From An Claidheamh Soluis, September 16, 1905.
We have seen that the opposing forces in the Belgian language war are on the one hand the Fleming and on the other the Walloon. The opposing languages, however, are not Flemish and Walloon, but Flemish and French. For Walloon was from the outset, and is still, a mere patois. I have said of it that it bears to French somewhat the same relation which Lowland Scotch bears to English. But unlike Lowland Scotch it has never developed a literature. The Walloon peasants, indeed, chant rude songs in their own idiom as they work in the fields or in the forests, or foregather around the firesides in the winter evenings.
But no great poet or dramatist has clothed his thoughts in Walloon; no great mastermind, leaving its impress upon it, has made it immortal. French is the language of the educated Walloon; in the large towns, it is the language of the Walloon, whether educated or not. As a patois Walloon will continue to live in the country places of Romance Belgium, just as patois live, and will continue to live, in France and Germany and England.
But it has never occurred to anyone, and probably never will occur to anyone, to demand official recognition for it. The Walloon accepts French as his language, as is content to retain Walloon as his patois. It was French – not Walloon – which the Revolutionists of 1830 exalted at the expense of Flemish. It is against the domination not of Walloon, but of French, that the Fleming struggles.
Flemish, as we already know, is a language of ancient lineage and honourable fame. It sprang from old Teutonic speech, which was the parent also of Old Frisian. At first and for many centuries Dutch and Flemish were one, and even today they are practically identical. A Dutchman can understand a Fleming somewhat more easily than a Donegal Irish speaker can understand a Gaelic-speaking Highlander. The Taal of the Boer is perhaps still nearer to Flemish than is classical Dutch. I have heard Boers and Flemings converse together with practically no difficulty in making themselves mutually understood.
Down to the Spanish occupation Dutch and Flemish have a common literary history. The term “Nederduitsch” or “Vlaamsch” covers both. The oldest literary movements of Netherlandish speech come in fact from Belgian soil. These are an ordinance of the town of Brussels dated 1220, and the poem of “Reinaert de Vos.” Towards the close of the thirteenth century Jacob van Maerlant brought the language to a high point of literary cultivation; but the Burgundian domination, which set in in the fourteenth century, spelt eclipse for the Taal.
It was only when the fierce struggle for national existence against Spain had again famed Netherlandish patriotism to fever heat, that the native language commenced once more to flourish. This revival was permanent in Holland, which now began a literary life of its own. In the Belgian Netherlands the Taal still drooped, and for two centuries produced little literature of note.
Amongst those who helped to keep the lamp of learning and literature alight during these, the Dark Ages of Flemish-speaking Belgium, was one Abbé Ahearn, who evidently hailed from Munster. I questioned leading Flemings about him, but they could tell me little that was definite. He had written poetry in Flemish, and someone had read a paper about him at a meeting of the Flemish Academy. That, in substance, was all that I gleaned. Some day I may succeed in disinterring his works.
The Revolution of 1830 came, and the Fleming found himself numerically the predominating, but intellectually and politically the less important factor in a new and free State. He at once entered on a struggle to assert himself. And like the hard-headed and far-seeing Teuton that he was, his first care was to revive and cultivate his native speech. At the call of Willems, Bloomaert, Van Ryswych, and Conscience, Flanders awoke anew to intellectual life. As in every country in which there has been a national revival, poets and dreamers had to prepare the way for the men of action.