Since the founding of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, Brussels has transformed from being almost entirely Dutch-speaking, to being a multilingual city with French as the majority language and lingua franca. This language shift, the Frenchification of Brussels, is rooted in the 18th century but accelerated after Belgium became independent and Brussels expanded past its original boundaries.
Not only is French-speaking immigration responsible for the Frenchification of Brussels, but more importantly the language change over several generations from Dutch to French was performed in Brussels by the Flemish people themselves. The main reason for this was the low social prestige of the Dutch language in Belgium at the time. Only since the 1960s, after the fixation of the Belgian language border and the socio-economic development of Flanders was in full effect, did Dutch stem the tide of increasing French use. Through immigration, a further number of formerly Dutch-speaking municipalities in surrounding Flanders became majority French-speaking in the second half of the 20th century. This phenomenon is, together with the future of Brussels, one of the most controversial topics in all of Belgian politics.
Given its Dutch-speaking origins and the role that Brussels plays as the capital city in a bilingual country, Flemish political parties demand that the entire Brussels-capital region be fully bilingual, including its subdivisions and public services. They also request that the contested Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde arrondissement become separated from the Brussels region. However, the French-speaking population regards the language border as artificial and demands the extension of the bilingual region to at least all six municipalities with language facilities in the surroundings of Brussels. Flemish politicians have strongly rejected these proposals.
Much more than with other Dutch-speaking cities, during its history Brussels has been administered by a large amount of foreign princes and overlords, who frequently used French as language of the court. This was especially true of the Low Countries under Burgundian rule. The prestige of Dutch in present-day Belgium had been through many ages marginalized, while French had taken the role of a cultural language. The large-scale Frenchification of Brussels only began in the 19th century, and by the 1910 census a majority of people in what is now the Brussel-Capital Region reported that the language they spoke exclusively or the most frequently was French. Halfway through the 20th century the number of monolingual French speakers surpassed the number of bilingual French/Dutch speakers.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Belgian city population growth was fueled by a massive wave of immigration, which contributed to Brussels' transformed bilingual nature into one of multilingualism, with French as lingua franca. Today 76.7% of people living in the Brussels-Capital Region speak French at home, while 15.6% speak Dutch and 27.6% speak another language (percentages add up to more than 100% because some people speak more than one language at home).
Initially in Brussels as well as other parts of Europe, Latin was used as an official language. From the late 13th century, people began to switch to the vernacular. This occurrence took place in Brussels and then in other Brabantian cities, which all had eventually switched by the 16th century. Official city orders and proclamations were thenceforth gradually written in Dietsch, a predecessor to the modern Dutch language. Dutch remained the administrative language of the Brussels area of the Duchy of Brabant until the late 18th century. Under control of the German principality, Brabantian cities enjoyed many freedoms, including choice of language. Before 1500, there were almost no French documents in the Brussels city archives. By comparison the cities in the neighbouring Duchy of Flanders such as Bruges, Ghent, Kortrijk and Ypres the percentage of French documents in city archives fluctuated between 30 and 60 percent. Such high level of French influence has not yet developed in the Dutch-speaking areas of the Duchy of Brabant, including Brussels.
In 1477, Burgundian duke Charles the Bold perished in the Battle of Nancy. Through the marriage of his daughter Mary of Burgundy to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the Low Countries fell under Habsburg sovereignty. Brussels became the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands, also known as the Seventeen Provinces. After the death of Mary in 1482 her son Philip the Handsome succeeded as the Duke of Brabant. In 1506 he became the king of Castile, and hence the period of the Spanish Netherlands began.
After 1531, Brussels was known as the Princelijcke Hoofstadt van 't Nederlandt, literally the Princely Capital of the Netherlands. After the division of the Netherlands resulting from the Eighty Years' War and in particular from the fall of Antwerp to the Spanish forces, the economic and cultural centers of the Netherlands migrated to the northern Dutch Republic. Brabant and Flanders were engulfed in the Counter-Reformation, and the Catholic priests continued to preach in Latin.
