Did my ancestor speak Flemish or Dutch?

The answer to this question is complicated.  Most Flemish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century told their family and friends they spoke Flemish [Vlaams]. It is also what they told census enumerators. However, more recent Flemish-Americans, myself included, probably will tell you that they speak Dutch [Nederlands]. Were your ancestors wrong? Or are we both right? Is there a difference between Flemish [Vlaams] and Dutch [Nederlands]? What word should we use when we talk about our Flemish ancestors? If you are confused, you are not alone.

A page from the 1930 U.S. census from Moline, Illinois.
A page from the 1930 U.S. census from Moline, Illinois.1

First, let’s be clear. The three official languages of the Kingdom of Belgium are French, German and Dutch. On www.belgium.be, the official online government information service, you can select from Dutch, French, German or English as your preferred language. Nowhere on this site, or on the official site of the Flemish Government, www.vlaanderen.be, is the word Flemish used to describe the language spoken by the people in Flanders Region or Flemish Community.2 Flemish students study Dutch — not Flemish — at school and university. Belgium has a Royal Academy for the Dutch — not Flemish — Language and Literature.

But at the same time you will often hear or read that the people in the Northern part of Belgium speak Flemish, Flemish being described as “equivalent to Dutch,” or “more commonly known as Dutch.”3

Is Flemish the same as Dutch? Is there such as thing as the Flemish language? What’s a language, anyway?4

To better understand this ongoing confusion and debate, let’s take a look at the development of the Dutch language over the centuries.5

The Late Middle Ages

Etymologically, the words Deutsch [the German word for German], Duits [the Dutch word for German] and Dutch [the English word for Nederlands] derive from the Germanic word diets, meaning “of the people.” During the late Middle Ages, more and more authors in the Low Countries wrote in their local diets as opposed to Latin. At the same time they wanted to ensure that their works could be read by people in the important areas around them. Thus the “language of the people” or Diets spoken in the powerful cities of Flanders such as Bruges and Ghent heavily influenced their written language. As the power of the Flemish cities was replaced by the Brabant cities of Antwerp, Mechelen, and Leuven during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, more Brabant characteristics entered the Diets language.

The Low Countries in 1477.
The Burgundian possessions in the Low Countries, known as pays d’embas (lands down here) in 1477.6

The Habsburg Netherlands (1500-1648)

Charles V, the Habsburg emperor (1516-1555) unified the seventeen provinces of the Nederlanden [literally, the Low Countries]. The Nederlandic Provinces included all of what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, with the exception of the Belgian province of Liège, and with the inclusion of a large part of Northern France.

Gradually the use of the term Diets/Duits disappeared from use and was replaced by the word Nederlands.  In 1550 Joos Lambrecht issued a spelling book and called it Neederlandsche Spellijnghe. The growth of commerce and cultural exchanges within the Low Countries necessitated (and therefore stimulated) the gradual standardization of the Dutch language. Brabant, and especially Antwerp, the printing capital of the Low Countries, led the way.

Joos Lambrecht, Neederlandsche Spellijnghe.
Nederlandsche Spellinghe (1550).7

The Spanish and Austrian Low Countries after 1648

They would have continued to do so, were it not for the 80-year war (1568-1648), which separated Charles’s United Provinces into the Spanish Low Countries and the Republic of the United Netherlands.

The Low Countries (1556-1648)
The Low Countries (1556-1648).8

The courts and administrations of the Dutch Republic started to use Dutch, not Latin or French, as their official language. In the Spanish Netherlands, however, the higher courts and nobility continued to use Latin or French. Besides the nobility, the bourgeoisie in cities such as Ghent and Antwerp also increasingly spoke French. For the next one hundred and fifty years, French was regarded as the ‘high’ language here, and Dutch, more and more, as the ‘low.’

Consequently, as of the seventeenth century, the standard Dutch language [Algemeen Nederlands] was cultivated primarily in the North, under the influence of the language of the new Dutch urban bourgeoisie, and no longer in the south. In 1637 the first Dutch translation of the bible, based on Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew originals (not Latin) was published in Leiden. The language used in the translation became the basis of the accepted form of standardized Dutch in the Netherlands.

De Staten-Bijbel (1637).
Staten-Bijbel (1637).9

The French Occupation (1790-1815)

The French occupation and annexation of the Low Countries solidified the status of French in the Southern Netherlands, and introduced it as the official language in the provinces of the former Dutch Republic. In 1806, Napoleon even prohibited the use of any other language in the courts and administration. His policies largely failed among the lower classes but found traction among the more prosperous middle class in Flanders who wanted to distinguish themselves from the lower populace.

