Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Continuity and innovation in the perception of language as a symbol of social emancipation

Johan De Caluwe (Ghent University, Belgium)



The status of standard Dutch in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, has considerably changed within the past 30-40 years. From the late 19th century up to the early seventies of the 20th century the driving force behind the propagation of standard Dutch was the strive for social emancipation of the Flemish people. The use of Dutch - and not French or English - and more in particular the use of standard Dutch - and not a dialect or any social or regional variety - was seen as a conditio sine qua non for upward social mobility of the Flemish people. In the second half of the 20th century the Flemish people did reach an unprecedented level of prosperity, self-determination, and self-confidence. "Never change a winning strategy" seems to be the motto of the older generation, fearing for the loss of status of the Flemish people in Europe if English and non-standard varieties of Dutch are tolerated in particular domains/media where only standard Dutch should be heard. "Real emancipation entails the freedom of choice" is the reply of the younger generation, rejecting the paternalistic way in which the older generation tries to impose its interpretation of (linguistic and social) emancipation.


1. Introduction: 1830 > 1870 > 1930 > 1970

Belgium has three national languages: Dutch, French and German. Dutch is spoken by 6 million people in the northern part of the country, i.e. in Flanders.

When Belgium declared its independence in 1830, there was only one national language, and that was French. In 19th century Flanders the linguistic situation can best be described as diglossic: in everyday, informal situations Flemish people used all kinds of dialectical or regional varieties of Dutch; in higher education, higher administration, judicial affairs, government, etc. only French was acceptable. In the second half of the 19th century the so-called Flemish Movement started a long lasting equal rights movement in favour of Dutch and the Dutch speaking community. To make a long story short (cf. also Janssens 2003 and Willemyns 2003), it culminated in a series of remarkable successes between approximately 1870 and 1970.

Important dates in the history of Dutch in Flanders


Belgian Declaration of Independence


Law on the use of Dutch in the administration of criminal justice


Law on the equality of the French and Dutch version of Belgian laws


Law on the use of Dutch at Ghent University


Law on the monolingual (Dutch) status of Flanders


Amendment to the Constitution, giving the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium far-reaching autonomy

As a result, Dutch was accepted as the second national language in Belgium, and the first language in Flanders. In 1930 for example, in the year when Belgium celebrated its first centenary, Ghent University, which is situated in the heart of Flanders, was the first university to replace French by Dutch in academic teaching. Fifty years later, in 1970, a new amendment to the constitution gave the Dutch speaking Flemish community far reaching autonomy, and the Flemish explicitly selected Dutch as their only national language.

The equal rights movement in favour of Dutch - the Flemish Movement I mentioned earlier - focussed on two lines of action:

(1) Dutch had to conquer all domains of public life that were dominated by French.

(2) The varieties of Dutch spoken by the Flemish had to be replaced by one specific variety of Dutch, the standard Dutch as it was used in The Netherlands, where Dutch had been the only national language already for centuries. With the selection of Netherlandic Dutch as the new standard for Flemish people, campaigns were set up against the use of Flemish dialects or regional varieties, against the use of a sort of quasi-standard variety of Flemish/Belgian Dutch, in which French influence on vocabulary and grammar was all too obvious.

The driving force behind the propagation of standard Dutch was the strive for social emancipation of the Flemish people. The use of Dutch - and not French or English - and more in particular the use of standard Dutch - and not a dialect or any social or regional variety - was seen as a conditio sine qua non for upward social mobility of the Flemish people.


2. Loss of consensus on the status of standard Dutch in Flanders: 1970ies - now

The status of standard Dutch in Flanders has considerably changed within the past 30-40 years, from the 1970s up to the present moment. Two developments have contributed to this change of status:

(1) Flanders has become the most prosperous region in Belgium. The Dutch speaking Flemish, who had always been a numerical majority in Belgium, began to dominate all domains of public life in Belgium: its economy, its federal government, … As a consequence, French gradually lost its threatening status. But a new "threat" appeared on the horizon: in the wake of globalizing trends in politics, economy, ecology, higher education, science etc. Dutch is under growing pressure/competition from English in a variety of domains.

