Belgium's frictious alliance

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The prime minister of Belgium, Yves Leterme, has tendered his resignation after his government failed in its attempt to grant greater autonomy to the country's Dutch- and French-speaking regions. Belgium's linguistic quandary is an issue of enormous consequence (and one on which Language Log has been peculiarly silent), but I'll let more informed voices chime in on the collapse of the Leterme government. Instead, as is my wont, I'm going to sidestep the weighty geopolitical repercussions and focus on a small but interesting typo in the Associated Press article, "Belgian premier offers resignation amid deadlock":

The writer most likely meant fractious, but frictious is a lovely eggcornish error. At the moment, CNN International has changed the AP article to read "a fractious alliance," but just about everyone else has kept it as frictious. It's the sort of typo that can get easily overlooked because it makes a certain sense, like all good eggcorns. That alliance was certainly "refractory or unruly," as fractious is typically defined, but it was also full of friction between the Dutch- and French-speaking camps.

There are a couple thousand hits for frictious on Google, and even a couple dozen on Google Scholar, but as far as I can see only Urban Dictionary ventures a definition: "Of, pertaining to or characterized by friction." That's modern-day Belgium for you.

[Update, 7/15, 11 am: The latest version of the AP story replaces frictious with fractious, sadly. But it lives on in syndication, thanks to Google News, Yahoo News, Time, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian, and dozens of other online outlets.]


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:42 am

    In my contribution to the Freakonomics discussion about "What Will Globalization Do to Languages?", I observed that

    [A]t the same time that big languages like English, French, Chinese, and Arabic have been spreading among present or past imperial subject populations, local linguistic nationalism has been increasing in strength, and winning some victories.

    In Belgium — which is number one in the 2007 KOF Index of Globalization — Flemish cultural nationalism, very much based on language, is threatening to split the country in two.

  2. Nele Van den Ende said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 4:18 am

    It seems to me that the Flemish cultural nationalism is not always that representative of what Flemish people actually think. Media have played a big role here in manipulating what's reported and what not. If you constantly hear and read that the country is about to split, chances are pretty high that you'll start to believe it yourself and before you know it, the country has split.

    However, it still seems as though a majority of the population in Belgium isn't particularly interested in that as long as there are no good solutions for what would happen after. I rather think the deadlock will exist a little while longer… and am very curious to see what the new elections will bring.

  3. Peter said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 8:12 am

    "frictious"—very good. Or, could the author have been South African, perhaps?

  4. James Wimberley said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 8:52 am

    It's curious that as Flemish ethnic nationalism has got stronger, and won ever greater regional autonomy, the label for the language has ceased to be "Flemish" and become more correctly "Dutch". According to Wikipedia, Flemish is not one dialect of Dutch but several; so treating it as one makes as little sense as speaking of a single "Northern English".

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    It's my understanding that "Flemish" (vlaams) is the designation of the ethnic group (officially "community," gemeente/communauté) for whom "Dutch" (nederlands) is the standard language. But its members, in my experience, refer to their vernacular as Flemish even if what they actually speak is Brabantish or Limburgish, unless they specifically mean to point out dialectal contrasts.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    The language used to be called vlaams. There was an explicit decision on the part of the government to switch to calling it nederlands.

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    There was ill feeling thirty-five years ago. Hitch-hiking through Belgium on the way to Istanbul we were picked up by a charming Belgian young female (25-30). Even though I spoke excellent French she insisted our whole conversation took place in bad English.

  8. Boris Zakharin said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    Interesting. I read the title as "Fictitious Alliance" and even once I realized that I was wrong, I at first assumed that "Frictious" was a mistake for "Fictitious" until I realized it makes no sense in context. This may be because I always thought "Fractious" was spelled "Fractuous" (or is the latter a separate word? It gets 1270 Google hits compared to 996000 for "Fractious". Of the 22 hits that have both, only implies that "Fractuous" has a different meaning, though without stating what the difference is).

  9. Reinier Post said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    I wonder what Mark Liberman means by "cultural" nationalism. As far as I can tell (a few miles from the border) this issue is 100% political: a power struggle, pure and simple. And it is, indeed, just as fractional as it is frictional.

