Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Conflicting language conceptions within the Dutch speaking part of Belgium

Johan De Caluwe (Ghent University, Belgium)



The growing reluctance of the Flemish to associate with the language norms of the Dutch has provoked furious reactions from an "established" generation of writers, politicians, and ... linguists. Language policy in Flanders therefore is in a critical situation now, torn between two conflicting tendencies. There is the "elitist" tendency, with a more traditional, academic conception of language, predicting loss of (international) status for Dutch if it would turn from a monocentric into a pluricentric language. And there is a "popular" tendency, with a more instrumental conception of language, claiming the right for the Flemish people to speak and write the way they themselves prefer. It will be clear from the situation in Flanders that different language cultures with different ideas about language norms can co-exist within a single linguistic community.


Introduction: socio-political and linguistic history

Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, has 6 million inhabitants, and its official language is Dutch. Dutch is also the official language of the 15 million people living in the Netherlands. Though both regions thus share the same language, there are considerable differences in their socio-political history. The Netherlands have gained political independence as early as the 17th century, and concomitantly there has been a "normal" development towards standardization in written and spoken Dutch. Flanders on the other hand, has always been part of larger political entities. For centuries French was predominant in government and administration, while Flemish people used a variety of Dutch dialects for their daily communication. Due to the predominance of French, a "natural" process of standardization of Dutch in Flanders was blocked.

Things start to change from the last quarter of the 19th century onwards, when the developing cultural and economic elite in Flanders starts its campaign demanding from the Francophone Belgian establishment equal rights for the Dutch-speaking Flemish people. It was that same elite that explicitly preferred association with the standard variety of Dutch in the larger country, the Netherlands. They did so mainly for strategic reasons: it was easier to claim the status of national language for the "Dutch" Dutch, which had been established as the national language of the Netherlands for centuries, than for the Flemish Dutch, which was considered to be full of dialectical variation, and "bad" French influence. In this opinion, Flemish Dutch lacked the necessary degree of homogeneity to act as a national language.

The first decades of the 20th century in Belgium saw a growing body of legislation, firmly securing the position of Dutch as the second national language of Belgium. It is worth mentioning perhaps that Ghent University was the first university in Belgium to replace French with Dutch for academic purposes, as late as 1930. See Willemyns (2003) for a detailed history of Dutch in Flanders.

Up to the sixties and early seventies of the 20th century, Dutch Dutch was generally propagated as the norm for standard Dutch in Belgium, both in education and in the media. On Flemish radio and television there were daily programs - short programs but in prime time, just before or after the news program - full of suggestions to replace Flemish Dutch words, expressions and constructions by their "correct" Dutch Dutch equivalents.

The general idea behind this linguistic propaganda was the following. Flemish people should get acquainted with Dutch Dutch as much as possible, first in the more formal registers through the media and education. It was expected and hoped then that Dutch Dutch would not only serve as a model for the more formal communication, but would gradually gain acceptance as a model for the informal communication too.


1. Was the language policy successful?

1.1 The first part of the strategy has worked out well. Dutch Dutch has gained wide acceptance as the norm language of the more formal spoken and written registers: in newspapers and magazines, in handbooks, on radio and television, in official documents etc. Standard Dutch in Belgium has its own pronunciation standards and it has its lexical peculiarities, but all will agree that Flanders and the Netherlands share the same standard language.

1.2 The second part of the strategy has not worked: the vast majority of the people in Flanders will not accept Standard Dutch - be it Dutch Dutch or Belgian Dutch - as a model for their informal speech. At home, with friends, and by extension in any rather informal setting - popular shows on television, teachers chatting in the teachers' room, meetings of local authorities, etc. people use the so-called tussentaal, literally intermediate language, a register in between standard Dutch and the Flemish dialects.

