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This article describes the history of the laws on the use of official languages in Belgium.

Contents

1830: freedom of languages and linguistic coercion

One of the causes of the Belgian Revolution of the 1830s was the emancipation of the Dutch language in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The citizens in the Flemish provinces sought to be treated by the authorities in their Dutch language. After the Belgian Revolution, the Belgian Constitution guaranteed the general freedom of languages. Practically, it did not mean citizens would be treated by the authorities in their language, but that the authorities could address themselves to the citizens in the language the authorities wished to use. The authorities, dominated by the French-speaking upper classes, generally made their institutions and courts function in French.

In 1860, two Flemish labourers, Jan Coucke and Pieter Goethals, were sentenced to death for the murder of a widow without having understood one single word of their trial. They were found innocent only after their execution. The Flemish movement started to advocate for a legislation on the use of languages that would also impose Dutch as an official language. The laws on the use of languages put once again a linguistic coercion on the public authorities and on the Courts in Flanders and Brussels.

1873: the first laws on the use of languages

The first law on the use of languages was voted on in 1873. There had been much commotion in 1872, when Jozef Schoep refused to pay a fine of 50 francs because he didn’t want to declare the birth of his son in French to the municipal administration of Molenbeek. Civil cases on appeal had always led to discussions about the use of languages and Schoep was convicted after an appeal in Cassation. The first law on the use of languages, pleaded for by Edward Coremans, regulated the use of languages in the Courts in Flanders. Dutch became the major language in Flanders, although it was still allowed to pronounce oral pleadings and penal action in French.

1878: the second law on the use of languages

The second law on the use of languages (1878) regulates the use of language in the administrations of Flanders and Brussels. Announcements to the public by government officials had to be in Dutch or bilingual. The correspondence with municipalities or persons ought to be in Dutch, except if a person wished to be approached in French. In reality, the law in daily life was hardly applied: Flemish citizens were still bullied by French-speaking civil servants and forced to speak French with them.

1883: the third law on the use of languages

Until 1883, education in secondary schools had been entirely in French. The third law on the use of languages was voted on in order to bring change to this situation.

1898: the Law on Equality

In 1898, the Law on Equality is voted on: Dutch and French ought now to be regarded as equal official languages. The French native speakers were not willing to learn any Dutch and were therefore not able to read the Dutch texts they were supposed to vote on in parliament. This problem existed only in one direction (Dutch speakers would learn French). The law nevertheless was voted on under pressure from the population and thanks to the extension of the suffrage to every male citizen aged 25, despite some census suffrage.

A bilingual nation or languages linked to a region

Some segments of French-speaking Wallonia were concerned that this could result in Belgium becoming a bilingual country. This led to a proposal to split the administration in Belgium to preserve the French-speaking nature of Wallonia and to avoid the possibility that French-speaking civil servants in Wallonia might have to pass a Dutch language examination.

The question was: would Belgium become a bilingual country or a country with two language regions. This implied the choice between :

  • Personality principle: Every citizen can address the authorities in the language of their choice, regardless of their region of residence.
  • Territoriality principle: The working language in a particular region follows accepted language boundaries.

In 1921, the principle of territoriality was chosen, and was confirmed in 1930 and 1962. The language areas were outlined according to the principle of the language of the majority of the population.

To this end, every ten years a census was conducted. A municipality could only change its linguistic status according to the findings of the census. This resulted in a more flexible principle of territoriality with the possibility for minorities representing at least 30% of the local population to obtain services in their language of origin.

1962: establishment of the language areas and facilities

For this reason, in 1962 a law determined which municipality belonged to what language area. Each Belgian municipality belongs to only one language area, of which there are four: the Dutch, the French, the German, and the bilingual area Brussels-Capital that includes the Belgian capital city and eighteen surrounding municipalities. From then on, modifications of the linguistic regime would only be possible after changing the law, which requires a majority of each language community. In that same year, the municipality of Voeren (Fourons) went to the Dutch-speaking province of Limburg, and Comines (Komen) and Mouscron (Moeskroen) to the French-speaking province of Hainaut. Those and several other municipalities obtained facilities for the minority language group.

In a municipality with a minority speaking another official language, facilities were provided for the registered residents speaking the latter language, such as for instance education in their language when sixteen parents ask for it. A resident of a municipality has no such rights in a neighbouring municipality. To benefit from these facilitities, the facilities have to be asked for by the person concerned. The question was put whether the facilities had to be asked for time and time again, or if it was sufficient to ask them once a person has settled in a municipality. The circular by minister Peeters forced the municipal authorities to ask each time a demand for facilities from those living in their municipality and wishing to make an appeal to them, a mode against which has been proceeded by the French-speaking.

Moreover, the facilities are not meant for the authorities, which led in Voeren to a crisis around mayor José Happart, and they are applied only for those residents who ask for them.

Protest raised by French-speakers before ECtHR were mostly unsuccessful (Belgian Linguistics Case).

A number of institutions obtained the authorisation to become bilingual, such as the Catholic University of Leuven.

1970: insertion of the language areas into the Constitution

In 1970, when the first state reform had been worked out, the language areas were established by clause 4 of the Constitution. Changes could only occur after having voted on a special law. There also came language communities with powers such as to regulate the use of their language in the language area or areas of their jurisdiction (for instance with regard to authorities, education and the interaction between employer and employee).

At present: freedom of languages and linguistic coercion

Although the use of languages by the authorities is determined, as well as the use of languages by the administration and the army, the courts, and in the field of education and businesses, the constitutional freedom of language remains absolutely intact for instance in the living room and at the press shop. Offering a larger multilingual assortment of newspapers, books and television channels in Flanders, that freedom is expressed more publicly there than in French-speaking parts of Belgium.

To summarise two centuries of language policy, including that of the enlightened William I of the Netherlands:

  • on the Dutch side: officially requested language coercion and actual private language freedom
  • on the French side: officially propagated language freedom and actual private language coercion.

In this field, at present, there are still tensions concerning Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and about the fact that municipalities with language facilities in the French-speaking language area very often if not mostly do not respect the language freedom of their Dutch-speaking inhabitants. Thus, for example, Comines-Warneton (here) has no Dutch web site, although Mouscron (here) and Enghien (here) have one. In any case, all Dutch municipalities with facilities: Mesen, Spiere-Helkijn, Ronse, Bever, Wemmel, Drogenbos, Linkebeek, Sint-Genesius-Rode (on = vlaanderen.be), Wezembeek-Oppem, Kraainem and Voeren have a bilingual site, and sometimes offer also information in English. The municipality of Herstappe with only hundred inhabitants, has no web site yet.

The National Railway Company of Belgium gives its information in the train in the language of the region. This means for instance that in a train driving from Antwerp to Charleroi, announcements are made – during a single train ride – firstly (in the Flemish Region) in Dutch, then (in the Brussels-Capital Region) in both languages (in the language native to the announcing railway employee immediately followed by the other), then (again in the Flemish Region) once more only in Dutch and thereafter (in the Walloon Region) only in French. The ticket inspector however is bound to respond in either language.

See also

References

External links

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