of
land. It is well known that the Dutch
speaking area of the world can fit more than thirty times into Western Australia
Dutch is a
language primarily spoken in Holland and Belgium, although Dutch colonialism brought the
language also to Suriname
It is classified as a Germanic language that falls into the
West-germanic family, sharing this category with English, Fries and German.
(Toorn, pg. 17). In the context of this
discussion we will be exploring the multi-form variations observable in the
Dutch-speaking community, and we will quickly see that this is no easy or
simple task. For example, the Belgian
variation of Dutch (Flemish) is considered by many to be a different language
worthy of separate classification. (Fromkin, 1990). This helps to demonstrate that what defines a
language as opposed to a dialect or some other type of variation is dependent
not on a kind of reality but on what one is taught to think about certain
speakers the contrast between Flemish Dutch and Holland Dutch is clear: it
occurs at the boundary between the two countries. In Holland,
if one begins to speak in 'Flemish' the accent is immediately recognised and
the listener may make a comment relating to the distinctive sounds connected to
that 'Belgian' language ('Belgisch').
This 'Belgian' language of course doesn't exist, and is merely the name
that has been chosen to refer to that far away language spoken by the Flemish,
a race distant from the Dutch even though the language itself is technically
the same. The Dutch reaction to Flemish
becomes even more surprising if investigated a little closer. Television programmes that are taken from Belgium and
shown on Dutch television, for example, include Dutch subtitles even when the
words imitate exactly what is written on the screen. The Flemish find it also quite frustrating to
walk into a shop and to ask for something in standard Dutch, and simply not be
understood or be answered in English because the sounds are simply so foreign
to the ears of Dutch speakers: because of a small difference in accent and even
smaller in vocabulary, the Dutch refuse to understand the 'Flemish' and the
Flemish do their best to avoid listening to the Dutch because they have been
taught in the context of Flemish culture to find the sound of Holland Dutch
aesthetically unpleasant, which extends to a general dislike of Dutch beliefs
What makes it all
the more confusing is when we realise that the core of Flemish speaking
countryside stretches into Holland: Brabant and Limburg are divided into both Belgian and Dutch
divisions. 'Brabants', the accent
adopted on both sides of the border in Brabant,
was actually the original language accepted as the standard form (Toorn, pg.
64). As such, common dialects of
'Flemish' can also be heard in the Dutch countryside, and the further South you
travel the more the sounds seem to resemble the stereotyped Flemish
'variation'. However, the Dutch are
still able to distinguish between Belgian Flemish and the Dutch variations
because of the small lexical and sound contrasts. This may be a small contrast, but forms the
difference between being understood and being treated as a foreigner. What is surprising is the attitudes this
small difference will evoke in the Dutch listener. If you speak a Southern Dutch dialect such as
Brabants or Limburgs, or a variation of this, you will be
certainly be understood by the speakers of standard Dutch, although it is
possible that you will be looked down upon because of the diglossia present in
Holland between standard Dutch and any Dutch dialect. If however, you were to cross the boundary
and speak Flemish, you will be seen as someone from a completely different
country and most likely not understood.
If they do understand you, you will certainly be for the Dutch an exotic
foreigner or a sort of relic from the past.
Within Holland the language
divisions are easier to classify as Dutch has been accepted as the standard
language. In Belgium however, the question is
even more complicated. What is known as
the taalgrenzen (language boundaries) for Flemish speakers were not laid
until after the first world war. This
means that the Flemish have on the one hand been fighting for their own
language identity away from the French speaking oppressors while at the same
time trying to identity themselves as a race apart from the Dutch who seem to
have an entirely incomprehensible and ugly culture. As such, 'Dutch' or 'Flemish' is viewed in Flanders in a wide variety of contrasting ways. Many of those working in education believe
that they speak the same language as the Dutch, that this unifies them in the
Dutch speaking area. Many of the Flemish
however never take the trouble to learn standard Dutch, but instead speak
French and their dialect. Many consider
Flemish to be an independent language to Dutch and reject the language
standardisation that has occurred over the last fifty years. Discussing the various forms and attitudes to
'Dutch' is evidently not a simple question, leaving us with a number of open
ends that will have to be explored in more detail.
Until a couple of
years ago the standard form of Dutch spoken in Holland and introduced into the general
Flemish educational system was known as ABN, which is short for Algemeen
Beschaafd Nederlands. This can be translated as 'General, Civilised Dutch.
As mentioned, this was a form of Dutch spoken in Brabant, a kingdom that
is now half in Holland and half in Belgium. Toorn defines ABN as being 'the language from
one area that formed the beginning point for the standard language of an entire
country'(pg.64). Toorn goes on to discuss other cultures that have
treated a single language in a similar way, for example French from the
language spoken in Paris and Greek from the form spoken in Athens.