Dutch was seen as the language of Calvinism and was thus considered to be anti-Catholic. In the context of the Counter-Reformation, many clerics of the Low Countries had to be educated at the French-speaking university of Douai. However Dutch was not utterly excluded of the religious domain. For instance, Ferdinand Brunot reported that, 1638 in Brussels, the Jesuits "preached three times a week in Flemish and two times in French". While Dutch became standardized by the Dutch Republic, dialects continued to be spoken in the south. As in other places in Europe, during the 17th century French grew as a language of the nobility and upper class of society. The administrative languages during this time were both French and, to a lesser extent, Spanish. Some French-speaking nobility established themselves in the hills of Brussels (in the areas of Coudenberg and Zavel), bringing with them primarily Walloon personnel. This attracted a considerable number of other Walloons to Brussels who came either in search of work or to beg. This Walloon presence led to the adoption of Walloon words in the Brussels flavor of Brabantian Dutch, although the Walloons who migrated there quickly adopted and began speaking Dutch.
In the 18th century, there were already complaints about the waning use of Dutch in Brussels, which had acquired the status of "street language". There were various reasons for this. The repressive policies of the Spaniards after the division of the Low Countries and the following mass exodus of the intellectual elite towards the Dutch Republic left Flanders bereft of its social upper class. After the end of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age and the Dutch Republic went into decline, Dutch was considered even less as a suitable language for politics, culture, and business. Meanwhile, French culture was spreading fast. The La Monnaie Theatre (de Munt), for instance, which had been opened in 1700, showed in the middle of the 18th century about 95% of plays in French. During the War of the Austrian Succession, between 1745 and 1749, Brussels was under French rule. By 1780, French was the adopted language of much of the Flemish bourgeoisie, who were later pejoratively labelled Franskiljons (loosely: little Frenchies). The large growth coupled with the increasing impoverishment of the population led to even further stigmatization of Dutch, the language of the Brussels commoners. In Brussels the percentage of impoverished people doubled from 1755 to 1784, at which point 15 percent of the population was in poverty. The small French-speaking minority was quite affluent and constituted the social upper class.
The percentage of the Brussels population that chose to use French in public life was between 5 and 10 percent in 1760, increasing to 15 percent in 1780. According to authenticated archives and various official documents, it appears that a fifth of municipal declarations and official orders were written in French. Twenty years later this rose to a quarter. However, over half of the official documents in French originated in the French-speaking bourgeoisie, who made up just a tenth of the population. In 1760 small businesses and artisans wrote only 3.6 percent of their documents in French; by 1780 this had risen to 12.8 percent. In private life, however, Dutch was still by far the most-used language.
Brussels politician and jurist Jan-Baptist Verlooy wrote in 1788 his Essay on the disregard of the native language in the Netherlands, in which he declared that the native Dutch-speaking population was 95% of that of Brussels. In this essay, he emphasized the necessity of the use of Dutch in the development of the people and culture of the Low Countries.
During the Brabantian Revolution of 1789–1790, the municipal government promulgated a number of orders in both Dutch and French, mainly due to the presence of Walloon revolutionaries. In general, before the French invasion in 1794 the Brussels municipal government used French for just five percent of its official declarations, the rest being in Dutch. For the Austrian Habsburg administration French was the language of communication, although the communiqué from the Habsburgs was seldom seen by commoners of Brussels.
In the beginning of the 19th century the Napoleonic Office of Statistics executed a review of the language use, which found that Dutch was still the most frequently spoken language in both the Brussels arrondissement and Leuven. An exception included a limited number of districts in the city of Brussels, where French had become the most used language. In Nivelles, Walloon was the most spoken language. Inside of the Small Ring of Brussels, the pentagon, French was the leading language of street markets and of districts such as Coudenberg and Zavel, while Dutch dominated in the harbor, the Schaarbeeksepoort area, and the Leuvensepoort area. In Sint-Gillis, near the center of Brussels, Flemish was still spoken at the time. 150 years later, half of the population spoke only French, and today not a single Dutch-speaking family lives in the municipality.
