From An Claidheamh Soluis, October 7, 1905.
In many respects the Flemish language movement has developed on lines parallel with those pursued by our own. But it must always be remembered that the two movements differ widely in scope. In Belgium there is not, and there never has been, a question of preserving a language from an almost imminent extinction.
When the Flemish movement began the speakers of Flemish were actually a majority of the population of Belgium. They still remain a majority, having neither gained nor lost in relative numerical strength during the seventy-five years that have elapsed. The aims of the movement have simply been, first, the creation of a modern Flemish literature, and secondly, the securing for Flemish of official recognition as full as ample as that accorded to French.
Let it be frankly recognised that Ireland’s problem is vastly more difficult. We have to rescue a language from the very brink of the grave. We have to instil a spirit of national pride and self-reliance into a people broken by political conquest and demoralised by a system of education designed and administered in the interests of a foreign civilisation. We have to fight against the apathy of public opinion at home, and against the avowed and secret opposition of an alien government and its agents.
The Flemings were citizens of a free State, and their whole task was merely to convince their non-Flemish-speaking fellow-citizens of the reasonableness of admitting their language to equal rights with French in school and state. There was no question of restoration; no question of prevailing on non-Flemish speakers to learn Flemish; no French-speaking territory to be evangelised; it was simply a matter of securing fair play for that one of the two national vernaculars which an historical accident had placed in a subordinate position in the commonwealth.
The fact that the Flemish movement differs thus widely in scope from our own explains why its organisation is so different. In Belgium there is no body corresponding to the Gaelic League. That is to say, there is no vast popular organisation, with its headquarters in the capital and branches ramifying throughout the country, taking charge of a national movement for the rehabilitation of a national language. There is no need for such a body. No campaign having for its end the inducing of Flemish speakers to speak Flemish has to be carried on in the Flemish-speaking districts. No teaching work has to be done in non-Flemish districts. The literary interests of the language are looked after by the Flemish Academy. The teaching is done in the schools. Flemish clubs and “cercles” exist everywhere, but their objects are social and religious as much as linguistic. The actual fighting is carried on in Parliament by the Flemish deputies and senators, and outside Parliament through the medium of the Flemish press. There are at least six Flemish dailies, and a host of Flemish weeklies, whilst there are also Flemish reviews, literary, social, and religious. The Flemish press is in reality the first fighting line of the movement.
I met at Louvain Emile Vlieberghe, the editor of the leading Flemish review – De Dietsche Warande en Belfort – and a pillar of the movement. Of him, and of his views on the Flemish and Irish questions – for he has studied the Irish movement – I may write hereafter.
I have said that the Flemish movement simply sought to secure for Flemish absolute equality of treatment with French in every department of national life, and that this object has now been substantively attained. Let us see how matters work out linguistically in the Belgium of today. Belgium is often referred to as a bilingual country. If by “bilingual country” we mean a country in which two languages are spoken side by side, then the description is accurate enough; but if we mean a country whose inhabitants are bilinguists the description is far from accurate. The Belgians, as a people, are not yet bilinguists: in a generation or two, however, their system of bilingual education will have made them so.
North of a line stretching from near Warneton on the Lys eastward to Visé and the Meuse Belgium is Flemish-speaking; south of that line it is French-speaking; in the single arrondissment of Arlon it is German-speaking.* For practical purposes, therefore, the country is divided into two well-defined parts – Flemish and Walloon.
The fact is taken cognisance of by the State, the municipalities, and the Church, all of which now adopt as their motto, “In Flanders, Flemish; in the Walloon country, French.” But they further recognise that even in the Walloon country Flemish must get official recognition, and that even in the Flemish country French must get official recognition, – for Belgium, in the words of the government decrees, has “deux langues nationales.”
Accordingly, everywhere all official notices and documents are bilingual; but in the Flemish country, Flemish gets the place of honour, and in the Walloon country French gets the place of honour. Thus, in Brussels French figures first on the street nameplates and Flemish afterwards; whilst in Antwerp the Flemish name is put first and the French name beneath. In the case of public announcements, the two languages are placed side by side in parallel columns, – in Brussels the French being on the right and the Flemish on the left, whilst in Antwerp the positions are reversed. This arrangement extends to every public or semi-public document from a Royal proclamation down to a train-ticket. It is adopted by all the government departments, including the post office and the state railway-system; by all the municipal authorities; by the banks; by public companies and private traders; by the Church. In the city the destination of every tramcar is announced in French and Flemish, or in Flemish and French, as the case may be; in the museum, the inscriptions under the pictures and statues are usually bilingual, as in the Churches are those under the Stations of the Cross and on the Confessionals. Everywhere it is Flemish and French in Flanders, and French and Flemish in the land of the Walloons.
* There was in 1890, 2,744,271 Belgians, who spoke Flemish only; 2,485,672 who spoke French (Walloon) only; 32,206 who spoke German only; and but 700,977 bilinguists (French and Flemish).