Background: The linguistic making of Brussels

Belgium became independent in 1830 - with international support led by England - to establish a buffer state against further French invasions. Belgium is split from West to East by a linguistic border that has remained roughly unchanged since the 6th century. The Northern part of the country, Flanders, hosts a population speaking a variety of Germanic dialects despite attempts since the mid twentieth century to unify them under a koinê used in education and official situations. The Southern part, known as Wallonia, is a long-standing Romance territory where French is spoken; a small Germanic enclave in the East, attached to Belgium in the wake of the First World War, is included in the Walloon region. The third region is made of Brussels, the capital city that enjoys for historic reasons an official bilingual status. 

The exact distribution of languages in Brussels is unknown for a number of reasons. Indeed, the linguistic census was outlawed in the early 1960s upon the request of Dutch-speaking mayors who feared that the French ‘oil slick’ would contaminate further Dutch-speaking areas around Brussels and create a corridor joining Brussels and Wallonia. In addition, the balance between Dutch and French depends on the criteria chosen: Brussels is known to be more Dutch-speaking in day time than at night due to the numbers of Flemish public servants commuting to work in Flemish governmental departments located in Brussels.  Finally, Brussels is in fact a multilingual city due on the one hand to the presence of international organisations such as the EU or NATO that promote the use of English as a lingua franca, and on the other hand to immigrant communities.

In such a context of languages in contact, the French spoken in Brussels may possess specific features resulting both from its historical developments and contemporary contacts. Yet, attempts at describing that variety have been limited, notwithstanding the now dated study by Baetens Beardsmore (1971), and a detailed description of the contemporary situation is overdue:

Quant au français pratiqué par la grande majorité des Bruxellois, il reste à décrire; tout porte à croire néanmoins qu'il manifeste une grande diversité idiolectale, sans témoigner d'une spécificité régionale particulièrement marquée — il partage de nombreux traits avec le français en Wallonie — ni d'une standardisation à l'échelle de la capitale du royaume. (Francard 1998 :16) [As for the French spoken by the vast majority of Brussels inhabitants, it is still to be described; every evidence leads to believe nonetheless that it shows significant idiolectal variety, without demonstrating any marked regional specificity – it shares many features with French in Wallonia – or a standardisation at the level of the kingdom’s capital city (our translation)]

The constitution of a corpus of authentic conversation will help identify what those features may be.

The emergence of French in Brussels

As a glance at the map of Belgium would show, Brussels is landlocked within the Dutch-speaking territory. It was indeed originally a wholly Germanic territory, as witnessed by all historic toponyms. Brussels itself is thought to derive from the Old Dutch words "broec" and "saal", broadly meaning "settlement in the marsh" (de Ridder, p.2). From around 1000AD, the hamlet started expanding thanks to its position at the crossroads of two major trade routes; the one linking England to Germany and the other joining Northern Europe to the South. Brussels was part of the duchy of Brabant, a principality under the suzerainty of the German Empire. At the time, Brabant spread not only over the two contemporary provinces of Flemish and Walloon Brabant but also included Antwerp and the Dutch province of North Brabant. The Duchy encompassed mainly Germanic territories except for the agricultural ‘Roman pays de Brabant’ around the Abbey-town of Nivelles, but administration was carried out in Latin as was the case throughout Europe at the time. From 1290 onwards, vernaculars increasingly entered administrative documents and French was used in the Southern part of the duchy whereas Dutch was used in the Northern part.

Brussels steadily expanded throughout the 14th century thanks to its prosperous textile industry, and developed its own political culture:

By 1422 Brabant had acquired a form of government that was beginning closely to resemble a parliamentary regime, in which the dukes were to some extent answerable to a kind of people's representation. Furthermore, long before the French Revolution of 1789, the citizens of Brabant had secured the right to depose their prince should he fail to honour his engagements. This "Privilegium Brabantinum" was to become a beacon for future liberation movements (and also for the drafters of the American constitution). (De Ridder, p.2)

In 1430, Brussels came under the rule of the House of Burgundy, whose French-speaking dukes brought some French influence among the ruling classes during their stay in Brussels. With the extinction of the Burgundian dynasty in 1482, the Low Countries (i.e. roughly modern-day Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg) came under the domination of the Habsburgs whose far-reaching empire’s administration settled in Brussels from 1531 under Emperor Charles V. His successor Philip II waged a war against Reformation that created much resentment in Brussels that was home to many Calvinists. Brussels therefore took part in the rebellion against Philip II and welcomed William of Orange as king. Alexander Farnese managed a partial reconquest of the Low Countries on behalf of Philip II and Brussels remained under Spanish Habsburg domination until 1713 when it passed to the Austrian branch of the dynasty. In 1793/94, the French invaded Brussels and the rest of the southern Low Countries, so the whole territory was incorporated into the French Republic in 1795. From 1793 until 1815 a policy of systematic "gallicisation" was enforced in the southern Low Countries. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 the Allies, particularly England, resolved to establish a buffer state against France and the southern and northern Low Countries, separated since 1585, were reunited under King William I of the Netherlands. The zealous reforms he introduced in the Southern Low Countries were not well received both by the clergy who distrusted a protestant monarch and by the Gallicised local administrators. A revolt against the king of Holland in 1830 revived French hopes of re-annexing the Southern Low countries, but they were squashed by international powers led by England through the creation of an independent state.