Immediately after the invasion of the French, Dutch was forbidden to be used in the Brussels city hall. The Frenchification rules implemented by the French government, instituted to unify the state, were aimed at the citizens who were to assume power from the nobility as was done in the French Revolution. However the French conquerors rapidly understood it was not possible to force local populations speaking languages very different of French to use this language. The Frenchification of the Low Countries therefore remained limited, in the Dutch sprachraum, to the higher level of the local administration and the upper class society. The effect on lower social classes, of whom 60% were illiterate, was somewhat limited. Life on the streets was greatly affected, as by law all notices, streetnames, and the like were required to be written in French. From then on, official documents were to be written solely in French, although "when needed", a non-legally-binding translation could be permitted. Simultaneously, businesses from the rural areas were told not to continue operating if they were not proficient in French. In addition, the law stated that all court pleas, sentences, and other legal materials were to be written solely in French, unless practical considerations made this impossible. This law applied to all notaries, although in practical terms this was only implemented by 1803. These measures increased the percentage of official documents written in French from 60% at the turn of the century to 80% by 1813. This reflected more the effects of the new language laws rather than an evolution in language use by the population. Although mainly used by in higher social circles, a more appropriate measure of actual language use might include an observation of written testaments, three quarters of which in 1804 were written in Dutch. Thus, the higher classes still used primarily Dutch near the turn of the century. During the implementation of these laws Brussels continued to grow. The first city walls were gradually dismantled the 15th to 17th centuries, and the outer second walls (where the Small Ring now stands), were demolished between 1810 and 1840, so that the city could incorporate the outlying districts.
Important for the later development of the Dutch language was that the Flemish population experienced a certain of amount of contact with Standard Dutch during the short reign of the kingdom. The Catholic Church saw Dutch as a threatening element representative of Protestantism, while the Francophone aristocracy still viewed Dutch as a language subordinate to French. These views helped contribute to the Belgian Revolution and to a future monolingually Francophone Belgium. This strong preference for French would have a great influence on the language use of Brussels.
The bourgeoisie in Brussels used more and more French, numerous French and Walloon immigrants moved to Brussels, and for the first time in mass numbers the Flemish people began switching to French. There were a number of reasons for these occurrences.
In Brussels, people do not really speak French, but pretend that they do not speak Flemish. For them it shows good taste. The proof that they actually do speak good Flemish is that they bark orders to their servants in Flemish.|Baudelaire, 1866|
The new Belgian capital had been a Dutch-speaking city, where the inhabitants spoke a local dialect of South Brabantian Dutch. A minority of French-speaking citizens, mainly those who had immigrated from France during the previous decades, constituted 15% of the population. Despite this, the first mayor of Brussels after the revolution, Nicolas-Jean Rouppe, declared French as the sole language of administration. The political center of Brussels attracted the economic elite, and Brussels soon acquired French-speaking upper and middle classes. In 1846, 37.6% of the city declared themselves being French-speaking, while this percentage was 5% in Ghent and 1.9% in Antwerp. An important portion of the so-called French speakers were actually Flemish bourgeois with Dutch-speaking roots. In 1860, 95% of the Flemish population spoke Dutch, although these people had hardly any economic and political power and deemed a good knowledge of French necessary to attain higher social status and wealth.
In two or three generations, the new immigrants themselves began to speak French. A typical family might have Dutch-speaking grandparents, bilingual parents, and French-speaking children. The exclusively French educational system played an important role in this changing language landscape. Flemish was mainly ignored as a school subject. From 1842, Dutch disappeared from the first four years of boys' schools, although in later school grades it could be studied. In girls' schools and Catholic schools Dutch was taught even less, even though Dutch was still the native tongue of a majority of the students.
Just after the mayoral inauguration of Charles Buls in 1881, lagere scholen (schools for 6 to 12 year old students) that taught Dutch were reopened in 1883. In these schools, the first two years of lessons were given in Dutch, soon after which students transitioned into French-speaking classes. The proposal by Buls was initially poorly received by the local councils, although they were later accepted when studies showed that when students had acquired a good understanding of Dutch, they more easily obtained French speaking skills. The dominance of French in education was not affected, since most schooling in later years was still taught in French. Because of the authoritative position that French enjoyed in Belgium and the misconceptions of Buls' plan, many Flemish children were still sent to French school in order to better master the language. This was made possible by the idea of "freedom of the head of household", which implied that parents were allowed to send their children to any school they wished, regardless of the child's mother tongue. Under Flemish pressure, in order to stem the tide of Frenchification, this freedom was abolished. Since most pupils were sent to French schools rather than Dutch schools, after the end of the First World War there was not a single Dutch class left in central Brussels. In the thirteen municipalities that constituted the Brussels metropolitan area, there were 441 Flemish classes and 1592 French classes, even though the French-speaking population made up just under one third of the total.