(2) Flemish people, who had been talking Flemish dialects with their children for centuries, changed linguistic attitudes in the sixties and seventies; they came into contact with standard Dutch in its spoken and written form on radio and television, in books, in newspapers, etc. and they started modelling their everyday language on that standard. This resulted in the widespread use of a so-called interlanguage, a mixed variety between standard Dutch and the Dutch dialects. This interlanguage has now become the mothertongue and home language of most of the younger people in Flanders, and the interlanguage is quickly gaining ground in all domains of supraregional, informal communication; it is used by students at university in their daily conversation for example. As such it is considered by many as the new threat to the status of standard Dutch in Flanders (De Caluwe 2005).

These two developments have fostered the debate in Flanders on the role of standard Dutch as an instrument for, and a symbol of social emancipation. The continuity and innovation in the perception of standard Dutch as a symbol of social emancipation will be illustrated by a discussion of a selection of linguistic issues that recently have been subject to (at times passionate) public discussion:

(1) the use of English or Dutch in higher education;

(2) the ‘kiss-and-ride"-debate, on the use of English or Dutch on signboards;

(3) the use of non-standard varieties of Dutch in Flemish media.


3. The use of English or Dutch in higher education

In 1973 the Flemish government has laid down in a decree that Dutch is the only official language in Flanders. In recent years this principle has come under pressure by the widespread use of English in science and higher education. Therefore the Flemish Secretary of Education has issued a decree in which a limited use of English in higher education is made possible, but only under very strict conditions. According to the Flemish decree from april 2003 reorganising higher education in Flanders:

Dutch is the default language of instruction in higher education, both in Bachelor and Master programmes, with the predictable exceptions for foreign language courses that can be taught in that foreign language.

The use of English in other than foreign language courses is possible, if correctly motivated, but the proportion of English taught courses may never exceed 10 % of all courses taught in the Bachelor programme. Students always have the right to take exams in Dutch, even when the course itself was taught in English.

Master programmes in English will only be accepted if the same programme is also offered to students in Dutch.

All universities and colleges of higher education have to report yearly to the Flemish government and Flemish parliament on the use of other languages than Dutch, providing detailed accounts of motivation, percentages, number of students involved, results, etc.

People from the older generation, with the struggle of the Flemish Movement still within living memory, welcomed the decree for it is purported to protect Dutch as the language of higher education, and as such as a symbol of the emancipatory power of Dutch. They thereby refer to the fact that it was only two generations ago that Flemish people had to fight for the use of Dutch in at least one university in Belgium, i.e. Ghent University:

The Royal Belgian Academy Council of Applied Science in its 2003 report on The Use of Languages in Education and Science:

"After the coming into existence of Belgium it took a century, including half a century of dire linguistic conflicts, before the universities began to organize courses in Dutch, either by the side of French, as in Leuven and Brussels, or to replace it, as in Gent.

This special situation, coupled with the political and sociocultural emancipation of the population as a whole, explains why virtually all social classes in Flanders considered - and still do so - Dutch as the medium to be specially cherished.

This fact is in marked contrast with the opinion of some people in the Netherlands, both in political and academic circles, according to whom the language of education in Higher Education is primarily regarded as a rather arbitrary vehicle for the transfer of knowledge to the own population and, as far as possible, to interested foreign people speaking a different language; as a matter of fact, these are held to be little interested in academic teaching in Dutch, and as such tend to be lost as potential "custumers".

Few people in Flanders will stand up for the wholesale exchange of Dutch for English at the institutes for Higher Education; the reason is that only a few generations ago could the Dutch language eventually take the place of an other international language, viz. French. The beneficial consequences of this historic evolution have been fully apparent in the past decades and, also today they are still fresh in people’s memories: the opening-up of academic education to large sections of the population; intellectual incentives originating from it for the growing emancipation of an entire society;[…] " (2003: 16)

Other people regret the restrictions on the use of English for academic purposes. They say that this restrictive language policy hinders real scientific and educational progress, and their points of reference lie not in the history of Flemish language struggles, but abroad, in the Netherlands. It is thought that people there are less hindered by emotional attachment to the supposedly emancipatory power of Dutch, and indeed, the policy of Dutch universities is quite different: English has become the default language in Dutch Master programmes.