Administrative divisions of the First French Empire in 1812
Administrative divisions of the First French Empire in 1812.10

The United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830)

When the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was established in 1815, the course was reversed, but for most of Southern provinces, it was too late. In 1819, King William I forbade the use of French in Flanders, and encouraged the teaching of Dutch at schools and universities. These measures did not sit well with the now predominantly French-speaking bourgeoisie in the South. This and William’s other authoritarian measures led to the Belgian Revolution and the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830.

Map of provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1815-1830.
Map of provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1815-1830.11

The Kingdom of Belgium

The constitution of Belgium guaranteed “freedom of language,” but in practice French once again dominated public life in Flanders as well as Wallonia. Judges and lawyers conducted all business in French. The standard academic language at all universities, including those located in Flanders, was French.12The major newspapers were written in French and were read by the upper classes across the entire country.13Flemish, in all its local variants, was for the peasants and working class. A Fleming with ambition need not polish his Flemish, but learn French. French was the language of good taste, culture and social progress. This was the accepted norm throught Belgium, and for a long time it went unchallenged. As a result, there was no stimulus to create something like a standardized Flemish or Dutch language in Belgium.

The Flemish Movement

The Flemish movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to change the predominance of French. The leaders of this crusade were middle-class professionals who rejected the use of French but at the same time did not want to use the dialects of the lower classes. Instead, these so-called integrationists aspired for linguistic unity and adopted the standardized Dutch of the Netherlands as their new norm. A few particularists, such as Guido Gezelle, Hugo Verriest and Leonard De Bo, strove for a “Catholic Flemish language,” different from the “Protestant Dutch” of the North. The vision of the Gent and Antwerp integrationists gained the upper hand however.

Slowly the rights of the Dutch language in Flanders were restored. In 1898, the so-called equality law put Dutch on equal footing with French for parliamentary debates and the promulgation of the law. Implementation of the law however was slow. On the eve of World War I, Catholic secondary and all higher education in Belgium was still French-speaking. Quite often Dutch grammar and literature was taught in French! Wallonia was still monolingual, whereas French continued to be recognized throughout the entire country.

Only in 1930 did Ghent University become an unqualified Dutch-language institution. It took eight more years before French supremacy in the army was broken. In 1962, Belgium was re-conceived as a federal state based on a territorial principle. A language border was constructed which divided the country into four language areas: Dutch, French, German, and the bilingual Brussels-Capital area. Towns with a minority of more than 30% French- or Dutch-speaking people were granted ‘facilities’ to communicate with people in their preferred language.

Meanwhile, the drive to replace local dialects with General Civilized Dutch [Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands or ABN] became particularly strong. For example, I grew up speaking with a distinct Kalmthout lilt, but it was no longer as strong as the dialect spoken by my grandparents.  In school and at home I was encouraged to speak ABN. Local patois was frowned upon. 

Dutch in Belgium today

What developed in Flanders in the meantime was an “in between language,” [tussentaal], an informal spoken language with grammatical and phonological characteristics of the speaker’s local dialect. Since the early 2000s there has been a call for greater recognition of this Belgian Dutch or Flemish tussentaal, some even arguing for it to be used in school settings. Flemish pronunciation and word preference are no long considered inferior or bad Dutch.

Dialects are also experiencing a comeback. Popular singer-songwriters perform in their local dialect. Wannes Van de Velde (Antwerp) and Willem Vermandere (West Flanders) were some of the pioneers. Today Flip Kowlier (Izegem, West Flanders), Biezebaaze (Gent, East Flanders), and Slongs Dievanongs (Antwerp) perform exclusively in their dialect.14

But linguists will tell you there is no autonomous Flemish language. The people in Flanders use the standard Dutch language when they write. Jacques van Keymeulen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ghent, defines Dutch [Nederlands] as a plurocentric language with multiple natiolects: Dutch Dutch, Belgian Dutch, Suriname Dutch, and so on, each having its own pronunciation and slightly different vocabularies.15

The Dutch of the Flemish Immigrants

Now let us go back to our Flemish-Americans. A large majority of Flemish immigrants left Belgium during the emergence of the Flemish Movement at the end of nineteenth and early twentieth century. They had received little schooling and spoke their local dialect, i.e. a strong regional variant of the Dutch language. They did not identify with Dutch as it was spoken by the Protestant north, and therefore did not refer to their language as Dutch. But in order to communicate with Belgians from other areas in Flanders, they probably also developed some sort of Flemish tussentaal.16

Many Flemish immigrants also sympathized with the Flemish emancipation movement. Charles Viane, a regular contributor to the Gazette van Moline pondered in 1908:

Is it not such education [i.e. the lack of Dutch-language schools] which forces thousands to emigrate every year? … There is no freedom and equality for the Flemish in Belgium. A Fleming without French education will always remain a second-rate citizen.

