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Speaking Dutch, with Mistakes
December 14, 2011 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 7 comments

Elio Di Rupo, the new prime minister of Belgium, has promised to speak bad Dutch in parliament. A native speaker of French, the new PM was able to resolve a two-year deadlock over the premiership of a nation unraveling linguistically, but Dutch is not so hot. Dutch is the language spoken by some 60% of all Belgians.

Elio, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in Wallonia, in the French-speaking rust belt of Belgium’s south, understands the Flemish Dutch spoken in the more populous and affluent north, but speaks it badly.

This is a hot button issue in Belgium, where the Dutch/French linguistic divide threatens to split the country. “Richer Flanders has demanded more autonomy from Wallonia while Walloon politicians have tried hanging on to as many national institutions as possible for their financial survival. Only months ago, some observers felt the country was on the verge of dividing in two,” says AP’s Raf Casert.

For two years after the last election, the Belgian parliament has been unable to form a government, but Di Rupo was able to set up a grand coalition compromise of Liberal Christian Democrats and Socialist groups representing some 11 parties in total, (political parties are also divided by language in Belgium.)

Despite this achievement, Di Rupo has already been catching Flemish flak for his poor spoken Dutch. Clip below is of a news conference where he suggested Belgians drink (drinken) their way out of the current financial crises rather than by adopting urgent (drigend) economic austerity measures, which is what he really meant. Since my own Dutch is zeer slecht, I can’t say for sure, but it looks like Flemish is a bit of a struggle for Di Rupo.

Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever thinks Di Rupo’s Dutch is pretty bad: “My Nigerian cleaning lady, who has been in Belgium for two years, speaks better Dutch than Elio.”

It is interesting to see how the Belgian political class has exploited language issues to multiply governance into a complex mosaic of linguistic fiefdoms, which in the name of democracy and human rights, have imposed a rigid linguistic apartheid on their citizens. Speakers of one language are sometimes prohibited from buying in homes in certain districts, and access to government services is frequently limited by language.

Marcel Sel, noted Belgian author, wrote the script for this unkind video description of Belgium’s political structure, which requires fancy fast-moving graphics to be intelligible.

Where most European nation states coalesced around a particular language, (France for French, etc.), the Belgian state was founded on just the opposite principal, founded instead on the linguistic fault line between Dutch and French in a borderlands region subject to frequent political and demographic tremor. After Walloon riots in Brussels in 1830, the great European powers used ethnic grievance as an excuse to take the Dutch down a peg by creating Belgium out of the Netherlands.  The first wave of the industrial revolution transformed Wallonia into an economic powerhouse, leaving Dutch-speaking farmers in Flanders in the coal dust. But the last 50 years have marked the rapid economic development of Flanders while the coal and steel industries of Wallonia went into sharp decline, resulting in a corresponding shift of political and economic power to the Flemish, who now constitutes an absolute majority (58%) of the population.

Looking forward to the insights of Belgian readers on the future of this complex linguistic juggling act, and the status of Di Rupo’s Dutch studies.

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