This article describes the history of the laws on the use of official languages in Belgium.
1830: freedom of languages and linguistic coercion
One of the causes of the Belgian Revolution of the 1830s was the growing ascendancy of the Dutch language in the administration of the Southern provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This led to friction with the aristocracy of the southern provinces (modern-day Belgium), whose main language was French.
The citizens in the Flemish provinces sought to be treated by the authorities in their Dutch language. After the Belgian Revolution, the Belgian Constitution guaranteed the general freedom of languages. Practically, it did not mean citizens would be treated by the authorities in their language, but that the authorities could address themselves to the citizens in the language the authorities wished to use. The authorities, dominated by the French-speaking upper classes, generally made their institutions and courts function in French. French became the lingua franca, being neither the everyday language of the Flemish speaking North, nor of the South, where Walloon dialects were the everyday language; apart from in the mainly German- or Luxemburgish-speaking environs of Arlon. As universal education developed in Belgium, French was initially the sole language of instruction, causing increasing resentment in the northern half of the country.
In 1860, two Flemish labourers, Jan Coucke and Pieter Goethals, were sentenced to death for the murder of a widow without having understood one single word of their trial. They were found innocent only after their execution. The Flemish movement started to advocate for a legislation on the use of languages that would also impose Dutch as an official language. The laws on the use of languages put once again a linguistic coercion on the public authorities and on the Courts in Flanders and Brussels.
1873: the first laws on the use of languages
The first law on the use of languages was voted on in 1873. There had been much commotion in 1872, when Jozef Schoep refused to pay a fine of 50 francs for not wanting to declare the birth of his son in French to the municipal administration of Molenbeek. Civil cases on appeal had always led to discussions about the use of languages and Schoep was convicted after an appeal in Cassation.
The first law on the use of languages, pleaded for by Edward Coremans, regulated the use of languages in the Courts in Flanders. Dutch became the major language in Flanders, but it was still allowed to pronounce oral pleadings and penal action in French.
1878: the second law on the use of languages
The second law on the use of languages (1878) regulates the use of language in the administrations of Flanders and Brussels. Announcements to the public by government officials had to be in Dutch or in both languages. The correspondence with municipalities or persons would be in Dutch, except if a person wished to be approached in French. In reality, the law in daily life was hardly applied: Flemish citizens were still being forced to speak French in their communications with the administration, as most civil servants only spoke French.
1883: the third law on the use of languages
Until 1883, education in secondary schools had been entirely in French. The third law on the use of languages was voted on in order to bring change to this situation.
1898: the Law on Equality
In 1898, the Law on Equality is voted on: Dutch and French were now to be regarded as equal official languages. The French native speakers were not willing to learn any Dutch and were therefore not able to read the Dutch texts they were supposed to vote on in parliament. This problem existed only in one direction (Dutch speakers would learn French). The law nevertheless was voted on under pressure from the population and thanks to the extension of the suffrage to every male citizen aged 25, despite some census suffrage.
1921: a bilingual nation or languages linked to a region
Some segments of French-speaking Wallonia were concerned that this could result in Belgium becoming a bilingual country. This led to a proposal to split the administration in Belgium to preserve the French-speaking nature of Wallonia and to avoid the possibility that French-speaking civil servants in Wallonia might have to pass a Dutch language examination.
The question was: would Belgium become a bilingual country or a country with two language regions. This implied the choice between :
Personality principle: Every citizen has the freedom to address the authorities in any of the Belgian languages they so choose, regardless of their region of residence.
Territoriality principle: The working language in a particular region follows restricted language boundaries, with Belgians from another linguistic community losing all rights to communicate with government authorities.
In 1921, the principle of territoriality was chosen. The principal was confirmed by further legislation, notably in 1932 and 1962. The language areas were outlined according to the principle of the language of the majority of the population.
A provision in 1932 provided that every ten years a language census should be conducted. A municipality could only change its linguistic status according to the findings of the census. This resulted in a more flexible principle of territoriality with the possibility for minorities representing at least 30% of the local population to obtain services in their language of origin.
1962: establishment of the language areas and facilities
For this reason, in 1962 a law determined which municipality belonged to what language area. Each Belgian municipality is restricted to only one language area, of which there are four: the Dutch, the French, the German, and the bilingual area Brussels-Capital that includes the Belgian capital city and eighteen surrounding municipalities. From then on, modifications of the linguistic regime would only be possible after changing the law, which requires a majority of each language community. In that same year, the municipality of Voeren (Fourons) went to the Dutch-speaking province of Limburg, and Comines (Komen) and Mouscron (Moeskroen) to the French-speaking province of Hainaut. Those and several other municipalities obtained facilities for the minority language group.
In a municipality with a minority speaking another official language, facilities were provided for the registered residents speaking the latter language, such as for instance education in their language when sixteen parents ask for it. A resident of a municipality has no such rights in a neighbouring municipality. To benefit from these facilities, the facilities have to be asked for by the person concerned. The question was put whether the facilities had to be asked each time or if it was sufficient to ask them once. The circular by minister Peeters requires that inhabitants of those municipalities ask for facilities each time they want to enjoy them.
Moreover, the facilities are not meant for the authorities, which led in Voeren to a crisis around mayor Jos Happart, and they are applied only for those residents who ask for them.
Protest raised by French-speakers before ECtHR were mostly unsuccessful (Belgian Linguistics Case).
A number of institutions obtained the authorisation to become bilingual, such as the Catholic University of Leuven.
1970: insertion of the language areas into the Constitution
In 1970, on the completion of the first state reform, four language areas were established by Article 4 of the Constitution. Since then language affiliation of municipalities can only be changed by special law. At the same time language communities were established, with the Flemish and French Community made competent for the regulation of the use of languages in their language area in the areas of administration, education and interaction between employer and employee.
At present: freedom of languages and linguistic coercion
Although the use of languages by the authorities is determined, as well as the use of languages by the administration and the army, the courts, and in the field of education and businesses, the constitutional freedom of language remains absolutely intact in the only thing that remains, the private domain.
In this field, at present, there are still tensions concerning Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.
Bilingual informations at a train station in Brussels The National Railway Company of Belgium gives its information in the train in the language of the region. This means for instance that in a train driving from Antwerp to Charleroi, announcements are made during a single train ride firstly (in the Flemish Region) in Dutch, then (in the Brussels-Capital Region) in both languages (in the language native to the announcing railway employee immediately followed by the other), then (again in the Flemish Region) once more only in Dutch and thereafter (in the Walloon Region) only in French. The ticket inspector however is bound to respond in either language.
- This article originated as a translation of the article on the Dutch-language Wikipedia.
cy:Ardaloedd ieithyddol Gwlad Belg de:Sprachgesetzgebung in Belgien fr:L gislation sur l'usage des langues en Belgique nl:Taalwetgeving in Belgi ru: -