The Flemish interlanguage as I will subsequently call it, has all the well-known characteristics of any informal spoken register, such as procope (hebben 'to have' > ebben), syncope (als 'if' > as), apocope (dat 'that' > da). But apart from that it differs from standard Dutch also in the lexicon, and in morpho-syntax. Only a few differences to illustrate this:

(1) The use of a single pronominal system (ge/gij as subject forms, u in the object form) for both people that are familiar/equal or unfamiliar/unequal to you, instead of the standard Dutch system which distinguishes between T-forms (je/jij) and V-forms (u);

(2) the use of different diminutive suffixes:

Standard Dutch: boekjes 'little books'
Interlanguage: boekskes

(3) the declension of the (in)definite article, pronouns and adjectives in attributive position:

There are many more differences, but suffice it to say that you need not hear more than a few sentences to determine whether someone speaks standard Dutch or interlanguage.


2. Different attitudes toward the present-day linguistic situation

2.1 For some time interlanguage was hardly paid attention to since it was considered to be a regrettable but inevitable "transition language", a temporary mix of dialect and standard components, used by people who were as yet unable to replace their dialect by the standard Dutch variety in one Great Leap Forward.

But as soon as it began to dawn upon those who had been propagating the use of standard Dutch for decades, that the interlanguage may not be a stepstone to standard Dutch, but rather a new and widely used register for informal speech in Flanders, it was declared lingua non grata (De Schutter 1998, Geeraerts 1999, Goossens 2000, Taeldeman 1992). It was described as ugly and deficiënt, as an intolerable, unnatural mix of two real, natural language varieties: the dialects on the one hand, and standard Dutch on the other. All those who are able to use standard Dutch, but nevertheless prefer interlanguage for their informal speech, have been called "lazy" and/or "irresponsible", unwilling to pass from (linguistic) adolescence into maturity.

What kind of people are so firmly opposed to this interlanguage? It is a generation of linguists, teachers, writers, journalists who stick to the bipolar model in which people should either use dialect or standard Dutch. For these people, the use of standard Dutch has a highly symbolic value: it is the symbol of the emancipation of a linguistic community, (finally) ready to take up its position both in the Dutch speaking region as a whole - Flanders and the Netherlands - and in the European Union. The linguistic unity between Flanders and the Netherlands, in that they share more or less the same standard Dutch, is supposed to strenghten the position of Dutch and the Dutch speaking community in Europe. Allowing for the use of a deficient non-standard interlanguage in Flanders, would imply serious loss of (international) status for Dutch in general, and for the Flemish people in Belgium in particular.

2.2 A new generation of linguists, writers, people in the media however share a much more instrumental conception of language, claiming the right of the Flemish people to speak and write the way they themselves prefer (Cajot 2000, De Caluwe 2002, Jaspers 2001). From all kinds of surveys we learn that Flemish people undoubtedly appreciate the use of standard Dutch in the less direct/personal forms of writing and speech: in the newspapers and magazines, in handbooks, in websites of companies, in documents from the Belgian or Flemish or local administration, in the information programs on radio and television, and so on. They want that standard Dutch not to be simply Dutch Dutch, but "a" standard Dutch which is recognizably Belgian in pronunciation, prosody and - up to a certain degree - lexicon. Standard Dutch therefore in their view is incontestably pluricentric.

In more personal, more informal situations, ranging from the home-situation to a popular talk-show on tv, Flemish people prefer c.q. accept the more interlanguage-varieties of Dutch. It's the language in which they can tell stories, make jokes, gossip, talk about their feelings and aspirations, express their appreciation or contempt.

Flemish people have shown little interest in the accusations and concerns of the traditional elite. For most of them, interlanguage has become the default language for all but the more formal situations. In recent years, interlanguage has even entered the domain of informal writing too: SMS and chat sessions on the internet are felt to be direct, personal, informal enough to allow for the use of interlanguage.

Having a good command of standard Dutch is all right in Flanders, but being able to switch to interlanguage in the appropriate context, is appreciated as an indication of one's ability to act, feel, think the way common Flemish people do. In these circumstances, the use of interlanguage in interviews, or in popular shows on television may strenghten the position of particular Flemish politicians in the popularity polls.


