Is Flemish a Dialect of Dutch?

SHI: “Flemish” is Dutch. Flemish is just a name for a regional variation of the Dutch language in Flanders.

I do not agree. That’s Dutch politics and especially Dutch nationalism talking, not linguistic science. I believe that most linguists agree that Dutch and Flemish are two separate languages. And Ethnologue says that Flemish and Dutch are two different languages. Also I believe that mutual intelligibility is not good between Flemish and Dutch regional forms. Yes, Official Flemish is intelligible with Official Dutch, but those are artificial languages. The real true Flemish of regional lects has poor intelligibility with any form of Dutch. And Flemish speakers cannot understand many regional forms of Dutch.

Hell, Dutch is not even intelligible within itself, as the different Dutch lects often cannot understand each other well. It’s the same with Flemish. A number of the regional Flemish lects cannot understand each other well.


Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Dutch, Germanic, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

10 responses to “Is Flemish a Dialect of Dutch?

  1. Mountleek


    Flanders and the Netherlands have been using the same standard language, which is called Dutch (“Nederlands” in Dutch), and nobody has problems with this.

    In the narrow sense, Flemish is the areal lect of the ethnic region of Flanders. That covers the province West-Vlaanderen, an adjacent area in France, almost whole province Oost-Vlaanderen and the southern portion of the Dutch province Zeeland.

    See a MAP here:

    In the broad sense, it is the [mere] variation of Dutch (standard language) in Belgium. Much like the local flavor. Like Belgian French or Austrian German have their flavor. These flavors are based on political division from the rest of the people, who’ve been using the same standard language. This flavor in a way infects minds of the inhabitants within the limits of the political borders. It is a political infection, collective creation. This may include words with slightly different meanings, inside language jokes, option for exaggerated local pronunciation, historic connotations of words, differing spelling, local designations for stuff, you name it.

    Remember, this is based on political borders and stems from shared political history, therefore a man from Antwerpen speaks kind of the same “Flemish” as a man from Gent or Hasselt. This is the “Flemish”, that Germanic Belgians have in common.

    And furthemore, as you mentioned, there are geographic lects, which stem from a long sedentary history of settlement. I assume you will admit that these true ethno-areal lects are much more stronger than a political concept not even 200 years old, when states started to matter. Among these lects are West-Vlaams and Oost-Vlaams (comprising Vlaams), Brabants, Limburgs, Zeeuws, Hollands, and a few other with rather artificial names.

    These are lects from the “Niederfrankisch” group. I reckon that Dutch is based on this group. The “Nedersaksich” group is a part of Plattdeutsch (Low German). And the “Fries” group is yet another group.

    All in all, I suggest not to overestimate the power of “Flemish” – Flemish should be understood as a sweet common memory of the Dutch-speaking Belgians.

    Or do you allege, that a man from western Belgian Brugge with a man from eastern Belgian Hasselt have ethno-linguistically more in common, than a man from Antwerpen with a man from Tilburg? The latter descending from a common ethno-areal region of Brabants?


      Expands Macro-Dutch from 15 languages to 31 languages on the basis of mutual intelligibility. 126 pages.

      I did a tremendous amount of work on what I call Macro-Dutch. Ethnologue chops Macro-Dutch into 15 separate languages. I think it is even worse than that. In this piece, I expanded Macro-Dutch from 15 to 31 separate languages.

      I would appreciate it if you could look at this and tell me what you think.

      • Mountleek

        It’s very detailed, Robert. It looks like that in many places the regional lects have retained their features quite strongly. It’s interesting to read about all the little variations and it’s good that you have consolidated this study.

        Looking at map suggests that the strong regions are Holland, Brabant and to some extent Vlaams. Other regions have just been stuck to them. Strong France was able to get hold of power base Brabant and therefore the surrounding Vlaams and Limburg. Powerful Holland defended the rest, including part of Brabant.

