The entangled states, nations, and cultures of the Benelux

The Low Countries, sitiated as they are between the French and German spheres, combine samples of many different patterns in state formation, nationalism and regionalism. The Netherlands is the monarchical successor state to an old-established federal Republic, the United Provinces, while Belgium and Luxemburg emerged in the 19th century.

The Netherlandic (Dutch/Flemish) language is used in The Netherlands and in Belgium, in thae latter case in an uneasy power balance with French, while German is a co-official language in Luxembourg and in Eastern Belgium. Alongside Netherlandic, French and German, there are two small languages enjoying official status (Lëtzbuergesch and Frisian), two regional languages enjoying protected status (Low Saxon and Limburgish), and a number of Walloon and Dutch/Flemish dialects enjoying informal currency. All of these cultural traditions co-exist in an entangled, multiscalar complex shot through which cultural influences from the three great neighbouring countries, English, French and German.

It is as such – an entangled, multiscalar complex at the heart of the great West-European triangle – that the Low Countries fascinate me. Dutch and Belgian nationalism, Flemish and Walloon sub-nationalism, Frisian and Limburgish regionalism, West-Flemish and Liégeois particularism, not to mention the sui generis case of Luxembourg: all of these are competing and often “nesting” allegiances in an area that underwent severe regime changes between 1793 and 1892 and annexationist occupations in both World Wars followed by border adjustments.

Limburg and the Meuse/Rhine region

Midway between Friesland and Luxembourg lies the peripheral province of Limburg and its capital Maastricht – rich in local community life and history, but marginal to national power centres. I have a native knowledge of its dialects and traditions, and admit to a personal affection for its culture, community life and history. But Limburg is also a recent construct, combining ancient feudal and municipal traditions into a new-fangled province. Its history and sense of regional identity should be studied critically for its comparative, transnational interest, as a meeting ground of small-scale and large-scale loyalties and competing regional and national power centres. It is as such that I study the Limburg culture and history in my part-time professorship at the University of Maastricht.

Limburgish: between dialect and regional language

Limburgish is the language I grew up in (alongside my country’s official Dutch); but it interests me for other reasons as well. What is a “language”, what is “a” language? At what point, if any, do variations within a language shade into differences between languages? Linguists assert that such a point is moot. Since there is no objective cut-off point where variations between “dialects” end and differences between “languages” begin (witness the fluid demarcations between Serbian and Croatian, or the emergence of Afrikaans or Luxemburgish), it is misleading to distinguish between “dialects” and “languages”. But in social practice and in legislation the distinction is nonetheless a real fact of life. Even those linguists who assert “Limburgish should not be called a language” implicitly distinguish between something that deserves to be called a language and something that doesn’t.

I have tried to reboot this vexed question by looking at language choice from a pragmatic, “emic” rather than “etic” perspective. How do people experience their Limburgish-Dutch diglossia, and the linguistic choice this occasions in different communicative situations?