How Flemish Is It?

To the Editors:

Tony Judt’s informative essay on Belgium [“Is There a Belgium?” NYR, December 2, 1999] left me with a nagging question. My late mother-in-law was born in Antwerp and was fluent in a language known as Flemish. She was also fluent in a language known as Dutch. She claimed a serious difference between the two. If Mr. Judt is correct, as his dozens of references seem to say, when did Flemish become reduced to the status of dialect? My brief visits afforded many references to “Flamands” as a separate language. Perhaps Mr. Judt can give a philological (not political) explanation.

Daniel F. Tritter
New York City

Tony Judt replies:

I sympathize with Mr. Tritter’s difficulty. In a sense the answer is straightforward: there is one official language used throughout the Netherlands and the non-French, non-German-speaking provinces of Belgium. It is Dutch, or “ABN”—Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands. It is employed in the Belgian (Flemish) press and on Belgian (Flemish) radio and television. It varies a little from place to place in pronunciation and in the presence or absence of local terms and colloquialisms; but then so do French, German, and (especially) Italian.

However, the version that Mr. Tritter’s mother-in-law would have heard and used in the streets of Antwerp was Vlaams, the language of the Flemish. How different it was from official Dutch depended on time and place. But the important thing is that the local forms of spoken Flemish, from Limburg to Flanders, varied quite a lot and never constituted a common and distinct language (which is one reason why French came to be the language of the nineteenth-century Belgian elite). Just as many Walloons mastered two forms of communication—Walloon dialect and official French—so the Flemish were often conversant with both their local dialect and official Dutch. But we don’t speak now of “Walloon” as a distinctive language, and “Flemish” has shared the same fate. In Belgium today, emphasis on the linguistic distinctiveness of “Vlaams” often accompanies similarly categorical claims on behalf of Flanders itself. Neither can be explained by philology alone.

In my article I referred to the Flemish defeat of the French in 1302 as the Battle of Fleurus. What I should have written was the Battle of Kortrijk, commonly known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Fleurus (1794) was a French victory, as a number of Flemish correspondents have pointedly noted. Professor Claude Javeau of the Université Libre de Bruxelles has kindly reminded me that it was not until the French revolutionary victories that certain older territorial units, notably the Principality of Liège, were divided up and came to correspond to the linguistic frontier we know today; the correspondence between ancient and modern divisions was always approximate and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. And although the Flemish pilgrimages to the Yser began in 1920, as I noted, the first memorial tower there was not inaugurated until 1930. I am grateful to friends and colleagues for these corrections.