        Let’s not forget that power bases Brabant and Holland are not far from each other. Only 150 km. That’s too few for the languages to be so badly intelligible. Perhaps in times, when they were really “based”. Yeah, I agree that standard Dutch is based in Netherlands, in Holland. Brabant and surroundings were too geopolitically disempowered to create their special version of standard language. They accepted the standard language from Netherlands. But I doubt that mainstream Flemings and Dutchmen use a radically different language for speaking. It’s more or less the same.

        Why do you so much worry about somebody recognizing a “dialect” as a language? Is the word language something holy to you? 🙂 That’s why we have the great word lect. Or sometimes I call all of it just “languages”. Even the intelligible dialects.

        I mean, the situation is always changing. Once the neighboring lects are hardly intelligible, because people are based. The next day, a war happens, an industry happens, and people start moving, making contacts, widening their horizons. And the neighboring lects just become more comprehensible. Situation always changes, so why to categorize something to the end of time as “language” and something as “dialect”? We must always consider 1) geographical aspects, which give way to consolidation of power from power bases to edges, 2) political aspects (political borders and their influence on ethnoses and language perception 3) and movements in society (is society in a direction of being “based” or in a direction of being “liberal” and what effects does it have to perception of language, and 4) we must be aware that these factors are evolving in time, they are not static.

        You know, perhaps these states are all wrong. States could be according to main language groups. There couldbe a state of northern France and Wallonia (languages d’oil). Then Brabant-Holland merger (Niederfrankisch). And then Plattstaat – Nedersaksich of northeast Netherlands + northern plains Germany, they should invent their own language. Then consolidation of Middle and High Germany makes sense. Etc.

        All in all Robert, I think that the regional lects do not retain their specifics to a big degree. But the corresponding “accent” is still present and clearly recognizable. And behind the language differences, there are ethnic differences. Behind all of the main regional lects, there is a corresponding ethnic group, and it’s important to be aware of that.

        • I gathered all of those reports of poor intelligibility from published sources (mostly Wikipedia and especially Dutch Wikipedia, which is unlikely to exaggerate such things) and a few reports by linguists and an even fewer interviews with native speakers. Many towns and cities in the Netherlands have published their own dictionaries of their dialect or language as they call it. I do not know about you, but when a city or region speaks differently enough that they are even able to publish a damned dictionary of their particular lect, to an American, that is an insane situation. We simply hardly have such divergent lects in this country.

          Of course most of those lects are simply dialects of some larger lect and one can always switch to the regional Dutch/Flemish norm if there are difficulties in intelligibility. No doubt the strong forms of the dialects/languages are used mostly within a constricted region or even a town or city among people who speak this same lect. No doubt with outsiders, they would speak the official version.

          Just to give you one example, an Groningen native speaker told me that she had a bit of a hard time even understanding the more distant Groningen lects! And that is just one small lect among 10 such lects within a great big mess called Dutch Low Saxon. Now that’s crazy!

          I also received reports that some of the Flemish lects get subtitles on even Flemish TV. Flemish speakers get subtitles on Flemish TV? For an American, a situation like that is insane.

          I also had a Limburgs native speaker tell me that certain lects considered part of Limburgs were very hard for him to understand.

          If everyone was communicating as smoothly as you say, all of these many reports of difficult and poor intelligiblity would not even exist. Now either these reports are true or people are lying and making some stuff up.

          In nations where everyone communicates via the same lect without major regional variations, the reports from the field say just that.

        • In most of the world where no one cares, such as Indian lects in rural Mexico, we linguists generally use a standard metric of ~90% intelligibility to differentiate languages from dialects, which is something we actually do. Check out Ethnologue. Ethnologue appears to use the 90% metric in much of the less developed world. But in the First World, all of a sudden we can’t use this metric anymore because politics.

          And it’s quite obvious that you don’t want to see Dutch chopped up due to Dutch nationalism. Hell it’s already chopped to Hell by Ethnologue. I just made the situation even worse. Sure nationalism is a motivation for many people’s beliefs, but Linguistics is supposed to be a science and we have a pretty low regard for “facts” that are motivated by nationalism.