Gazette van Moline, 31 December 1908.

America provided the immigrants with a chance for upward mobility. While they may not have been outspokenly “Flamingant”17 in the old country, their new lives, homesteads, and positions in this country instilled in them a pride in their own culture and language that they expressed assertively when confronted with aspects of the Belgian French-speaking establishment in America. In 1908 a campaign was launched for the recognition of the Dutch language at the Belgian consulates in the United States by a Flemish priest of South Bend, Father Charles Stuer. His complaints centered mostly around the consulate in Chicago, which at that time was headed by Charles-Louis Henrotin who ignored all Dutch-language letters or answered in French or English.18

The Gazette van Moline featured many Flemish themes. The Albrecht Rodenbach celebrations in Roeselare were major news in 1909. Novels from Hendrik Conscience appeared as “feuilletons” in the paper that same year. In 1912, the paper covered the Conscience celebrations in Moline, Illinois.19

The paper paid close attention to the Flemish Movement in Belgium. The language issue in the military in Belgium was discussed in 1909. In March 1910 the paper featured an article from Jules Delbeke, a Flemish-Catholic Representative from West-Flanders, about the use of Dutch in public schools.20The speech of Monseigneur Martinus-Hubertus Rutten, the Flamingant bishop of Liège, before a meeting of higher clergy about the legitimacy of the Flemish Movement was reprinted in its entirety. 21A front-page article in 1911 promoted membership in the independent Flemish party, the “National Flemish Alliance” or Nationaal Vlaams Verbond, an organization which had been founded in 1891 to promote Flemish rights outside of the traditional political parties. 22

Conclusion

In sum, is not wrong to state that your ancestor spoke Flemish. But explain that this Flemish was the strong regional Dutch dialect that was spoken in his or her native village, or the in-between language the Flemish immigrants created in order to communicate among themselves. And when you refer to people of Flanders today, know that they speak Dutch, not Flemish (just as Americans speak English, not American).

Cite this post

Kristine Smets. “Did My Ancestor Speak Flemish or Dutch?” The Belgian American, posted 29 July 2019 (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed (date)).

