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The Belgian political (and linguistic) structure explained:

Do you want to know more about Belgium? from Jerome de Gerlache on Vimeo.

[Hat tip: Utsav Schurmans.]


  1. Drabkikker said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:05 am

    "Potverdom", gheh.

  2. Colin Reid said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:54 am

    I'm left scratching my head as to when Belgium was considered the world's fourth-greatest power. But the country certainly makes for an interesting case study of how ethnic tensions can be channeled into politics even in the absence of violence.

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    The narrator's accent is odd. These days regional accents are far less marginalised in media – in fact it's considered cool to have a presenter with a Scottish, North of Ireland or Geordie accent (less so Welsh). But she's making a real effort to do a 'BBC' English accent. You can only hear her original Scottish (I think it is) in the odd vowel and fully pronounced r, eg in 'yeaRs' at 1:02. Though I suppose she might just have lived in London for many years…

  4. Gadi said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    Funny how the writer is a Walloon and the video has an anti-Flemish bias. Can we start a betting pool on when they finally separate?

    [(myl) Interestingly, the link was sent to me by someone who identifies himself as Flemish (specifically, a native speaker of Flemish who is at least as likely to say "Flanders" as "Belgium" when an American asks where he's from). The author is clearly Walloon, but it's not obvious to me what aspects of the presentation would count as having "an anti-Flemish bias". But I'm far from expert in Belgian attitudinal calibration — what did you have in mind?]

  5. Dan T. said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    …and the American will wonder what Homer Simpson's neighbor has to do with where the Flemish speaker is from.

  6. Liz said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    I'd agree that Belgium is strange and anarchic rather than boring – what other country would open a museum devoted to chips? And lots of very good English speakers in Flanders. And surely the narrator is Belgian rather than Scots?

  7. Manuel Leal said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    The part that can be construed as anti-Flemish, and indeed sounds rather anti-Flemish, is where the narrator says that "for instance (yeah, right :-)) the French Community may not supply services to the 300.000 French speakers living in Flanders because Flanders is monolingual and foreign speakers must speak Dutch" (quoting from memory). Of course, the opposite example would also be true. But one of the big problems in Belgium is with this French-speaking minority that lives in Flanders, around Brussels, but expects linguistic rights that are not usually given to people "abroad". The Flemish, having already all but lost Brussels (whose toponymy is almost entirely Dutch, hint, hint…), are very eager to avoid this "encroachment" into their territory.
    I'm trying to be balanced here. Both sides regularly come up with very silly arguments…

  8. AJD said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    Would it be fair to say Belgium is in one whole joojooflop situation?

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    @ Liz – pretty sure she's not Belgian, or if she is she's spent most of her life in England, as her accent is basically perfect. For example her initial and stressed p, t and k sounds are aspirated, which is rare even for a very proficient European speaker. I'm guessing Scots because of the occasional r and very subtly non-BBC vowels, like the 'o' in boring.

    [(myl) Why not write to Jerome de Gerlache and ask him for the demographic metadata of the narrator?]

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    Though they'd be naturally aspirated by a German too I guess…

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    Hehe, yeah sorry, go a bit hung up on that question…

  12. Tom said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    I found her accent convincingly BBC for the first half of the video, then started noticing the r sounds, and by the end enough oddities in it had built up that I guessed Belgian. This is more impressionistic and less based on specific phonetic details than your take, Pflaumbaum, but I've heard similarly excellent English accents from L1 Dutch speakers before. Will be interesting to find out the truth!

  13. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    ADJ: They just don't know where their swadding towels are!

  14. Mr Punch said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    Did Belgium at some point have the fourth largest colonial empire, by area? Was the Belgian Congo big enough to edge out Portugal?

  15. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    Liz asks, rhetorically: I'd agree that Belgium is strange and anarchic rather than boring – what other country would open a museum devoted to chips?

    Right. Exciting countries, such as Germany, have museums for curry wurst.

