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In the Low Countries, Do People Speak Dutch, Flemish, or Hollandic?
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In the Low Countries, Do People Speak Dutch, Flemish, or Hollandic?

About the Babylonian confusion in the Dutch language area

People in the Netherlands and Flanders speak one language: Dutch. But some speakers call it Flemish or Hollandic. In the past, the varieties were known as Southern and Northern Dutch. What is really going on? Linguist Fieke Van der Gucht attempts to disentangle the issue.

The Dutch language area in Europe stretches across one and a half countries: the Netherlands, and the northern provinces of Belgium. In Europe that is, for we must remember that Suriname, Aruba, Curaçao, and St. Martin are also recognised officially as part of the global Dutch language area.

So Dutch has no regard for state borders, and that is confusing. As an adjective, the word has a double meaning. Politically and geographically speaking, ‘Dutch’ signifies ‘pertaining to the Netherlands’: the Dutch king or Dutch tulips, for example. In linguistic terms, when we talk about the Dutch language, suddenly ‘Dutch’ also comes to mean: ‘pertaining to the Netherlands and the northern half of Belgium’.

Belgian-Dutch versus Dutch-Dutch

That ‘Dutch’ has both a political geographic and a linguistic meaning sometimes creates ambiguity: a Dutch word can be a word that is part of the language, but it can also mean a word that is used only in the Netherlands, and not in Belgium. Other cases are more straightforward: a Dutch author is an author from the Netherlands, not one who writes in Dutch. For that we use ‘Dutch-language’. A Dutch-language author can hail from the Netherlands, from (Dutch-speaking) Belgium, or wherever else, as long as he or she writes in Dutch.

Dutch-speaking Belgium is much more often referred to simply as Flanders. In this case, the term denotes the five Dutch-speaking provinces of Belgium: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg. But Flanders (‘Vlaanderen’), in a much smaller sense, can also mean only the provinces of West and East Flanders. Colloquially, this flat land, of endless ribbon development, lined with rows of poplars, is also known as the Flanders (‘de Vlaanders’). To complete the confusion: this Flemish term is a Dutchification of the French Les Flandres.

Although Dutch and Flemish people both speak a language known as Dutch, each community undeniably has its own variety. That is to say: they understand one another perfectly, but can immediately know the other’s origin, just as the English and Americans can. In standard speech, the distinction between Belgian-Dutch and Dutch-Dutch is particularly striking, because the accent gap remains quite large. The same words can be pronounced very differently, with diverse vowel sounds and stress patterns, like between British and American English ‘tomato’ and ‘laboratory’. The Pronunciation Dictionary published in the year 2000 logs a different standard pronunciation for Belgium for 5 percent of the recorded words.

In written language it is more difficult to discern an author’s country of origin. While everyone can easily name idiomatic differences, the fact is that the Netherlands and Flanders share most rules of grammar, and have a common vocabulary. The Dikke Van Dale, the reference dictionary in the Dutch language area, labels around 2,500 words as ‘Belgian-Dutch’ (out of almost 260,000 keywords). In De grote Prisma Nederlands or pocket Dutch dictionary, 5,000 words out of more than 70,000 keywords are given that label while 4,500 are identified as Dutch-Dutch. For example, in Belgian-Dutch the word for a dry cleaner’s is ‘dry-clean’ (‘droogkuis’), while in Dutch-Dutch it is ‘steam cleaner’s’ (‘stomerij’). There are words that Flemish people are familiar with, but do not use – such as ‘ouwehoeren’ (vulgar slang, v. to babble) or ‘hartstikke’ (adj. very; literally, heart-chokingly) – but there are also words that are virtually unknown in Flanders, such as ‘steggelen’ (v. cheating or bickering) and ‘ouwebeppen’ (pejorative slang, v. to blabber).

Today, linguists use Belgian-Dutch for the standard variety in Belgium and Dutch-Dutch for the standard variety in the Netherlands

In the past, each variety of Dutch was named after its location in the language area: Southern Dutch was spoken in Flanders, and Northern Dutch in the Netherlands. But the term Southern Dutch still sows confusion. Southern Dutch may mean the Dutch that was spoken in the former Southern Netherlands – in 1830 these provinces won their independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, and began to be known as Belgium. But ‘Southern Dutch’ is also used to designate the Dutch provinces of Limburg and North Brabant, the southern part of the Netherlands as it is now. So it’s not very useful.

Today, linguists use Belgian-Dutch for the standard variety in Belgium and Dutch-Dutch for the standard variety in the Netherlands. Though when used on its own, the latter doubled term sounds awkward. Together, the two terms primarily help to highlight the national differences. The Dutch Language Union, the guardian of the language, regards the two varieties of Dutch as equivalent.

