Flemish (linguistics)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

The term Flemish, besides an adjective referring to an attribute of any circumscription of an area named Flanders or its people and culture, can be a linguistic one, referring to the speech of the Flemings, inhabitants of Flanders, though Algemeen Nederlands (Common Dutch) is the name of their official standard language. 'Flemish' is used to describe certain non-standardized dialects spoken in Flanders, and sometimes to Dutch as spoken in Belgium. The latter usage, though widespread, is not considered correct by some linguists: boundaries between areas of distinct groups of historical Dutch dialects do not coincide with the national borders.

These multiple definitions are used many times and can result in confusion. One might expect that Flemish would be an official term for the language of politics and education in Flanders, but there is no standardized language of culture by this name. In Belgium the official languages according to the constitution are French, German and Dutch.

In contrast to countries where the names of languages may have a more purely descriptive significance, in Belgium language is at the basis of a long political emancipation struggle, which accounts for the weight being put on the use of correct terminology, as well as the involvement of government in determining and defining standard languages.

Different linguistic meanings of Flemish

To the term Flemish, as a linguistic notion, several meanings can be given:

  • The variants of standard Dutch as generally perceived from speakers or writers of ' Common Dutch' that are native to the Belgian regions Flanders or Brussels-Capital;
  • The non-standardized dialects as spoken in the present region Flanders, often perceived as related;
Note: for linguists however, these are part of three distinct groups:
  1. the dialects of the separate language of Limburg, at present roughly covering the provinces Limburg (the Netherlands) and Limburg (present region Flanders, in Belgium),
  2. the dialects of the former duchy of Brabant which once covered the provinces North Brabant (the Netherlands), Antwerp and Flemish Brabant (present region Flanders), the Brussels-Capital region, and – historically, the now officially French speaking (original dialects [all but?] extinct) province Walloon Brabant (present region Wallonia),
  3. the dialects of the former countship of Flanders, which once covered most of the provinces of West-Vlaanderen, Oost-Vlaanderen (present region Flanders), Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (the Netherlands) and the northern French region of French Flanders;
  • The non-standardized dialects of the former countship of Flanders (see here above);
  • The non-standardized dialects of the provinces of West-Vlaanderen, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and French Flanders;
  • A range of mixes of Standard Dutch with non-standardized dialect as individuals may tend to speak outside the most formal and their most familiar local environments, or in a familiar local environment while addressing an audience; or as in particular younger people who may not master a dialect tend to speak in any but the more formal environments.
  • Any combination of the above.

Depending on the definition used, Flemish shows more or less differences with the Standard Dutch, as officially determined by the Nederlandse Taalunie. Some usages that are common in Belgium, but not in the Netherlands, are recognized as being interchangeably correct, and are therefore correct Dutch, while others are rejected in Flanders as dialectisms.

Other Dialects

Another category of variants consists of the Dutch dialects spoken in Belgium. These "Flemish dialects", as they are often called by the layperson, do not form a unity however: i.e. they are not more closely related to each other than to the dialects spoken in the Netherlands, instead there are several groups, rather corresponding to the feudal principalities; some are strictly cross-border, especially in the provinces that were created by separating the historical duchy of Brabant ( North Brabant is Dutch, Antwerp and Vlaams-Brabant are Belgian) and the region of Limburg (both states have a homonymous province). The main dividing lines between the Dutch dialects run from north to south, not from west to east as the Belgian-Dutch state border does. Of course centuries of separate political life did generate quite some idiomatic differences in official language and various jargons, but hardly anything grammatical and not significantly more even in vocabulary than between say Austria, Switzerland and Germany (even within this federal country there are very distinct northern and southern groups, pre-Luther without a common standard even in writing). The idea that 'Flemish' was a 'language without a literature' separate from Dutch was maintained by Belgium's francophone ruling class to fence off any threat from growing cries for recognition among the Dutch-speaking majority.

Finally there are among these Dutch dialects also strictly Flemish dialects in the linguistic sense, that are spoken in the old county of Flanders (about a third of the Dutch-speaking region in Belgium), among which the most deviant subset is West Flemish, which is also spoken in Zeeuws Vlaanderen situated in Zeeland a province of The Netherlands alongside Zeeuws which can be seen as the link between Hollandic and West Flemish.

Language history


Flemish can be classified as followed:

  • Indo-European
    • Germanic
      • West Germanic
        • Low Franconian
          • Dutch
            • Flemish varieties
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