  16. John Cowan said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    Belgium de facto has only six national governments rather than seven, because the Flemish (geographical) Region and the Flemish (linguistic) Community have only a single parliament, executive, and infrastructure, and has members elected from both the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region (though the latter may not vote on Flemish Region issues).

    The situation mocked in the video is perhaps less unfamiliar to people in the U.S. or Scotland than to people in England or most European countries. We are used to the notion of having two distinct kinds of government sorted out by areas of responsibility, rather than mere local authorities that are the creations of, and entirely subordinate to, a unitary national government. The Belgians divide their governmental functions into three kinds: linguistic, non-linguistic, and federal; two of the linguistic communities overlap in and around the officially bilingual region of Brussels.

  17. Jongseong Park said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    Boring? Belgium, land of scandals, boring? Really?

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    September 24, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    […] Language Log » Belgium – view page – cached September 23, 2010 @ 8:32 pm · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and Tweets about this link […]

  19. Bernhard said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    @Tom: "Belgian" is an interesting guess; but I would doubt that the speaker's native language is Dutch, French or German. As far as I can tell, the Dutch words are the one she really messes up (e.g. no velar fricative in "godverdomme", she uses a plosive instead, as any English, German or French speaker without education in Dutch would. Near the end, the "frieten met / frites à la /Fritten mit ['mEjOnEIz]" are all served with a very Anglosaxon mayonnaise!). states that "Emma Dornan's beautiful voice gave the commentary its magical tone".

  20. Drabkikker said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    @ Bernhard:
    Although the subtitles suggest otherwise, she is not trying to say godverdomme (= "God damn", considered quite an offensive expression by many Dutch speakers), but the euphemized variant potverdomme. However, she leaves out the final syllable -me, so that it ends up as potverdom, which is not an accepted variety.

  21. Bernhard said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 3:28 am

    @Drabkikker: I really hear a clear [g] (as in English "god") rather than a [p] (and I normally can tell them apart quite well, especially as our speaker would probably aspirate a [p]), whatever she is trying to say… But at least we agree she is probably not a native speaker of Dutch. ;-)

  22. Drabkikker said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    Blimey, you're completely right! That'll teach me to get my computer some proper speakers. I apologise and retract my commentary herewith.

    If it wasn't clear already, this is definitely the final blow to the person's accent being Dutch, since the phoneme /g/ doesn't exist in that language (except in loanwords and regional varieties).

  23. Paul said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    To answer Colin's question above: I suspect it's a reference to the time in the middle of the 19th century when Belgium, as first country on the European continent to follow the UK's example in the industrial revolution, had the fourth largest GDP in the world. For a short while. Admittedly, it's a bit of a jump from "formerly fourth largest GDP in the world" to "formerly fourth greatest power in the world", but it seems the only explanation that makes any sense (if it was about surface of the empire, Belgium could never rank fourth, except perhaps if you look only at surface of colonies and ignore countries that are bigger on their own than Belgium plus its colonies, such as China and Russia).

    As for the narrator's accent, I suppose it's possible that she is a Belgian with an exceptionally good British accent who intentionally pronounces Dutch and French words with a British accent, but the "years" seems like a fairly small piece of evidence to base that theory on. Especially since her name seems British as well.

  24. Zythophile said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 8:35 am

    No knowledgable beer drinker would call Belgium, home to some of the strangest beer styles in the world, from lambic to oude bruin, anything other than fascinating.

  25. Gadi said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    To clarify my comment on perceived "anti-Flemish bias" (from an uninterested third-party spectator), Manuel Leal hit the nail on the head. Were I to have written this piece with the intention of it being non-partial I would not have said something akin to "for example the Francophones can't get French-language services in Flanders because Flanders only accept Dutch full stop" in a strict tone without also giving a counter-example showing that the opposite occurs as well. It's a bit disingenuous.

  26. jeff said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    to manuel neal and gadi,
    touchy, touchy. i 'perceive' your remarks on anti-flemish bias as confirming the essence of the belgian problem.