  10. Bill Poser said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    Stephen Jones,

    Your experience probably was an example of linguistic animosity, but you can't be entirely sure: I have met Flemings who actually did not speak French. Back in 1975 the young man at the front desk of the youth hostel in Antwerp was a very pleasant Flemish-speaking pacifist who was working at the youth hostel in lieu of military service. He was unable to speak French. He had some reading knowledge of French due to compulsory education in the other language but told me that he had never really learned to speak it.

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

    Boris: Fractuous is not a word that the dictionaries know, though there is anfractuous 'full of twists and turns'.

    And then there's factious 'of, relating to, produced by, or characterized by internal dissension', which would fit just fine in the Belgian case, what with the dissenting linguistic factions.

  12. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    And then there's Leterme's government, which I misread as Letterman's government.

  13. Tristan McLeay said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

    And here was me thinking “ frictious ” meant “ characterised by having a lot of friction ”, which would have made sense in context. It is hard, even for a native speaker, to know which words in English are real words and which aren't. Considering the a and i keys are no-where near each other, I think it wasn't a typo but a deliberate use of a non-dictionary word influenced by dictionary words like “ friction ” and “ fractious ” — although I suppose that's what you meant by describing it as “ eggcornish ”.

  14. Roger Lustig said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 1:04 am

    Amazing: the Germans have no part in this! Belgium has three national languages. And one German beer, Eupener Pils, which wasn't half bad last time I tried it.

    In all the (tri- or more-partite) strife in Iraq, has *anyone* brought up matters of language? State legislators, take note.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:03 am

    In all the (tri- or more-partite) strife in Iraq, has *anyone* brought up matters of language?

    The Kurds, who are for the most part Sunni Muslims, have their own (or several), and so does the small Turkmen minority. The Sunni and Shia Arabs speak the same language (which, incidentally, used to have Muslim, Christian, and Jewish dialects).

  16. Roel Schroeven said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 4:58 am

    Mark Liberman said:

    Flemish cultural nationalism, very much based on language, is threatening to split the country in two.

    I'm Flemish, and I disagree quite strongly to that conclusion. Yes, there are forces and policital parties in Flanders that want to split the country, but that is certainly not the view of the majority of the people.

    We have a number of problems in our government's decision making that stem from different political views, and people do want those problems to be solved. Right now the issues are being polarized by the current situation of stalemate; to some it's starting to look like splitting the land is the only solution left. But that's still a minority view.

    I am convinced that most or even of all of the large problems between the fractions are caused by power games, not by cultural nationalism.

  17. De bende van said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    Mark Lieberman's assertion that Flemish 'cultural nationalism' is not only wrong and simplistic – as well as ill-informed – but also taking sides in a debate that he seems to know nothing about.

    As in any dispute, there are multiple reasons why the Flemish wish to assert anything from greater autonomy to outright independence.

    a) Economic: Flanders contributes more than its fair share of tax revenues (75%+) to the state that in effect support and coddle a corrupt statist union system and a heavily welfare-dependent Wallonia. This acts as a huge drag on Flanders and simply delays the inevitable for Wallonia.

    b) Linguistic: The Flemish are arguably one of the most culturally sensitive and adaptive people on the planet. If you are the only English speaking native in a group of a dozen native Flemish speakers they will always revert to English to include you. However, for nearly the first 150 years of Belgium's history an active, aggressive policy of promoting French at the expense of Dutch was pursued by the Catholic Church, the King, and the French-speaking elites. Since French is the native language of only 1/3 of the people of Belgium this is a form of cultural apartheid that has been endured far too long and in any other country have spilled out into upright revolt. The Flemish have elected a more democratic path.

    c) Political: Although native French speakers are no more than a 1/3 of the population and contribute 25% of GDP they demand and receive 1/2 of all government posts and have a veto on all legislation. This is not democracy. The Flemish simply wish to have what the Americans have: democracy.

    d) Historical: As late as the first half of the 20th century Flemings were imprisoned, discriminated against, and occasionally executed for wanting to speak their native language in their native country. Other ethnicities have engaged in terrorist campaigns in reaction. The Flemish have not. Yet, they are criticized in postings like this one by superficially informed people whose tolerance has not been tested in the same way.

    If you wish to read up on this subject in a fascinating and well-documented account, please see Paul Belien's "A Throne in Brussels". Probably the best English-language history of Belgium bar none.

  18. verheijen said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    You forget that the flamish have to deal with the most arrogant of people in europe i e French speakers.I would not be surprised that one day there will be ancivil war and the killing fields will be wallonia and brussels..

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