4. The ‘kiss-and-ride"-debate, on the use of English or Dutch on sign-boards

As I mentioned, the use of Dutch is laid down in a Flemish decree, which means that all public announcements are supposed to be in Dutch. There is even a Permanent Commission on Language Control as a watchdog in linguistic affairs. A recent complaint with the Permanent Commission was about the use of ‘kiss-and-ride’ on signboards close to railway stations, schools, etc. where people can stop with the car, say good-bye to their friends, husbands, wives or children, and drive on. The expression ‘kiss-and-ride’ is quite common in Flanders, but anyway, the Permanent Commission blew the whistle on the local council, urging it to remove the sign-board. Again, this action was welcomed by one type of people, who immediately started a campaign in search of a ‘good’ Dutch equivalent. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t been able to come up with an acceptable alternative. All their suggestions were ridiculed by other people, people who see the judgement of the Permanent Commission as a symbol of the reluctance of the Flemish people to put a step further in its linguistic and social emancipation in a globalized world.


5. The use of non-standard varieties of Dutch in Flemish media

In the last decades, standard Dutch has come under pressure from two sides: from English on one side, and from a non-standard variety, the interlanguage, on the other side. To illustrate the latter, I can refer to the discussion in Flanders on the use of Dutch interlanguage on Flemish radio and television. Public radio and television in Flanders have always been instruments for the propagation of standard Dutch in Flanders, because from the fifties onwards - by government order - both media had to contribute to the social and linguistic emancipation of the Flemish people. Now, since interlanguage is so omnipresent in Flanders for everyday informal speech, it inevitably found its way to radio- and television programmes: in sitcoms, human interest programmes, talkshows, reality tv etc. The situation now is that more interlanguage than ever is heard on Flemish public and private radio and television. Once again this has generated two lines of reaction.


6. New interpretations of emancipation

It is interesting to see that language issues of this kind conform to what we would call the dynamics of emancipation: a new generation can give a new interpretation/implementation to the core concept of emancipation, and often it comes down to the rejection of the "old" levers of emancipation.

Older generations in Flanders laid down the following emancipatory measures in laws and decrees:

(1) The use of standard Dutch in Flanders, as I already illustrated.

(2) Compulsory voting. Voting is compulsory in Belgium because former generations have associated emancipatory powers to it: voting gives you an instrument to change things for the better, and it is supposed to generate commitment of the voter to public affairs.

(3) Equal participation of women in the labour market, in politics, etc.. Belgian and Flemish governments have stimulated by all kinds of financial and administrative measures the participation of women in the labour market, and the participation of women in political government. One of the last measures is the obligation for political parties to have a 50/50 ratio of men and women on lists of candidates for elections.

In all three cases, a younger generation defies this interpretation of emancipation.

(1) People claim the freedom not to use standard Dutch, and to use English or a non-standard variety of Dutch where appropriate.

(2) People claim the freedom not to vote, either because they dislike forced commitment to public affairs, or because deciding to participate in the voting yes or no can be a political statement in its own.

(3) Women claim the freedom not to enter the labour market, and to care for husband and children instead, if they prefer so in their pursuit of happiness. And many young women dislike the idea of a forced political representation, because emancipation of women need not necessarily take place along the lines of traditonal ‘male’ political practice.

If I would try to subsume all cases - both linguistic and non-linguistic - under one broad generalisation, I would say: we witness the transition from a society where choices are made (for you) to a society of choice, which is quite a different thing.

Former generations have grown up with the (now called paternalistic) idea that older people, educated people, elected people, … know what is good for (the emancipation of) other people, and these choices have been formalised in rules, decrees and regulations: thou shalt vote, thou shalt be politically represented, thou shalt work like your husband does, thou shalt use Dutch, not English, thou shalt use standard Dutch, not any other variety of Dutch.

The generations born from the sixties onwards, value CHOICE as the definition of emancipation and progress. They choose to marry or not to marry, to have children or not, to go to church or not, to work hard or to take it easy, they choose their particular brands of clothing, they choose the i-tunes on their i-Pod, they choose their trendy softdrink, they choose their partners on the chatlist, and they want to choose their language and their particular language variety.

A language policy of the Flemish type, proscribing the use of standard Dutch, and demanding explicit motivation for any deviation from that principle, reflects a "modern" idea of the role of the state with respect to the individual: political representatives discuss first about what is best for the people, and then their conclusions are formalised in the do’s and don’ts from rules and decrees. It is a practice that no longer fits with the postmodern attitude of many of the post-fifties generation, and that explains the irritated reactions on both sides when discussing linguistic issues such as the use of English or Dutch, or the use of non-standard varieties.