As a result of the propagation of the bilingual education system, Dutch was no longer being passed down by many Flemish parents to their children. French was beginning to be used more and more as the main language spoken at home by many Flemings. In Flanders, education played less of a role in Frenchification because most schools continued to be taught in Dutch.
As the capital of the newly-founded country, Brussels also attracted a large number of Walloon immigrants. In contrast to Flemish citizens of Brussels who came primarily from lower social classes, the Walloon newcomers belonged mainly to the middle class. Despite the fact that many lower-class Walloons also made their way to Brussels, the perception of French as an intellectual and elite language did not change.
The Walloon and French immigrants lived predominantly in the Marollen district of Brussels, where Marols (or Marollien), a mixture of Brabantian Dutch, French, and Walloon, was spoken. In addition to these groups, Brussels received a considerable number of Frenchified members of the Flemish bourgeoisie.
Between 1830 and 1875 the population of the city of Brussels grew from approximately 100,000 to 183,683, and the population of the metropolitan area sextupled to 750,000 by 1910.
This cycle of Frenchification led many Flemings to place a high value on raising their children to speak French and attend French schools in order for them to be able to reach higher social classes and better job opportunities. Because of these measures, many Flemings became monolingually French.
In contrast to the rest of Flanders, French in Brussels was seen less as a means of oppression but rather as a tool for social progress.
In the first decade after the independence of Belgium, the neglect of Flemish language and culture gradually caused increasingly greater dissatisfaction in the Flemish community. In 1856 the "Grievance Committee" was established to investigate the problems of the Flemings. It was devoted to the establishment of bilingual administration, military structures and a bilingual educational and juridical system, but was politically ignored. Among others, Hendrik Conscience, author of The Lion of Flanders, was a member of this organization. Another group to decry the problems of the Flemings was "Vlamingen Vooruit" ("Flemings Forward"), founded in 1858 in Sint-Joost-ten-Node. Members included Charles Buls, mayor of Brussels, and Léon Vanderkindere, mayor of Ukkel. Although Brussels was 57 percent Dutch speaking in 1880, it wasn't until 1883 that Flemish primary schools were permitted to operate. In an 1881 decision that went into effect in 1884, the municipal government decided to allow birth, death, and marriage certificates to be written in Dutch. However, only a tenth of the population made use of these opportunities. This indicates that in the minds of Brussels residents, French was the normal way of conducting these matters. In 1889 Dutch was once again allowed in courtrooms, but only for use by oral witnesses.
In the late 19th century, the Flemish Movement gained even more strength and demanded a bilingual Belgium. This proposal was rejected by French speakers, who feared a "flamicization" of Wallonia as well as the prospect of having to learn Dutch in order to obtain a job in the civil service. The Flemings adapted their goals and devoted themselves to a monolingual Flanders, where metropolitan Brussels society still played a major role. The Flemings hoped to limit the spread of French in Flanders by restricting the official language areas in which French was an official language. An event that cause quite a bit of controversy and helped stoke Flemish language demands happened in 1873 in the Sint-Jans-Molenbeek district of Brussels when Flemish laborer Jozef Schoep refused to accept a French-language birth certificate. He was ordered to pay a fine of 50 francs, and shortly thereafter the so-called _the_first_laws_on_the_use_of_languages was introduced, which allowed Dutch to be used by Dutch speakers in court.
