Lingua britannica

As soon as I have some time I shall write a follow-up to Ingrid Robeyns’ post at Crooked Timber on the current political crisis in Belgium and talk a bit about the importance of the Dutch language to Flemish native speakers of Dutch. I am still looking for the right angle to the story and I’ll probably decide to tackle the subject in a personal manner. It may be the best way, even when it is by proxy, to convey some of the sensibilities involved to a broader audience.

In the meantime, however, I would like to keep the interesting debate on language in the comments section to Ingrid’s post alive and point you to a remarkable report on language proficieny in Brussels and Belgium by Philippe Van Parijs, entitled Brussels Capital of Europe: new linguistic challenges (pdf), which was published at the Brussels Studies website. I am sure our readers will find plenty to debate here. One quote to wet your appetites:

In Europe and the rest of the world we absolutely need a common language, one that is not monopolized by a small elite but is widely spread amongst all sections of the population. Through accidents of history this role has fallen to English. For us Belgians, what a stroke of luck! Whether our mother tongue is French or Dutch, of the 6000 languages spoken in the world today, English is one of the 10 to 15 languages that lie closest to our own. Even better: if there is one language in the world that can claim to lie precisely midway between French and Dutch, it is English and only English, which is after all but a dialect very similar to Frisian, which the Angles took with them when they crossed the Channel in the fifth century and which was later made unrecognisable by some Vikings who, after a few centuries of French lessons in Normandy, crossed the channel in turn to simplify its grammar and graft 10,000 French words onto it. Some inveterate narcissists will perhaps still manage to complain about the fact that the chosen language is not precisely the same as the one in which they were rocked by their mum. But this should not stop us rejoicing at our incredible luck.

Why is the author rejoicing? To quote a Dutch saying: Als twee honden vechten om een been, loopt een derde ermee heen. Or, literally translated, When two dogs are fighting for a bone, a third dog will walk off with it. According to Van Parijs, the Belgian lingua franca won’t be Dutch, nor French, but… English:

When today’s adolescents will have completed their language-learning period, the order of the three languages will most probably be reversed. For their generation, English will have become the country’s first language, Dutch the second and French the third.