Today, Flanders refers to the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. But what about the provinces of East and West Flanders? Why is it that the region took on the name of a County that existed on the western end of the country? To any historian, the name ‘Flemish Brabant’ sounds like an oxymoron, because Brabant was itself a Duchy, a centre of economic prowess and the seat of power of the Duchy of Burgundy. On the same note, for a Limburger or an Antwerper to call himself ‘Flemish’ sounds positively bizarre. Why can they not just call themselves ‘northern Belgians’?
In the search for an answer to this situation, this article will examine the historic and political context in which Flanders was defined over the last two thousand years. At the same time, the article will inadvertently try to untangle the vital differences in the perspectives of the Dutch and French language communities and their societies, which are often clouded in the highly-politicised discourse of the media and politicians here.
Having lived in Belgium for more than a decade, I have come to notice the *Northern Belgians’ penchant for anything British: British TV, British comedians, British humour, British soaps… I guess it comes from the steady diet of BBC television and the often undubbed telecast of BBC programmes on Belgian channels, the country being such a small market itself.
There has been a lot of talk about the Dutch language in Flanders in the past month. It happened when Dutch linguist Marc van Oostendorp made a sensational claim that, looking at the “growing differences” between the Dutch spoken in Flanders and that spoken in the Netherlands, the Flemish will speak a sort of language that strongly resembles West Flemish within the next two hundred years. The remark sparked an uproar from both sides of the Scheldt river, and interestingly, also from the West Flemish themselves.
What is poignant about van Oostendorp’s remark is his premise that there are “growing differences” between the standard Dutch languages spoken by the Dutch and the Flemish. Unlike what most foreigners presume, the differences between the two Dutches are not merely a matter of accents. There are, according to many Flemish, many particularities in the Belgian version.
It really bothers me having to endure the tiresome discourse over the closure of the Ford factory here in Genk, Belgium. Politicians, economists, trade-unionists bask in the limelight on-site and in TV interviews to talk about the “human drama” that ensues. Reporters gasp breathlessly over the number of people who are going to lose their jobs and the future (ex-)factory workers decries the injustice they suffer after decades of dedication to the factory.