          Also I like to chop up language. I’m a splitter. I’m probably the craziest splitter out there, but I have a ton of evidence for most of my splitting. I say the more the merrier. Let’s go ahead and make a lot of new mini-languages. I understand that Western nations would not like that due to political concerns, but we don’t base our science on politics.

          Also the present reasoning in Linguistics for differentiating dialects from languages is THAT THERE IS NO STANDARD AT ALL and that this is a political question and not a linguistic one. It sounds like they just tossed the hot potato because they didn’t want to deal with the messiness of it. I think that’s a cop-out. At least I have SOME SORT of a scientifically based standard on which to differentiate dialects from languages, which is much better than what we have now.

          And in controversial cases such as you present here, there is always some intelligibility testing to settle it all out, either formal, informal, or even individual reports.

        • Mountleek

          I wonder if regional lects are better preserved in western Europe, rather than in eastern Europe. Western Europe has been richer and industry came earlier. That may be the reason why people moved less and it was more feasible to stay in their region and visit other regions less.

          In Eastern Europe, there was communism/socialism, which caused great intermingling, moving and even marriages of unlikely societal groups. Perhaps in eastern Europe, there is greater linguistic homogenization, due to unstable history?

          But anyway, Robert. If people want to, they find a way to communicate. Imagine you turned up in some distant area in England in 17th century? Do you think that you wouldn’t be able to communicate? You would need water, food, sleep. You can easily ask for that. Also, work can be done without much talking. A spend a few more days and your understanding will be great enough to make a philosophical debate.

          I mean, in past it was easy to learn a language. You became submerged in the new environment. And at least you understood the new language. Today people don’t communicate that much with other people (we rather spend our time in front of computer screen) and we don’t need to communicate that much. We are quite in safe, food is safe, water is safe etc. So we don’t run around and look into how we could stay away from hunger, diseases, poverty. We are now impacted by mass media.

        • Mountleek

          Robert, is it possible that in western Europe, the regional lects have been preserved better, while in eastern Europe are preserved worse? There was communism/socialism in eastern Europe, therefore more tendency not to continue speaking with regional lect .

  2. James Schipper

    Dear Robert

    i have never spent much time in Flanders, so I can’t vouch for spoken Flemish, but written Flemish is Dutch. Reading a Flemish newspaper is as easy for me as reading a British newspaper is for you. There are some expressions which are unfamiliar, but any Dutch person should be able to read a text written by a Flemish person.

    In some ways, the dividing line is not between Flemish and Dutch but between Northern Dutch and Southern Dutch, and Southern Dutch includes the Southern parts of the Netherlands. For instance, the informal you is jij/je in the North and gij/ge in the South.

    Flemish contains some gallicisms. For instance, a Dutchman would always say verwachten for “to expect”, but a Flemish person would also say zich verwachten aan, which is a literal translation of the French s’attendre à. We would say “het boek is uitverkocht” = the book is sold out, but a Vlaming would say “het boek is uitgeput” = the boek is exhausted, because the French use “le livre est épuisé”, épuiser = to exhaust.

    But then, an Englishman may get cross if the tube is late, while an American will get mad if the subway is late.

    Regards. James

  3. Paul Brown

    I read some books about Dutch, including Dutch by Teach Yourself Books, then I studied the Linguaphone Course. After that, I went to Belgium, staying overnight in Ostend, but mainly in Antwerp. As I expected, I had some problems because language courses aren’t really colloquial, but I found that the language spoken was Dutch with a slightly different pronunciation, although they called it Vlaams where the v was as in English, not like f. The accent sounded quite like Afrikaans (i.e. South African), the letter G was hard instead of like spitting, the letter a in “Dank U” sounded like English a instead of o, and the U in that phrase sounded like German U umlaut. Later on, I got to know 3 Flemish women and we had conversations in Dutch. One of them complimented me on speaking with a Flemish accent. To hear some Flemish or Belgian Dutch, try watching this streaming soap opera “Thuis” on

    • The language you are hearing is the standard Flemish language, which is really just Dutch.

      The real Flemish of the hard local dialects is another matter altogether. It’s not Dutch at all and Dutch speakers can’t really understand it.

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