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Belgium History, Language and Culture

History of Belgium

Belgium's famous Dutch-versus-French language divide was established in the Middle Ages when Roman Emperor Charlemagne was forced to divide his kingdom between his three grandsons. Known as the Treaty of Verdun and signed in AD 843, it effectively split his territories up into the early divisions of France, Germany and the Low Countries. Flanders remained part of the Germanic Frankish lands, while Wallonia belonged to the Roman Empire and its Latin language.  

Ownership of the area passed between Spanish, Austrian and French kings, with great wealth and high art flourishing during the peaceful years of 1419-1467 and 1579-1620. Cloth-trading towns such as Bruges, Ypres and Ghent became particularly rich. 

Independence only came in 1830 when the citizens staged an uprising against Dutch ruler William of Orange and had their freedom formally recognised by Great Britain and France at the London Conference in 1831. Leopold I was inaugurated as the country's first king and was succeeded by his son Leopold II, who has achieved notoriety in the modern era for pouring the riches he gained from exploitation of the Congo into magnificent buildings like the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken in Brussels. During this time, French was the official language of government and the upper classes, while Dutch remained the dialect of the working classes. The divide created fluctuating friction between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia and it continues to this day.

The country suffered four years of German occupation during World War 1, seeing some of the most intense conflicts of the entire campaign and emerging in a ruinous condition, an experience repeated during World War 2. However, it experienced rapid economic growth in the post-War era thanks largely to regeneration money granted by the US Marshall Plan. By developing its 'light' industries, Flanders subsequently overtook Wallonia's once-profitable coal industry and continues to support its southern counterpart to the tune of €10 billon a year − a cause of much grumbling among the Flemish. A constitutional monarchy, King Philippe succeeded his father Albert II who abdicated due to ill health in July 2013 and the royal family is credited as a unifying force between the two language communities.

Did you know?

 Belgium loves a procession and the Carnival of Binches with its famous Gilles and the Processional Giants and Dragons of Ath, Brussels, Dendermonde, Mechelen and Mons are recognised by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind.

 Outside of France, Belgians hold the most Tour-de France victories.

 French fries actually originate in Belgium. (French readers may dispute this!)

Belgium Culture

Religion in Belgium

Mainly Christian (65%) with a large portion being Roman Catholic (58%, although few attend regular mass), with small Protestant and Jewish communities.

Social Conventions in Belgium

Knowing which language to speak where can be tricky. Avoid speaking Dutch in Wallonia and French in Flanders. Most locals are laidback, but it can cause offence if you get it wrong in some circles. If in doubt, speak English.

Outside of business transactions, it’s customary to kiss three times on alternate cheeks. Guests should bring flowers, or a small present, for the hostess if they’re invited for a meal and it is customary to wish everyone bon appetit/eet smakelijk at the start of a meal. Dress is similar to other Western nations: jeans and a smart top suffices for most occasions, including nights out. Smoking is banned in venues where food is served.

Language in Belgium

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German. Dutch is spoken in Flanders, the northern half of the country, and French is spoken in the southern Wallonia region. German is spoken in an eastern enclave. English is widely spoken in Flanders, but less so in Wallonia.


  • Beer = Bière (Bier)

  • Closed = Fermé (Gesloten)

  • Danger = Danger (Gevaar)

  • Do you speak English? = Est-ce que vous parlez anglais? (Spreekt u engels?)

  • Doctor = Docteur (Docteur)

  • Eight = Huit (Acht)

  • Eighty = Quatre-vingt (Tachtig)

  • Entrance = Entrée (Ingang)

  • Exit = Sortie (Uitgang)

  • Fifty = Cinquante (Viftig)

  • Five = Cinq (Vijf)

  • Forty = Quarante (Viertig)

  • Four = Quatre (Vier)

  • Friday = Vendredi (Vrijdag)

  • Goodbye = Au revoir (Tot ziens)

  • Hello = Bonjour (Dag)

  • Hotel = Hôtel (Hotel)

  • How are you? = Comment ça va? (Hoe gaat het?)

  • How much does it cost? = Combien est-ce que ça coûte? (Hoeveel kost het?)

  • I'm very well = Ça va bien (Het gaat goed)

  • I don't understand = Je ne comprends pas (Ik verstaat niet)

  • I feel ill = Je ne me sens pas bien (Ik voel me niet well)

  • Menu = Menu (Menu)

  • Monday = Lundi (Maandag)

  • My name is … = Je m'appelle … (Mijn naam is …)

  • Nine = Neuf (Negen)

  • Ninety = Nonante (Negentig)

  • No = Non (Neen)

  • One = Un / Une (Een)

  • One Hundred = Cent (Honderd)

  • One Thousand = Mille (Duizend)

  • Open = Ouvert (Open)

  • Please = S'il vous plaît (alstublief)

  • Restaurant = Restaurant (Restaurant)

  • Saturday = Samedi (Zaterdag)

  • Seven = Sept (Zeven)

  • Seventy = Soixante-dix (Zeventig)

  • Six = Six (Zes)

  • Sixty = Soixante (Zestig)

  • Sunday = Dimanche (Zondag)

  • Ten = Dix (Tien)

  • Thank you = Merci (Dank U)

  • Thirty = Trente (Dertig)

  • Three = Trois (Drie)

  • Thursday = Jeudi (Donderdag)

  • Today = Aujourd'hui (Vandaag)

  • Toilets = Toilettes (Toiletten)

  • Tomorrow = Demain (Morgen)

  • Tuesday = Mardi (Dinsdag)

  • Twenty = Vingt (Twintig)

  • Two = Deux (Twee)

  • Wednesday = Mercredi (Woensdag)

  • Where is …? = Où est …? (Waar is …?)

  • Wine = Vin (Wijn)

  • Yes = Oui (Ja)

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