These distinctions are of course political tools for the creation of
unity and are not universal language truths as is largely accepted within the
communities: like in France in Greece, those that don't speak the standard
language (ABN) are considered by most to be farmers ('boeren') or simply
coming from a lower social division. As
mentioned, the primary exception in the contemporary world is Flemish Dutch,
which is seen by many as almost belonging to an entirely different language
family despite the fact that it is technically very similar to the standard
form. A Comparable situation to this
contrast between 'Flemish' and 'Dutch' can be readily seen in India with
their distinction between Hindi and Urdu.
Although these languages are also highly similar, they are recognised as
separate entities both by language policy and the populace. (Wardhaugh, pg.
Both Dutch and
Flemish, then, outside the collective subconscious of its speakers, are highly
similar languages. In order to discover
the deeper contrasts that exists in the minds of its speakers, we will have to
explore the history of the Dutch speaking area.
In the middle ages, the area we now know as 'Flanders'
was indeed at its cultural and economic height.
The famous work of the Flemish primitives comes from this period,
including the work of Bosch who is arguably the most well-known of the Flemish
painters. Because of their skills at
making cloth, Ghent and Bruges
(old Flemish cities) became important business centres rivalled only by Venice. At that time, French was still the 'Lingua
Franca' of the business world and Flanders was aligned politically to France. As such, a diglossia was already present,
where the H was of course French and Flemish well and truly the L. According to Tuchman (1978, pg. 76) "Flemish
cloth and French wine were exchanged in trade, the count's court was patterned
on that of France, the nobility inter-married, French prelates held high
offices in Flanders, use of the French language was spreading, Flemish students
went to schools and colleges in Laon, Reims, and Paris." French was spoken on all levels of politics,
business and social life, and Dutch was confined to the peasants.
Even in the
sixteenth century no strong Dutch or Flemish nationality had developed. The area known then as the 'Low Lands' (the
Netherlands) was divided into seventeen feudal states with independent ruling
families that were eventually conquered by the dukes of Burgundy and finally
inherited by Spanish rulers. At this
time in Europe it was felt that language
boundaries had nothing to do with political borders. (Palmer, pg. 128). However, when power fell into Spanish hands
changes began to occur in the Northern part of the country where Calvinism had
taken hold. They rejected the extremities
of Spanish Catholicism and through their own form of 'protestantism' stood
against the Spanish rule: the fight for independence became political and
religious at the same time. In 1609,
after long and bloody wars, the Dutch were finally granted their independence
and proceeded to become in their own right world conquerors. Flanders was at this time damaged by almost
forty years of war and was known as the 'Spanish Netherlands' in contrast to
the independent Holland. The population of Belgium
(in contrast to Flanders) were to receive their independence later,
although the country itself was to remain strongly Catholic under the influence
of the Spanish.
connected to Dutch speakers was therefore strongly developed around the time of
the laying of the boundaries that separated the Northern
low countries from the Southern, and this became reflected in a
more controlled standardisation of the Dutch language that was coupled with a
strong sense of Dutch identity, united by protestant ideals. The so-called Flemish speakers remained in
the hands of foreign rulers, including the Spanish, the Austrians and the
French, until finally an independent state 'Belgian' state was recognised with
its own independent government.
Because of the
force of historical events as well as political stakes held by French speaking
parties, Belgium became a largely French speaking country, and a strong
diglossia evolved in which French was seen very much as the High language and
Dutch the Low. Not until the twentieth
century was it possible to even speak of a Dutch based education, although the
laying of the 'language boundaries' between the world wars set the ball in
motion. The present state of affairs is
quite unusual in that a large number of different attitudes to language has
been left behind after turbulent years of the Flemish quest for language
independence. According to Toorn (pg.
64), there have been movements from academic circles to standardise the Flemish
language in the form of the Dutch 'ABN' so that young people will speak the
same language as their Dutch fellows. In
opposition to the academics, Flemish activists demanded a more truly Flemish
'AN' in which a Flemish identity would contrast to that of the Dutch. At the same time and in complete opposition
to both parties there were those in the Flemish population who supported a
French speaking Belgium,
primarily because French was the H for the upper middle class and the nobility,
and according to those interested in holding the power where the language is,
was it important for it to stay that way.
With time political and economic circumstances change, and the ball fell
into the court of the Flemish who became economically dominant in Belgium.
question, however, is far from resolved, and all over Flanders
one can find examples of different attitudes and opinions relating to
language. In a great minority are the
French speakers, usually people who were once servants of the nobility or the
children of very wealthy families who are 'Flemish' but have never learnt to
speak Dutch. There are also communities
who speak dialects so different to Dutch that it is mutually incomprehensible
for speakers of 'ABN'. The West Flemish
for example, speak Westvlaams (Westflemish) for which a 10 volume
dictionary Westflemish-Dutch exists! It
still happens that upper middle class families speak Westflemish and French and
never take the trouble to learn Dutch.
