Sunday 26 July 2015

Belgian enclaves II

In Belgium, the issue of language has become a huge political football or a political mill-stone round the neck of the economy. Inability to come to terms with The Other, left Belgium without a government for nearly 20 months 2010-2011. A good case could be made for all Belgians to learn Esperanto. All the great scientists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could communicate in Latin although they spoke something else entirely at the kitchen table.  Let's not go back there, though.  On the linguistic-divide map of Belgium [L above] I was immediately taken by the two detached blobs identified by the arrows and yesterday dug a little beneath the surface about the travails of the people of Voeren and other places in Belgium where they are in a linguistic minority. In Voeren it's not clear who is the oppressed minority because of significant demographic shifts in the last two or three generations.
But actually, there are a couple of dozen places [Above] where linguistic 'facilities' are provided ex officio because there is a significant minority on the wrong side of the line that was drawn on the basis of the 1930 Census. Does this remind you of a line drawn across the sub-continent that separated India and Pakistan into two nations resulting in the killing of at least a million people living on the wrong side of the new border?  The first point to note is how tight the line is. There are probably more French speakers in Antwerp or Ghent than in the whole of Voeren but they just have to lump it.  In those Northern cities Vlaams is the language and all official business - and schooling - is transacted in it. Did you know that there are 20,000 Yiddish speakers in Antwerp?  Not quite as many as there are German speakers [N=77,000] on the Eastern frontier and they don't get any 'facilities'.  And of course, the last 30 years have seen a bit of colour added to the linguistic map of Belgium: Berber, Turkish, Portuguese and Polish can all be heard on the streets

#1 and #2 on the strip-map above are Comines-Warenton which are administratively part of the Francophone province of Hainault although entirely surrounded by the Vlaamspreken province of West Vlanderen. That's rather a silly take on the geography because both municipalities have a border with France and indeed 12,000 people live in "Comines" across the border in France. And consider the 3 hectare aneurism of Belgium which bulges out [R] of suburban Mouscron (#3 in the coloured map above) into France. What's all that about? How can that have been experienced before the Schengen agreement and the EU made such anomalies quaint rather than awkwardly inconvenient? Not as awkward as the exclaves of West-Berlin, I guess.The local government is required to supply language facilities to their inhabitants who think know they live Komen-Waasten or Moeskroen. The citizens on this side of the country seem to have settled down together with less aggro than in Voeren.

In Ireland there are two official languages, with Irish taking constitutional priority if there is any dispute that gets confused in the translation.  This is why Justices of the Supreme Court are fluent in both languages (are they? probably not!).  All official docs are available in both languages. Flyers from the Referendum Commission telling us about Marriage Equality came through the door bilingual despite everyone in the country being fluent in English. That is a significant burden on the tax-payer but we suck it up to show that we are no longer a British colony.  Road signs tend to be Irish only in the Gaeltachts where everyone pretends that Irish is the only available language. That's a minor inconvenience and adds a bit of colour to the environment.  It's ironic that language is the only medium we have to communicate (apart from a hug) and is so often used as a barrier to communication.

Footnote 1: Mouscron is home to Louis-Philippe Loncke who parodied the oddly compelling "Inspired by Iceland" post-Eyjafjallajökull promotional video about Iceland which suggests that all the stereotypes of Iceland have been internalised but with extra dance!
Footnote 2: One of the hamlets that make up Comines is Ploegsteert which is twinned with Wolverton in Buckinghamshire, England. This is partly because of the 1974 discovery of a trove of WWI letters from a soldier called Albert French who lived in Wolverton but died at Ploegsteert in 1916 two years before he was eligible to enlist. Young French would have known this killing field as Plugstreet Wood.  It was here that the famous Christmas Truce soccer match of 1914 was played between British and German soldiers.

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