Friday, September 11, 2015

Divided by Language.

Image from Deputy Matt & Others Who Serve
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just returned from a trip to Kingston, Canada. While I was there, my friend and I did a day trip to Montreal. Driving along Highway 401, I could immediately tell when we had crossed the border from Ontario to Quebec. All the road signs were now written in French first and then English. In the rest of Canada, if French writing is reflected, it usually appears below or after English.

The language divide in Quebec is a passionate fight to preserve heritage. The French speaking population steadfastly holds on to its linguistic traditions and there have been on again, off again, on again talks, of Quebec seceding from the rest of the the country.

Imageby © Stevenfruitsmaak.
Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0)

A similar linguistic divide exists in Belgium except this time, it's the Flemish people of the northern part of the country, known as Flanders, pitted against the Walloon speaking people of the southern part of the country, known as Wallonia.  Separately, there is a small German speaking population but seemingly, they are ignored in the larger language divide.  Flemish gets its linguistic roots from Dutch while Walloon spawned from French.

Brussels, though geographically located in Flanders, is officially bilingual.  All of the places we'll be visiting on our trip are also located in Flanders so I am expecting to pretty much see and hear Flemish all around us.

Flanders and Wallonia consider themselves as completely separate regions - each has its own  political parties, their own newspapers and even their own television channels.  There are strict language laws in both regions that were established to essentially preserve the language of the region.  For example,  I read a New York Times article in which Suzanne Daley describes the plight of a small Belgian town Wemmel. Geographically, Wemmel is located in Flanders but it is home to a predominantly Walloon speaking population.  The language laws of the region mandate that all official town business is to be conducted in Flemish.  French words can neither be spoken nor appear in any official documentation which means even if you are Walloon, you have to be able to read and speak Flemish in order to live in Wemmel.  The rules seem overly harsh to me and make lives unnecessarily difficult for its own residents.  I don't what this means if you have to conduct business with a person or company based in Wallonia - perhaps that just doesn't ever happen.

Image from The Web of Language
Some people are of the opinion that the language divide is a just a smoke-screen for bigger issues.  In this case, masking larger economic tensions and long-term grudges between the Flemish and the French.

In an article posted on Languages of the World's website, writes,
"In its early history, Belgium — which became independent only recently, in 1830 — was oriented towards the French. Belgian aristocracy spoke French (former Belgian colonies in Africa still use French as their official language). The French-speaking regions of Belgium -— rich from iron and coal manufacturing -— were often contemptuous of the largely agricultural north. But later the situation has changed. Today, the Walloon-speaking part of Belgium (with population of about 4 million) is poorer, while Flanders (with population of about 6 million) has grown wealthy with a diverse economy. So now Flemish speakers resent their taxes flowing south, especially because they go to Walloon speakers who used to snub their noses at them."
The language rift has become so great that many Belgians don't even recognize the existence of the united country.  The Flemish see themselves as Flemish from Flanders and not Flemish from Belgium and the same is true of the Walloons and Wallonia.  The widening rift has even led some to wonder if Belgium will simply cease to exist as a country one day.  I'm neither Flemish nor Walloon so it's hard for me to truly understand this fight between the two sides.  From my perspective, it's really a shame that they can't simply accept both languages as official languages and ensure that everyone can speak and read both by making sure both are taught in school - basically, everyone is bilingual.  Each language is then used when appropriate which means that at times, both are used.