- The status of Brussels as capital and its location close to the country's linguistic divide has made the city both the focal point and the flash point of issues raised by language that have riven modern Belgium.A Dutch dialect was the language of daily life and commerce from the city's origins through the 18th century. Local government, religion, and the law courts employed, in addition to Latin, Dutch. The Burgundian regime brought a French-speaking court that began a gradual growth in the use of French. French became the language of the central government and of the nobility, culminating in a French-speaking top social stratum, who resided largely in the upper town, solidly in place by the 18th century. French began making inroads among the upper middle classes in the 1700s, a century that ended with inauguration of the French regime when the city's public life became completely Frenchified and the language exerted an enormous impact on the upper middle classes and intellectual circles.An effort to make Dutch the exclusive official language in Brussels during the Dutch regime failed. The Belgian Revolution, abetted and directed by the capital's French-speaking elites, and the establishment of a centralized state on the French model led to enshrinement after 1830 of French as the de facto official language (and, in some cases, as the de jure language, e.g., publication of laws and military decrees). Article 23 of the 1831 constitution made the choice of language "optional," thus ensuring no legislative restrictions on the spread of French. From 28 August 1830 the minutes of the city council meetings were no longer drawn up in Dutch but in French. The first language census (1846) revealed that 36.7 percent of residents spoke French.In the 19th century, French was the language of social and economic advancement, and the influence of Paris dominated fashionable life, the arts, and culture. The imposition of free, primary education (1880) proved a powerful means to promote use of French. Dutch, viewed as the language of cultural backwardness, was associated with the laboring classes. Dutch-language strength centered on lower-middle-class immigrants from Flanders, who became bilingual, and whose efforts to advance the use of Dutch focused largely on cultural activities. Through the 19th century, the mixed language status of Brussels was recognized as appropriate for the capital. A law of 17 August 1873 allowed use of Dutch in judicial courts on a case-by-case basis, and a law of 22 May 1878 allowed an optional use of the language by state civil servants in dealing with residents and local authorities.Burgomaster Charles Buls promoted bilingualism in education, and bilingual street signs appeared. However, after 1888 Dutch-speakers lost their already limited influence in city government and bilingualism waned. Street signs reverted to French. They became bilingual again at the turn of the 20th century. Suffrage reform (1893) saw the start of pressure for equality between the languages, guaranteed by a law of 1898. Language option was made available in judicial and educational arenas—a Dutch-language court of assize was set up in Brussels in 1908 to service Brabant.German occupiers in World War I and World War II promoted the use of Dutch, engendering strong anti-Dutch sentiment among French-speakers. A law of 31 July 1921 introduced the concept of ter-ritoriality in legislation in stipulating that laws and proclamations had to be published in both languages on request of 20 percent or more of voters. A law of 28 June 1932 prescribed compulsory bilingualism for public pronouncements and bilingual officials were required to staff offices that served the public. French continued to spread throughout the early 20th century from 1910, when French-speakers outnumbered Dutch-speakers only within the pentagon and six nearby suburbs (Etterbeek, Forest, Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, and Schaerbeek) to 1930, when Uccle, Watermael-Boitsfort, Au-derghem, and the two Woluwes were majority French-speaking.The 1947 census (not published until 1954) showed growing French-language use in outlying communes with only Evere registering less than 50 percent Francophones. Dutch-speakers began to fear that French would spread throughout all of Flemish Brabant ("oil spill" effect) and Brussels would merge with Wallonia to dominate the country. Flemish newcomers continued to assimilate, a process that, by the second generation, often led to exclusive use of French. Brussels's growing role as an international center was viewed as an additional spur to French predominance. Demands by Dutch speakers that definitive language lines be drawn around a bilingual capital region to be surrounded by Dutch-only administrative districts were countered by French-speakers' claims for language rights in peripheral areas around Brussels and creation of a bilingual metropolitan region to encompass all of Brabant. Beginning in the late 1950s, Flemish pressure groups accelerated their activities culminating in an end to language censuses in 1961. By a law of 8 November 1962 a language border was drawn across the country with Brussels situated several kilometers north of the line. A law of 2 August 1963 mandated strict equality for the two language groups for all local offices in the newly created Brussels bilingual district (arrondissement).French speakers continued their outward movement through the 1960s, although stabilization set in beginning in the 1970s. By this time, the language issue was subsumed within a wider movement toward federalization of Belgium, a process that led to a series of institutional reforms culminating in the creation in 1995 of three autonomous regions, including the bilingual Brussels Capital Region. The federal system, demographic and economic growth in Flemish Brabant, and a weakened grip by Brussels-based political elites on the region have lessened linguistic tensions. While it is estimated that approximately 85 percent of area residents are French-speaking, the number of Dutch speakers is no longer decreasing and it increases sizably when account is taken of the work week population.Creation of the communities has ensured that division would characterize cultural life. Festivals, clubs, and television and radio stations belong to one or the other linguistic group.It is important to note that, notwithstanding its official status as one of Europe's few bilingual capitals, Brussels has become increasingly multilingual in recent decades. Furthermore, the notion of a monolingual city is no longer valid. Rather, foreign-language expatriates and immigrants use French as a lingua franca while the global dynamics of English make it a language of growing use. See appendix F for a division of residents according to languages used.See also Bruxellois.
Historical Dictionary of Brussels. Paul F. State.