In general, the Flemish Movement in Brussels did not garner much support for its plans regarding the use of Dutch. Each attempt to promote Dutch and limit the expansion of French influence as a symbol of social status was seen as a means to stifle social mobility rather than a protectoral measure as it was perceived in the rest of Flanders. Whereas in other Flemish cities such as Ghent in which the Flemish laborers were dominated by a French-speaking upper class, in Brussels it was not as easy to make such a distinction because so many Walloons made up a large portion of the working class. The linguistic heterogeneity, combined with the fact that the most of the upper class of workers spoke French, meant that the class struggle for most workers in Brussels was not seen as a language struggle as well. Ever since the turn of the century, the workers movement in Brussels embraced bilingualism as a means of emancipation for the local working class. This, along with the educational system, helped pave the way to the Frenchification of thousands of Brussels residents.
By the 1870s, most municipalities were administered in French. With the De Laet law in 1878, a gradual change started to occur. From that point forward, in the provinces of Limburg, Antwerp, West- and East Flanders, and the arrondissement of Leuven all public communication was given in Dutch or in both languages. For the arrondissement of Brussels, documents could be requested in Dutch. Still, by 1900 most large Flemish cities, language border cities, and the municipalities of the Brussels metropolitan area were still administered in French.
In 1921 the territoriality principle was recognized, which solidified the outline of the Belgian language border. The Flemings hoped that such a language border would help to curb the influx of French in Flanders. Belgium became divided into three language areas: a monolingual Dutch-speaking area in the north (Flanders), a monolingual French-speaking area in the south (Wallonia), and a bilingual area (Brussels), even though the majority of Brussels residents spoke primarily Dutch. The municipalities in the Brussels metropolitan region, the bilingual region of Belgium, could freely choose either language to be used in administrative purposes. The town government of Sint-Stevens-Woluwe, today part of the municipality of Zaventem, which lies in present-day Flemish Brabant, was the only one to opt for Dutch in favor of French.
While the Brussels metropolitan area grew quickly, the population of the city center declined considerably. In 1910, Brussels had 185,000 inhabitants; in 1925 this number fell to 142,000. Reasons for this depopulation were manifold. First, the fetid stench of the disease-laden Senne river caused many to leave the city. Second, pest epidemics occurred in 1836, 1866, and 1874, and cholera broke out in 1832 and 1848, which led to the Senne being completely covered over. Third, the rising price of property and rental rates caused many inhabitants to search for affordable living situations elsewhere. Higher taxes on patents, which were up to 30% higher than those in neighboring municipalities, stifled economic development and drove up the cost of living in the city. These higher patent prices were abandoned in 1860. Finally, the industrialization that occurred in the neighboring areas drew workers from out of the city. These social changes helped speed the process of Frenchification in the central city.
According to the language census of 1846, 60.6% of Brussels residents spoke Dutch and 38.6% spoke French. The census of 1866 permitted residents to answer "both languages", although it was unstated whether this meant "knowledge of both languages" or "use of both languages", nor whether or not either was the resident's mother tongue. In any case, 39% answered Dutch, 20% French, and 38% "both languages". In 1900, the percentage of monolingual French speakers overtook the percentage of monolingual Dutch speakers, although this was most likely caused by the growing number of bilingual speakers. Between 1880 and 1890 the percentage of bilingual speakers rose from 30% to 50%, and the number of monolingual Dutch speakers declined from 36.3% in 1880 to 17% in 1910. Although the term "bilingual" was misused by the government to showcase the large number of French speakers, it is clear that French gained acceptance in both the public and private lives of Dutch-speaking Brussels residents.
Three bordering municipalities were amalgamated in 1920 into the city of Brussels in order to expand the port. In Haren, the percentage of monolingual Flemings that year reached a peak above 82.6%. It had been an independent village, and for quite some time never really developed into a neighbourhood of the city, and was considered a Flemish village within Brussels. and used to be the most Flemish area of the region. In Laeken the residents were still 21% of Dutch speaking and 60% bilingual. In Neder-Over-Heembeek the percentage of monolingual Francophones reached 2.1%, and had 30% bilinguals. After 1920, the statistics of the different languages used in these municipalities were not recorded anymore and were included in the census within the city of Brussels.
Beyond the city of Brussels, the municipalities of Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Etterbeek, Forest, Watermael-Boisfort and Saint-Josse adopted the French language the most rapidly. In Ixelles, the proportion of Dutch unilinguals fellt from 1846 to 1947 from 53.6% down to 3%, while in the same time the proportion of unilingual Francophones grew from 45% to 60%.