The creation of a Belgian state favoured French in Brussels for a number of reasons. First, French, then the language of élites throughout Europe, was the only official language of the country until 1898 (McRae, 1986:25). The situation was reinforced by the fact that education implied the knowledge of French, especially in Brussels where primary education was only available in French until the end of the 19th century (Treffers-Daller 2002:51). At the national level university education remained available only in French until Ghent became a Dutch-speaking institution in 1930.

The international prestige of French contrasted greatly with the position of the Germanic dialects spoken in the Northern parts of the country. That inequality was further reinforced by the economic backwardness of agricultural Flanders compared with the prosperous heavy industry of the South until it collapsed in the mid-20th century.

French in Brussels in the 21st century

Map of Belgium

Since the creation of a linguistic border in 1932, the borders between Flanders and Wallonia could be altered according to the results of the linguistic census due to the existence of borderline communities where both Germanic and Romance idioms were used. 

In places where 30% of the population spoke the other national language, the linguistic minority became entitled to administrative services in their mother tongue. Should the minority language be used by half of the population, the town was compelled to offer services in the minority language, alongside the regional language. Brussels, as a historically Flemish territory with a strong French influence, was particularly exposed. The first official census held in 1846 reveals that the population of Brussels already used French much more frequently than those of other Flemish cities: 37% compared to 5% in Ghent and 1.9% in Antwerp. Between the 1866 language census and that of 1947, the number of Dutch monolinguals went from 46.2% to 9.5%, while French monolinguals rose from 19.3% to 37%. In 1947 24.4% of the Brussels population was registered as using Dutch exclusively or primarily, and 70.6% as using French only or mainly (McRae, 1986: 295).The 1947 census (results published in 1954) proved detrimental to the Flemish region. Indeed, Flanders has benefited from a more lenient treatment from Nazi Germany due to their common Germanic origins and collaboration had been far more widespread in the North of the country. At the end of the war, a concerted rejection of that bleak period led a number of census respondents to minimise their links with Flemish dialects that were associated to the Reich. This would have had important consequences on the linguistic border, especially around Brussels and it led a group of 300 Flemish mayors to ask for the withdrawal of linguistic questions from the census to prevent the French ‘oil slick’ to further expand on Flemish territory. In 1963, the boundaries of the Brussels agglomeration were officially established and confined to 19 municipalities. Six neighbouring municipalities, located in the Dutch-speaking part of the province of Brabant, obtained a special status with so-called facilities for Francophones: Drogenbos, Kraainem, Linkebeek,Sint-Genesius-Rode,Wemmel and Wezembeek-Oppem (Witte, 1993: 12)

Map of France

Without a linguistic census, estimations on language usage have had to rely on indirect evidence, such as enrolment in French- or Dutch-speaking schools or use of languages in the health services. Yet, those figures are far from reliable as it does not account for multilingual families or families who sent their children to schools in the other language to increase their chances in Brussels’ mostly bilingual job market. The language used in the application for registration plates currently seems to be one of the most accurate indicators of language use in the capital city. Recent sociological studies by Janssens and colleagues have nonetheless indicated the overwhelming predominance of French in Brussels, based on interviews of a sample (2,500 people aged 18-70) of the capital’s population. Their results show a wide range of types of use going from monolingual French and Dutch speakers, French-Dutch bilinguals; French-immigration language bilinguals and speakers of other languages. Their results confirm the findings of a study dated 1999 (quoted in Van Parijs 2007) that showed that native speakers of French as their only mother tongue represented just over half of Brussels population. If the people who had French as one of their mother tongues were taken into account, the proportion raised to nearly three quarters. If finally, people who claimed to have a good or very good mastery of French were included, it could be claimed that Brussels was Francophone at about 95%.

In recent decades, Brussels has welcomed an increasing number of international immigrants who can be split in two very distinct categories. On the one hand, economic migrants among which a significant proportion of North Africans already familiar with French have tended towards a diglossia where the mother tongue is spoken at home and French outside; such pattern tends to evolve towards of frenchification from the second generation. On the other hand, highly skilled migrants have been brought to Brussels by international organisations such as NATO or the European Commission. That group tends to remain segregated in rich areas and to send their offspring to European and International Schools and to adopt English as a lingua Franca. That influence, combined with the convenience of English, the most Romance of all Germanic languages, as a communication tool between Dutch- and French-speakers, is likely to affect the balance of languages in the Belgian capital.

The variety of French spoken in Brussels should not be confused with Bruxellois, a hybrid idiom attested from the late 16th century (Bernard 1997:242) and common until the late 20th century in the popular area of the Marolles that is characterised by Flemish features especially at lexical and phonetic level into a French morphosyntactic mould.

Treffers-Dallers (1999) showed that French in Brussels showed more structural influence from Brussels Dutch than lexical borrowings from that language. As for Francard (2010), he studied the Germanic influences in the lexicon used in Brussels and came to the conclusion that most Germanic words used in Brussels were understood in Wallonia even if they were not actively used. He suggested that words from immigrant languages may also play a role in the specific making of the French spoken in Brussels.


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Bernard, B. & Javeau, C. (1997) ‘Le français dans la région bruxelloise’. In: Blampain, D. et al. (ed.) Le français en Belgique, pp.239-250.

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Francard, M. (1998) ‘La légitimité linguistique passé-t-elle par la reconnaissance du statut de variété “nationale”? Le cas de la communauté française Wallonie-Bruxelles’, Revue québécoise de linguistique, vol. 26, n° 2:13-23.

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