  1. 1930 US census, Rock Island County, Illinois, Population schedule, Moline, Ward 6, ED 81-45, sheet 6A, p. 163 (stamped); digital image Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com).
  2. Belgium, a federal state, consists of three geographical regions — the Flemish Region, the Brussels-Capital Region and the Walloon Region — and three language based communities — the Flemish Community, the French Community, and the German-speaking Community.
  3. It has been a while, but the New York Times still occasionally writes that “many Belgians speak Flemish.” See Alexander Fury, “The World (and Future) of Raf Simons,” New York Times, Web edition, 26 February 2016 (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/t-magazine/raf-simons-interview.html). Encyclopædia Brittanica explains that “the Flemings, more than half of Belgium’s population, speak Flemish, which is equivalent to Dutch (sometimes called Netherlandic).” See Alexander B. Murphy et al., “Belgium: Ethnic Groups and Languages,” Encyclopædia Brittanica (https://www.britannica.com/place/Belgium/Ethnic-groups-and-languages). My sturdy Webster’s dictionary defines Flemish as, among other things, “the Dutch language as spoken in Northern Belgium: one of the official languages of Belgium.” See Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second edition (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 733. A Tripadvisor’s Belgium Traveler Article warns that “The Residents in the Northern Portion (Flanders) speak Flemish, which is the same language as Dutch.” See “Belgium: Important Phrases,” TripAdvisor (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g188634-s604/Belgium:Important.Phrases.html). BBC History Magazine calls Flemish “a Germanic language more commonly known as Dutch. See David Keys, “Belgium’s Great Divide,” HistoryExtra: The Official Website for BBC History Magazine and BBC World Histories Magazine (https://www.historyextra.com/period/belgiums-great-divide/).
  4. For an interesting discussion of this last question, see Christopher Clarey, “What’s a Language, Anyway?” The Atlantic, Wed edition, 16 January 2016 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/difference-between-language-dialect/424704/).
  5. The following is largely based on Jacques Van Keymeulen, “Het ‘Vlaams’, een taal of een misverstand?” [Flemish, A Language or a Misunderstanding?] ed. Pl. van Schalkwyk, Tydskrif vir Nederlands en Afrkikaans 22 (2015), p. 64-87; digital copy, Universiteit Gent  (http://hdl.handle.net/1854/LU-6979123). I also consulted Omer Vandeputte, Nederlands: Het Verhaal van een Taal [Dutch: The Story of a Language] (Rekkem: Stichting Ons Erfdeel, 1997). Omer Vandeputte studied German philology. Jacques van Keymeulen is a professor of linguistics at the University of Ghent.
  6. Watisfictie, Burgundian Possessions in the Low Countries, 17 July 2014, Wikicommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34051429).
  7. Joos Lambrecht, Ne[e]derla[n]dsche Spellijnghe (Ghend: n.p., 1550), t.p.; digital image, Google Books (https://books.google.fr/books?id=zHETAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=fr&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false).
  8. Fresheneesz, The Low Countries Map (1556-1648), 2006; digital image, Wikicommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Low_Countries.png).
  9. Nederlands Bijbel Genootschap, Title page of the Dutch Statenvertaling, printed by Paulus Aertsz. Van Ravensteyn by order the Dutch States-General; Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statenvertaling_title_page.jpg.
  10. Andrein, Administrative divisions of the First French Empire in 1812, 2015; digital image, Wikicommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_administrative_divisions_of_the_First_French_Empire_1812-en.svg).
  11. Joostik, Map of provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1815-1830, 2012; digital image, Wikicommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1815-VerenigdKoninkrijkNederlanden.svg).
  12. The Catholic University of Louvain was established in 1425. Ghent University and the University of Liège were founded in 1817. The Free University of Brussels was created in 1834.
  13. For example, La Libre Belgique (est. 1884), Le Peuple (est. 1885),  Le Soir (est. 1887), and Le XXe Siècle (est. 1895).
  14. For Flip Kowlier, listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaRjAZirX0s. For Biezebaaze, listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0gm5gScfX4. For Slongs Dievanongs, listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCUef_NmcP4.
  15. Jacques Van Keymeulen, “Het ‘Vlaams’, een taal of een misverstand?” [Flemish, A Language or a Misunderstanding?] ed. Pl. van Schalkwyk, Tydskrif vir Nederlands en Afrkikaans 22 (2015), p. 64-87; digital copy, Universiteit Gent  (http://hdl.handle.net/1854/LU-6979123). Other examples of natiolects are Austrian German, Irish, American and South-African English, Swiss French, Finnish Swedish. Also, Maarten Dessing, “Er is in feite geen neutrale standaardtaal: Een debat over taalvariatie in Vlaanderen en Nederland,” [Actually, There Is No Neutral Standard Language: A Debate about Language Variety in Flanders and the Netherlands] De Lage Landen (https://www.de-lage-landen.com/article/er-is-in-feite-geen-neutrale-standaardtaal.-een-debat-over-taalvariatie-in-vlaanderen-en-nederland. Also, Ludo Permentier, “Vier misverstanden over het Nederlands in Vlaanderen,” [Four Misconceptions about Dutch in Flanders] Taal:Unie Bericht, 30 November 2017 (https://taaluniebericht.org/artikel/vier-misverstanden-over-het-nederlands-vlaanderen).  Also, Dorian Cumps, “Onderwijs van het Nederlands of van het Vlaams,” [Teaching Dutch or Flemish] De Lage Landen (https://www.de-lage-landen.com/article/%C3%A9).
  16. As recent as fifty years ago, a person from Antwerp would have had difficulty understanding a person from West Flanders or Limburg. Even within West or East Flanders pronunciation and vocabulary could vary significantly.
  17. A term for Flemish militants.
  18. Gazette van Moline, 2 October 1908. This matter was not resolved until July 1914, when Charles Henrotin died and was replaced by Cyriel Vermeiren, a Flemish doctor from Chicago. In Moline, Edouard Coryn was appointed as Belgian vice-consul in 1919, and Detroit’s newly appointed consul in 1919, Pieter Boeye, was Dutch-speaking. See Gazette van Moline, 18 September 1919.
  19. Gazette van Moline, 9 September 1909, 22 October 1909, and 16 August 1912. Albrecht Rodenbach and Hendrik Conscience were two Flemish writers and leaders in the revival of Flemish literature during the nineteenth century. See “Albrecht Rodenbach,” Encyclopædia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Albrecht-Rodenbach), last revised 19 June 2019), and “Hendrik Conscience,” Encyclopædia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hendrik-Conscience), last revised 29 November 2018).
  20. Gazette van Moline, 17 December 1909 and 18 March 1910. In December 1909, the general conscription law was introduced in the Belgian Parliament, which generated several amendments regarding the language usage in the military. See Encyclopedie van de Vlaamse Beweging [Encyclopedia of the Flemish Movement] (Tielt: Lannoo, 1975), s.v. “Taalwetgeving” [Language Legislation], by René Victor, and “Juliaan Delbeke,” by Romain Vanlandschoot.
  21. See Encyclopedie van de Vlaamse Beweging, s.v. “Rutten, Martinus-Hubertus,” by Jozef Jagenau. Gazette van Moline, 22 July 1907.
  22. See Encyclopedie van de Vlaamse Beweging, s.v. “Nationaal Vlaams Verbond,” by Harry De Ceulaer. Gazette van Moline, 27 January 1911.
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  1. My mother and her family were from Antwerp, Belgium and they spoke Flemish. Of course my mother spoke French, German and of course English too.

