Brussels subway latest front in linguistic fight

AP News
Posted: Jun 15, 2011 12:47 PM
Brussels subway latest front in linguistic fight

The Brussels subway sound system has become the latest front in the linguistic fight between Dutch speakers and Francophones that has kept Belgium without a government for more than a year.

Subway officials want to play songs from both languages over the public address systems to replace just instrumental music.

In recent months, subway officials played some French-speaking music during a trial period. A plan announced Wednesday will draw up a quota system that will try to find a balance between the nation's two main languages. If successful, it will be the first time Dutch-speaking and Francophone songs will be played together in the subway.

The country's 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 5 million Francophones bicker over everything from the health budget to Flemish collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Consequently, the country has been without a government since June 13, 2010 elections.

When it comes to subway music, there was long the fear of someone taking offense at the other language that drove the exclusion of both.

"Some commuters hear a French song and they are angry it is not in Dutch. And vice versa," Brussels legislator Luckas Vander Taelen said of the prevailing reasoning of the past years. "It was a pretty stupid rule. It is logic itself to move away from this."

For the lack of any progress on coalition talks and a constitutional revision to grant more autonomy to Dutch- and French-speakers, the Brussels subway system has won its fame as a temporary linguistic battleground.

Up to 2005, all music was instrumental, but the MIVB-STIB management company anticipated trouble when it started to move to songs with words.

"To avoid problems, we did a test with 70 percent English, 15 percent Italian and 15 percent Spanish," and none of Belgium's main languages, MIVB-STIB spokeswoman Ann Van Hamme said. The pilot program was a success.

In a capital with a Dutch-speaking history and an overwhelmingly Francophone and international population now, linguistic sensitivities have always been skin-deep only. To avoid a linguistic problem is often better than tackling one head-on. It leaves Brussels a complicated city with traffic signs in both languages, intractable linguistic administration and rules which are perplexing for all but its 1 million inhabitants.

Problems came this year when the subway wanted to introduce an international hit list to move more with the times.

"But in such a hit parade there is a bigger chance for Francophone songs than Dutch-speaking ones," Van Hamme said. And quickly enough, trouble brewed, with Dutch-speaking complaints.

Now, the MIVB-STIB management will assess how to impose quotas. Commuters, though, mind less and less since ever more wear earphones.

"If you need music in the Metro, take your own," said Vander Taelen. "They now find a solution for a debate which is already outdated," said Vander Taelen, the Dutch-speaking legislator who once ran a band with the Francophone phonetic name Lavvi Ebbel, or Life is Beautiful.