Geeraerts (1990, 1999) has his own interpretation of the reluctance of the younger generations in Flanders to adjust their language use to the official language policy. Young people, even univerity students, are unwilling to accept standard Dutch as their everyday language, and Geeraerts interprets this as the reluctance of this generation to take up its leading position in society, reflecting a provincial attitude of reluctance to fully emancipate socially and psychologically. This then in its turn would reflect a typically Flemish attitude to evade/avoid taking up social responsibilities, deemed typical of a people that has been suffering under foreign rule for centuries, by the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, and finally by the French speaking elite in their own country.

I could’nt disagree more: in my opinion the refusal of the young generation to live up to the expectations of the old generation, not only in language matters, but in all kinds of domains, is the best illustration of their progress in social-psychological emancipation.


7. Outlook on the future

Jaspers (2001) has made an interesting critical analysis of language policy in Flanders in terms of Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital, market place, devaluation etc (Bourdieu 1991). The architects and the adherents of the traditional Flemish language policy have accumulated over the past hundred and fifty years a cultural capital:

(a) on a social level they have secured the position of Dutch in the Belgian context, and

(b) on a personal level they have laboured for years to replace their dialects and infected supra-regional Belgian Dutch by the one and only standard Dutch.

And just when they thought they could lean back and rest on their laurels there’s a new generation that by its attitude and language use starts a process of devaluation of their cultural capital that was accumulated with so much difficulty.

I think Jaspers makes a correct diagnosis, and I would even go further in the application of Bourdieu’s conceptual framework. We know from studies in the psychology of economics that the psychological impact of the loss of an amount of capital is twice as hard as the gain of the same amount of capital. For example: if you lose a thousand euro on the stock market today, you only reach your psychological break-even point again when you gain two thousand euro tomorrow. That is bad news for those hoping that the older generation will easily be prepared to change its language policy to better accommodate the needs of the younger generation. For making room for English besides Dutch in Flemish society, and making room for the interlanguage besides standard Dutch would result in a very unequal spread of gains and losses: the losses would all be on the side of the older generation, and the gains would primarily be on the side of the young,

And yet, a change in language policy is inevitable, I think. The policy of regulation, of heteronomous, top-down emancipation as reflected in the unconditional preference for one superior language (variety) should be replaced by a policy of deregulation, of liberalisation, of auto-emancipation, implying respect for different contexts of use for different languages and language varieties. This policy would better accommodate the aspirations of self-determination of a by now substantial, and growing part of the population. Policy makers should loosen the reins, should accept that people in universities, local councils, the media experiment with the use of English and non-standard varieties of Dutch where these people themselves find it appropriate. If organisations and individuals are free to experiment with other languages than Dutch, and with other varieties than standard Dutch, they will probably sooner find out what is suitable and what is not, than when they are simply told what is acceptable and what is not. That need not be a recipe for linguistic chaos, if that freedom goes hand in hand with a culture of responsibility and accountability (see also Craps 2002, De Caluwe 2002). Feedback from students and quality control organisations will help universities in selecting the optimal mix between English and Dutch; feedback from local people, younger and older ones, will inform local councils on the effectiveness and acceptability of English, and radio and television producers will learn a lot from the feedback from their audiences. More freedom of choice and the responsibility that goes with it, is perhaps a definition of emancipation that better fits the present situation. In their linguistic experiments with languages and language varieties people are likely to learn that each language and each language variety is fit for a specific context or situation. And they may even rediscover and re-value the unique function of Dutch (as opposed to English) and of its standard variety in particular. This possible outcome may even reconcile the older generations with the new language policy, when they see that their fear for a total devaluation of their cherished cultural capital is simply unfounded.

© Johan De Caluwe (Ghent University, Belgium)


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De Caluwe, J. (2002): Tien stellingen over functie en status van tussentaal in Vlaanderen. In: Taalvariatie & Taalbeleid. Bijdragen aan het taalbeleid in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Ed. by Johan De Caluwe et al. Antwerpen-Apeldoorn, Garant, p.57-68.

De Caluwe, J. (2005): Conflicting language conceptions within the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. In: Standardvariationen und Sprachideologien in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen der Welt / Standard Variations and Language Ideologies in Different Language Cultures around the World. Ed. by Rudolf Muhr, Frankfurt/M, Peter Lang Verlag, p.53-58.

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1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Johan De Caluwe (Ghent University, Belgium): Continuity and innovation in the perception of language as a symbol of social emancipation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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