  27. Manuel Leal said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    Believe me if you will, I'm the closest thing to impartial that you'll find in this country. I'm not Belgian and I have friends on both sides. It's just that knowing the situation well helps you to detect bias. Not knowing it allows anyone to see bias anywhere, I guess.

  28. A long life Belgian said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    The video might be representative about our political system and organisational structures, but it's far away from reality when it's about people's day-to-day life. The majority of the Belgian's that I know don't really care about politics. The political problems that we're facing today were founded way back in the early 80's with the arrival of an extreme right side political party. Due to their vote after vote increasing percentage of representatives in parliament, the other policital parties started to adapt some of their extreme objectives. This was the trigger for a never ending spiral stairway of polarisation of the political communities. As such the central political parties shifted away to the outer rim of the political spectrum, which makes it nowadays impossible to compose a government based upon a mutual agreed compromise.
    The Walloon politicians said that they are preparing already the separation, pretty soon the Flemish politicians will join them as well, therefore the split is just a matter of time.

  29. A long life Belgian said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    Belgium has, since the Middle Ages, always been one of the richest and most developed regions in the world. Just look at the historic churches, town halls, and pieces of art, in cities such as Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp to get an idea of the wealth during the mediaeval and Renaissance periods, when only the North of Italy could rival its splendour and artistic development. During its second golden age, the half century before World War I, Belgium was in absolute terms the fourth economic power in the world. If you take into account that the other industrial powers had a 5 to 10 times larger population, the achievement is impressive. This wealth was not due to natural resources, which are practically absent, but to industrial production and trade, which is facilitated by Belgium's central position in Western Europe, and the presence of many land and waterways.

  30. Gilles Beckers said,

    May 11, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

    No I don't think that persion is a real Belgian. Godverdomme was badly pronounced. :)
    Also, it's not totally correct. Flanders mono lingual? The whole problem is that French speaking people immigrate to Flanders for work and they don't adapt. They keep on speaking French. Why? Because we in Flanders can speak French besides our Dutch and English knowledge.
    So Flemish people are not at all monolingual. Also if you look closely you'll see that Brussels lies in Flanders (the yellow terrytory). Ever wondered why it's French there? It's like you have a country with Dutch speaking people and in a city in the middle you have French speaking people, strange huh.

    Ow and about the Fries, fries come from Belgium and in Belgium we have frietkoten. Places where you can buy Fries. This is a thing you'll find only in Flanders. If you're interested in baking fries , take a look. It's written in Dutch, but you could use google translate.

  31. Ken Westmoreland said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    In response to John Cowan, I don't think there are cases of authorities in Scotland operating in parallel with each other the way that Belgium's communities operate in parallel with its regions. Gaelic speakers (who are as few in number as German speakers in Belgium) don't have anything similar to the German-speaking community parliament and government..(And I don't expect Scottish independence to change that – in Ireland, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a development agency for Irish-speaking areas – it's not even comparable to the consultative Swedish Assembly of Finland or Folkting.)

    There is a degree of asymmetry in Belgium, namely the Dutch speakers are more likely to speak French (or be expected to) than French speakers are expected to speak Dutch, a throwback to when French was the sole official language. Hence the fact that the authorities in Flanders are less keen on providing French-language facilities – one Flemish politician said that French speakers had no more right to such facilities that Turkish or Arabic speakers!

    Conversely, Quebec's English-speaking minority is at the mercy of the Quebec provincial government, and there is no body able to provide services to them independently of the provincial or municipal governments.

    Switzerland's language groups seem to get along much better – it's worth remembering that Swiss cantons are fiercely independent of each other, irrespective of what language they speak. People may talk about the French speaking are of Switzerland as La Romande, but it's not a political entity like Wallonia or Quebec. In the lower house of the federal parliament, they use interpreters for German, French and now Italian, but not in the upper house, in which members are expected to speak both German and French. Expecting Belgian federal politicians to do the same would be political suicide!

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