  2. Fascinating! I remember making this mistake of language when I first met you, and you gently put me right.

    1. Judith – I didn’t mean to sound like that. I used to know what they were saying, but never learned how to speak Flemish. Then we would travel from Antwerp to Brussels where my mother’s cousin still lives …. and they spoke French. I don’t know how my mom did it….

      1. Monique, your mom wasn’t really wrong to use the word “Flemish.” As I mentioned in the article, it is complicated. I am at least a generation younger than your mom and have always considered my language to be Dutch (Nederlands). To call it Flemish today (or Vlaams) somehow sends the message that the only “real Dutch” is spoken in the Netherlands. The Dutch language, in my opinion, is as much part of Flanders as it is of our northern neighbors. That’s why I corrected Judith when we first talked about it a few years ago. Would you not agree that Americans speak English? And that your English is just as good as in England? But that is today. When your mother emigrated the Dutch language was still not completely recognized in Belgium. My grandparents probably would have said the same. And yes, a lot of Flemish people are also fluent in French, especially those with family in or near Brussels. My spoken French is a bit rusty unfortunately 🙁

  3. Ok – you talk about Flanders – What is the definition? I see the name of Walloons too. So If my mother was from Antwerp, what is she considered as?

    1. Hm .. good question! Historically the term Flanders referred to the County of Flanders [the area ruled by the Count of Flanders], which existed from 862 until 1795. The territory of this county included the current Belgian provinces of West and East Flanders, small pieces of the current Belgian province of Antwerp and Hainaut. It also included at various times the area around Dunkerque, Lille, and Arras in France, and the southern part of the Dutch province of Zeeland. Today (and since the Federalization of Belgium in 1970) the term refers to the entire Dutch-speaking area of Belgium. It includes the provinces of West-Flanders, East-Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish-Brabant, and Limburg.

      1. So Kristine – My mother spoke Dutch, not Flemish? Cause every time I see anything in Dutch, they are talking about Holland. I’m so confused… Are there any Belgian books that could help me with my family’s genealogy? I have a few, but they don’t tell me anything. I would love to find a good website to find my family documents. I’ve tried some, but … My mother’s maiden name is “Goetkint” – I think her family was just flown in and dumped. Can’t find anything. Oh well…

  4. Technically, your mother spoke Dutch (i.e. Nederlands). It was most likely tinted with a regional dialect that did not sound at all like the Dutch of Amsterdam or Rotterdam. She never would have called it Dutch (i.e. Nederlands). My grandparents probably did not call it Nederlands either. They called it Flemish (Vlaams) because at that time the Dutch language was not exactly “owned” by Flemish people. The suppression of the Dutch language in Belgium and its status as a “language of peasants and the lower classes” had a lot to do with that. Over the last fifty years of more, the Flemish people have taken a lot more ownership of the Dutch language, as they realize it is as much their language as it is of the people in the Netherlands. German is a different language from Dutch. So is English. But Flemish is not. Think of it as “American,” or “American-English,” — we still consider it to be English.

    The best English-language book to start searching for your Flemish ancestors is the one by Goethals and Denys, which I reviewed a few months ago. https://thebelgianamerican.com/2019/01/07/searching-for-flemish-ancestors-with-jozef-goethals/. Feel free to send me an email if you need more help beyond that.

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