In any case, most speakers of Flemish dialects (and there are many
different dialects with their own dictionaries and cultures) learn standard
Dutch as a second language. Some
dialects, however, appear to be more popular than others. 'Gents' (the language of Gent)
for example arose during the industrial age at the beginning of the century and
was spoken by workers. Because the
factory owners were largely French speaking, the Ghent dialect has a great amount of warped
French words and phrases. For example
the verb 'bougeren' (in comparison to the standard Dutch 'bewegen') is commonly
used in the Ghent
dialect, although it was taken from the French word bouger. (Cocquyt,
pg. 18). This dialect was spoken by the
lower echelons of society and for academics and politicians has been replaced
by the standard form.
such as the dialect spoken in Antwerpen, is different because it seen by its
users as being standard Dutch despite the fact that, for people from other
parts of Flanders, it is quite different both lexically and from the point of
view of sound. In East and West Flanders
there is sometimes even animosity towards the speakers of 'Antwerps' because
people from Antwerpen cannot recognise that they are speaking a dialect and
therefore appear to refuse to speak in standard Dutch.
Looking for actual
representations of all these different language based phenomena is a large task
indeed, one that would involve much more space than is available to us in this
paper. We can begin, however, by
presenting some particular examples of language variations. As has been demonstrated many of the dialects
are inundated with French vocabulary and phrases, some which are directly
translated into Flemish and others remaining in French. Some examples are passing words such as enfin
and allé which are used to end and begin sentences. The influence of French has affected the
language in other ways, for example the rhythm of the language, the French 'r'
present in many of the dialects, and even double negation which is reminiscent
of basic French negation structures:
Flemish: Ik heb geen boeken niet meer
English: I have no books no more
It is interesting
to note that the Flemish have done their best to avoid French influences in the
creation of standard Flemish 'ABN'.
According to Toorn "the resistance to French is very strong, seeing that
propagation of this powerful culture-language forms a threat for their own
language." (Toorn, pg. 67). An example
is the Flemish use of the very Germanic stortbad for 'shower' rather
than using the more generally accepted French word douche. By contrast, in the Netherlands French words
and phrases have been much more easily taken over into the standard language
(ABN) and are now in general use, as the French have not been a threat for a
long time to the Dutch. A good contrast
is the Dutch use of jus d'orange for orange juice, which is clearly
taken from French, and the Flemish use of 'sinaasappelsap' which is of clear
Germanic origin. Due to religious and
political alliances the Dutch have also taken many words and pronunciations
from English and German, which remain absent from the Flemish vocabulary. The Dutch, for example, say 'trem' for tram,
which in Dutch pronunciation resembles the English much more than the Flemish
open-a 'tram'. The Dutch use also the
German word 'überhaupt' to support a given statement.
contrasts between the Dutch speaking areas in Belgium
stretch far beyond simply the language.
It could be said that the great difference in lifestyle between Belgium
and Holland can be traced back to historical circumstances resulting in
countries ruled by systems influenced by two contrasting religions -
Catholicism in Belgium and Protestantism in Holland. As I have experienced it,
this contrast can be sensed in almost every element of life including the
education and legal systems, leading to an inevitable influence on the general
attitude of the population. For me, the
first strong contrast could be sensed in the architecture, suggesting
contrasting attitudes to the function of space and light. It seemed that in Belgium the buildings were designed
to keep the inhabitants within, represented by a seeming restriction on the
amount of natural light provided for by the placing of windows. By contrast the Dutch buildings gave me a
feeling of openness and lightness; the size and intelligent placing of windows
having the affect of making the rooms seem larger, exaggerated by the tactical
placing of starkly designed furniture.
The buildings in Holland seemed bigger
although the apartments were most probably to a larger degree smaller than
those in Belgium:
light acts to make one aware of the world outside the building, affecting the
use of space within. This is one of a
myriad array of contrasts I have noticed between Flemish and Dutch societies,
something I would like to posit could suggest contrasts between 'Catholic' and
'Protestant' societies. Perhaps it could
be implied that the Catholics being more strongly bonded by religious concepts
hold onto older ideas whereas the Protestants through their religious freedom
strive for the new and the alternative, seen directly in Holland through the greater degree of
movement towards alternative and 'new-age' religions. (Laskewicz, pg. 18).
As we can see from
the elements discussed in this paper, the contrasts between Holland Dutch and
Flemish Dutch are manifold and complicated.
They relate closely to contrasting attitudes that speakers have to their
languages and to one another, and relate to a complex social background and a
rich cultural history. I would even like
to suggest that the area is so interesting linguistically that it deserves
closer sociolinguistic analytic observation, and I hope that outsiders in the
future will share my interest.
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