French Flemish: group defends a dying language


Across the West Flemish border in France, people speak a very familiar language. But French Flemish is in danger of disappearing altogether. We meet a man determined to reverse its decline

Time running out

The border between France and Belgium may well be some 200 years old, but the Flemish character of the north of France remains. Tens of thousands of residents of the region speak a language that will sound familiar to those who speak West Flemish. But time is running out for French Flemish.

Borders are just lines on a map drawn by a series of coincidences that we call history. Cultures and languages, on the other hand, are usually a lot less rigid. The border of France, called the schreve in West Flemish dialect, has been moving north throughout history at Flanders’ expense. As a result, northern France just below the schreve really has a typical Flemish feel to it. With a bit of luck, you can even hear French Flemish, which strongly resembles West Flemish.

Jean-Paul Couché corrects me immediately when I ask him about the French Flemish dialect: “French Flemish is not a dialect; it is a regional language.” Couché is chair of the ANVT, the Akademie voor Nuuze Vlaemsche Taele, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of French Flemish.

“Linguistically, a dialect depends on a larger, national language,” he explains. “That does not apply to French Flemish. We are not connected to standard Dutch because it is an artificial language that was created based on the dialects of North Holland. Research shows that the distance between French Flemish and Dutch is greater than that between Dutch and German.”

Germanic language family

Speakers of French Flemish understand the West Flemish that is spoken just across the border, “but nobody understands Dutch here,” notes Couché. “A few words, perhaps, but not whole sentences. French Flemish is a branch of the family of Germanic languages just like Dutch, but also like English, German and the regional languages in Flanders and the Netherlands.”

French Flemish is not a dialect; it is a regional language

- Jean-Paul Couché

To demarcate French Flanders geographically is not an easy task. It includes parts of the French department of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, but which bits exactly is less clear. If language is the criterion, and French Flanders means the area where Flemish is spoken, it is roughly the part of Nord-Pas-de-Calais over the river Lys (the Leie in Flanders).

Historically, Lille, once called Rijsel, and the French Westhoek region belonged to the county of Flanders, though these places switched to French ownership centuries ago. Linguistic research has shown that the language border between Flemish and French in the early middle ages was a lot further south.

Whatever the exact definition, anyone who visits the region on the border with West Flanders will notice the pronounced Flemish character. The towns with their belfries could easily be in Flanders, something their names suggest as well. Even in their Frenchified version, places like Hazebrouck, Steenvoorde and Hondschoote sound distinctly Flemish.

Here the giants walk in parades, and cycling is the most popular sport. Many people have surnames like Vanderlynde, Plaetevoet and Sansen, names that could just as well be found in the Bruges phonebook.

Fear of regional characteristics

But French Flemish isn’t doing well. There are only about 50,000 people left who speak it, or at least understand it. “French Flemish is still alive, but most of the speakers are getting old,” explains Couché. 

French Flemish is still alive, but most of the speakers are getting old

- Jean-Paul Couché

“But that goes for all regional languages,” Couché continues. “In Flanders, many young people don’t speak their dialect anymore.” It’s no different in France, he says. “There is a certain fear of regional characteristics and languages.”

ANVT offers French Flemish lessons for school students and evening classes for adults. And with success: The classes are very popular.

“In other regions in France, there are already bilingual schools,” says Couché. “The level of language skills is significantly higher. Youngsters benefits from learning multiple languages, so why not teach the language of the region?” Couché believes people question the usefulness of French Flemish and see it as something folkloric.

It’s a pity, he says, “because by teaching Flemish we give young people a springboard to other Germanic languages. And young people who speak Flemish have a language which is embedded in the region, a language they can speak with their grandparents.”

Essential part of identity

There’s also an economic argument, of course, as the region has lots of contact with West Flanders and the rest of Flanders. “Many people visit the area,” Couché says, “and we are often asked to provide tourist information in Flemish. After all, it’s an essential part of our identity. But in the other direction, there are many people here who go to work in West Flanders because unemployment has reached an alarming level.”

Such language has a great cultural value, equal to other traditions, monuments and architecture

- Jean-Paul Couché

In Flanders, the official workplace language is Dutch, “but in practice, people speak West Flemish in West Flanders, something that someone who knows only proper Dutch barely understands. Because Flemish is a cross-border language, it has an important role to play.

The emphasis in Flanders “lies very much on official Dutch,” he continues, “but that has never been spoken here in the north of France. Thus we come to this strange situation that the only place where Flemish is taught in school is here in northern France. Fortunately, our ties with Flemish cultural associations are strong.

“In France and in Belgium many people still believe that a regional language is inferior. But such language has a great cultural value, equal to other traditions, monuments and architecture. In the end, it is diversity that creates power.”

Photo: Hondschoote’s music and languages festival, courtesy  ANVT