Language, Identity, Citizenship

By Resnick, Philip | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Language, Identity, Citizenship


Resnick, Philip, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


As THE POET HOLDERLIN WROTE, "Language, the most dangerous of all things, was given to man so that he could testify to having inherited what he is." Philip Resnick begins his exploration of the parallels between Belgium and Canada with this line. Language is inextricably at the core of the existential reality of multilingual, multinational states like Canada and Belgium. Speakers of the majority language must accept bilingualism as the institutional order of the day at the official level of their countries. But this does not eliminate the desire among members of the minority-language community to pursue unilateral means to defend their language.

LET ME BEGIN WITH A PASSAGE FROM HOLDERLIN, ONE OF MY FAVOURITE POETS. In the French translation it reads: "Le langage, le plus dangereux des biens, a ete donne a l'homme afin qu'il temoigne avoir herite ce qu'il est." ("Language, the most dangerous of all things, was given to man so that he could testify to having inherited what he is.") This is ambiguous--like so many literary passages--since it can mean several things. It may mean that language itself, irrespective of the particular language one speaks, is a dangerous thing, carrying memories in its wake. Or, it could be taken to underline the importance played by the particular language a community speaks in the transmission of its historical memories.

Leaving Holderlin aside, let me evoke my own personal experience when I have had occasion to visit Belgium, as was the case when I spent a month at the Universite libre de Bruxelles in 2000. I find myself strangely at home, in a way that is less true of France where I have had occasion to spend years at a time. There are the visible signs of the language reality that divides the country--the meticulously bilingual street signs in Brussels, the unilingual signs in Flanders and Wallonia. There is the large role that the language question has played in inflaming public opinion over the years--the battle over the University of Leuven/Louvain back in the 1960s springs to mind. And there are the institutional changes that have made Belgium into a federal state, with its own complex division of powers between central government, regions, and language communities.

As a Canadian with a particular interest in the politics of Quebec, how could I not be aware of the mirror reflections between Canada and Belgium? Language underpins identities, as anyone with a sense of Canadian history knows. The Conquest, the Patriot Rebellion of 1837-8, Confederation, the hanging of Louis Riel, the Manitoba and Ontario School Questions, conscription debates in World Wars I and II--these are issues that have divided English and French, rather than bringing them together.

Like Canadians, Belgians do not have a single view of their history, be it back in medieval or Hapsburg times or since the creation of a Belgian state in the 1830s. Throughout the 19th century, French was the dominant language, with Flemish consigned to a back-seat role. In the 20 century, the assertion of Flemish in the public life of Flanders and of Belgium became a primary feature of Belgian politics. As in Canada, there are conflicting visions of what the past means. The title of a book by a leading Flemish historian, Lode Wils, speaks volumes. It is called Histoire des nations belges, with "nations" in the plural.

Language is not the only variable of identity. Religion played a leading part in French Canadian identity throughout the 19th and the first part of the 20th century, especially as against a more Protestant English Canada. One thinks of Andre Siegfried's famous account in his 1906 study, The Race Question in Canada. So too in Flanders, a more traditional Catholic religiosity can be contrasted with the more secular, liberal, and socialist values that came to dominate in Wallonia.

Territory may have its own importance. People's attachments are usually to a particular piece of territory historically associated with their community. …

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