That equivalence is not yet apparent in most dictionaries. Typically Belgian-Dutch words, phrases and meanings were labelled as such, whereas Dutch-Dutch equivalents were not. This created the impression that Belgian-Dutch deviates from a standard, and Dutch-Dutch is the norm. That editorial vision was in line with language use campaigns in the 1950s and ’60s, which presented Dutch-Dutch as a shining example, even as a preference over Belgian-Dutch words that were linguistically sound and in active use. Flemish people were urged to eat their radish sandwiches with ‘kwark’ (quark), not ‘plattekaas’ (cottage cheese), and if they had hurt their limbs to go to physio-, not kinesis-therapy.

It was not until 2009 that dictionaries got up to speed with the language issue, which is that two geographical standards of Dutch were clearly developing. The Prisma pocket Dutch dictionary in particular started to approach the situation differently: Dutch-Dutch words were identified as such. The dictionary thus honours the unique character of Belgian-Dutch (‘croque monsieur’, like the French, meaning toasted sandwich) and of Dutch-Dutch (‘tosti’). The Dikke Van Dale reference dictionary followed suit in 2015.

Flemish versus Hollandic and Flanders versus Dutch-speaking Belgium

In the vernacular, Belgian-Dutch is often called Flemish, and Dutch-Dutch Hollandic. But Dutch people living in the southern part of the Netherlands do not much like to be called ‘Hollanders’. A g pronounced by someone in the southern province of North Brabant is not guttural like the Hollandic ch further north, but sounds just as soft as the Belgian-Dutch accent of their Flemish neighbours. In dialectology, the terms Flemish and Hollandic have yet another meaning. Hollandic is the dialect spoken in the provinces of South and North Holland; Flemish refers to the historic County of Flanders (which existed from the ninth to the eighteenth century) and the language that was spoken there. The current provinces of East and West Flanders belonged to that county, but so did the territories of Zeelandic Flanders to the north and French Flanders to the south. In dialectology, Flemish is therefore used as an umbrella term for East Flemish, West Flemish, Zeelandic Flemish, and French Flemish (an almost extinct language variety spoken in Northern France). So it is that in French Flanders, you can order the traditional regional dish ‘potjevleesch’ (potted meat) with a Flemish word.

To complicate matters further, in a non-technical context Flanders is usually synonymous with Dutch-speaking Belgium, which comprises West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg. Though strangely enough, as a noun, the word Flanders gets no mention in official legislation. The Belgian Constitution refers to the Dutch language area, Flemish communities, and the Flemish region. So Flemish the adjective does exist officially, like the Dikke Van Dale describes it, as a synonym for ‘from, relating to, of, specific to Dutch-speaking Belgium or its inhabitants’.

Strangely enough, as a noun, the word Flanders gets no mention in official legislation

The word ‘Flanders’ is nonetheless quite old. In the eighth century, there was Flandria, its precursor in Latin, meaning ‘flooded region’, which originally referred only to the Flemish coastal area; from the ninth century, the term expanded to include the entire County of Flanders. (The Latin text Vita sancti Eligii from around 725 mentions Flanderenses, living in Flandris, one of the earliest references.)

It was not until 1860 that Flanders first acquired the meaning ‘the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium’, although the term was unpopular, especially politically. Flemish-Belgium was more often used in that domain. Seventy-odd years later, around 1930, by which point Flemish cultural awareness had grown significantly, the concept of Flanders became politically mature.

The first instance of Flemish dates back to 1080: when in English, the word ‘Fleminsce’ was recorded. At the time, the adjective still had only a political geographic meaning, ‘of the county of Flanders’, not a linguistic one. It was the Middle Dutch era poet Jacob van Maerlant (c1235–c1300) from Bruges, who first used Flemish to designate the language spoken in the historic county. In those days, Flemish was even used as a synonym for Dutch, because before 1300 most Middle Dutch texts were written in Flanders.

The language in which those texts were written was commonly known, from 1150 onwards, as Diets, Duuts, or Duits, meaning ‘vernacular or language of the Diet’ (people, i.e. not Latin). Of these three, the name ‘Duits’ became dominant and held sway until around 1700. Meanwhile, in 1482 a new term emerged, namely ‘Netherlandish’ (Nederlands), and was adopted in 1550 by Joos Lambrecht from Ghent in his rulebook on ‘Netherlandish spelling’. It was this term that in due course became dominant. So, today, in the Low Countries we speak ‘Nederlands’ and we also refer to our language by this name. The English, however, stuck to the older term, Diets/Duuts/Duits, and that is why in the Anglophone world our language goes by the name of Dutch, meaning the language ‘of the people’.

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