3. Explanations?

Linguistic policy makers of the sixties and seventies had hoped standard Dutch would find its way from the more formal written registers into the more informal, spoken language, ending up as the new everyday language of the Flemish.

Now, why do Flemish people not only accept, but clearly prefer standard (Belgian) Dutch in the more formal contexts and situations, while sticking to interlanguage in all other situations?

In the literature on the linguistic situation in Flanders, analysts often invoke the so-called growing "complacency" of the Flemish. In the first 6 or 7 decades of the 20th century, standard Dutch was welcomed as a weapon in the battle with French, the dominant language in Belgium. Due to the consolidation of Dutch as a national language, and due to the economical and political success of the Flemish in Belgium in the last decades of the 20th century, the Flemish are said to have become complacent, convinced that what they do (and speak!) is not inferior to, perhaps is even superior to what the Dutch do (and speak). Therefore they are no longer prepared to give up their own informal language, the interlanguage, for an informal variety of standard Dutch, that would too closely resemble Dutch Dutch.

There may be some truth in that, but there is something else too.

Judging from what happens in Belgium, in Austria, in Switzerland etc. (Clyne 1992), people will rather easily accept an exogenous variety of their mother tongue as the standard variety as long as they are expected to use it in only the more formal situations. Compare it to their willingness to wear a more formal kind of suit or dress on special, more formal occasions. People usually don't feel very comfortable in these clothes, and they will prefer a different type of clothing as soon as the situation is deemed to be informal enough: clothes they have chosen themselves because they like them and they feel comfortable in them. In linguistic terms: people will prefer for their daily speech a variety of language they are familiar with and feel comfortable in, the variety too which can serve as a marker of their (Flemish, Austrian, Swiss, ...) identity.


4. Conclusion

Language policy in Flanders is in a critical situation now, torn between two conflicting tendencies:

(1) the more elitist tendency, with a more traditional, academic conception of language, predicting loss of (international) status for Dutch if the Flemish would stick to their interlanguage for everyday speech;

(2) the more popular tendency, with a more instrumental conception of language, claiming the right for the Flemish people to use the non-standard, indigenous variety, the interlanguage, in the less formal situations.

It will be clear that in Flanders different language cultures with different ideas about language norms co-exist within a single linguistic community.

© Johan De Caluwe (Ghent University, Belgium)


Cajot, José (2000): De omgangstaal van Vlaanderen. In: Over Taal 39 (1), p. 3-6.

De Caluwe, Johan (2002): Tien stellingen over functie en status van tussentaal in Vlaanderen. In: De Caluwe, J. et al. (eds.): Taalvariatie en taalbeleid. Bijdragen aan het taalbeleid in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Antwerpen/Apeldoorn: Garant, p. 57-67.

Clyne, Michael (ed.) (1992): Pluricentric Languages. Different Norms in Different Nations. Berlin/New York: Mouton - De Gruyter.

De Schutter, Georges (1998): Talen, taalgemeenschappen en taalnormen in Vlaams-België. In: Verslagen en Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 108 (2-3), p. 227-251.

Geeraerts, Dirk (1999): Hoe gans het volk is de taal? In: Over Taal 38 (2), p.30-34.

Goossens, Jan (2000): De toekomst van het Nederlands in Vlaanderen. In: Ons Erfdeel 43 (1), p. 2-13.

Jaspers, Jürgen (2001): Het Vlaamse stigma. Over tussentaal en normativiteit. In: Taal en Tongval 53 (2), p. 129-153.

Taeldeman, J. (1992): "Welk Nederlands voor Vlamingen?" In: Nederlands van Nu 40 (2), p. 33-51.

Willemyns, Roland / Wim Daniëls (ed.) (2003): Het verhaal van het Vlaams. De geschiedenis van het Nederlands in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden. Antwerpen/Utrecht: Standaard Uitgeverij / Het Spectrum.

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures

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Johan De Caluwe (Ghent University, Belgium): Conflicting language conceptions within the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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