Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Music wars on the Brussels metro

If you've ever ridden the Brussels metro subway system you may have noticed that your journey is accompanied by catchy pop tunes. In fact this past Monday was 'Lady Gaga Day' on the metro, when the gaag was played all day long, non-stop. I've pretty much gotten used to the music and I barely notice it any more, but there's one aspect of it I never thought to question - the songs being played are almost always in English.

I never thought to question it because, as is the case in most European countries, the majority of songs on the radio are always in English as well. But I had never noticed before that despite the fact that this is a Francophone city, I have never heard a song in French. Nor have I ever heard a song in Dutch, the city's other official language (spoken as a primary language by 7% of the Brussels population).

Apparently there is method to this madness. According to an article today in FlandersNews, the Brussels public transport company STIB has a policy of only playing English songs on the metro, with a smattering of Spanish and Italian songs thrown in for good measure. French and Dutch songs have not been played for fear of aggravating tensions between the two sides of the language divide here.

Has this been overcautious? Apparently not. In April STIB put in an self-generating playlist of international European hits, perhaps assuming they were all going to be in English. But apparently this list included some French songs (one of which was a song in French by Belgian pop star Kate Ryan who is, ironically, Flemish). Apparently the STIB received dozens of complaints from Dutch speakers who were angry that the metro was playing international hits in French and not any international hits in Dutch. Perhaps there were just too many global Dutch hits to choose from!

So STIB pulled the plug on the playlist, and thankfully I'm in no danger of hearing any songs on the metro that aren't in my mother tongue. And so ends another battle in Belgium's language wars. And next month, when the country hits its one year anniversary of having no government, at least Belgians won't have to hear any offensive music on the underground.


Joren De Wachter said...

When you say that Dutch is spoken by 7% as a primary language, you are actually taking a position in the language dispute.
French, the other official language, is spoken by less than 50% as a primary language. By not mentioning that, you give a very wrong image.
Moreover, you don't mention that every day, about half a million Dutch-speaking commuters flood the city. It's true, they leave again, but only 20 km away (which, in socio-economic reality, is just a suburb, even when located in officially Dutch-only Flanders).
One of the (many) causes of the language issue is the claim of Francophones that Brussels is French-speaking. Historically, it never was until after WWII. But it's part of that Francophone arrogance that states that a Fleming can only be a good Belgian when he is bilingual. Francophones, of course, don't have to reciprocate this - who would want to learn such a "local language" (which happens to be the first national language, spoken - as a primary language - by 60% of the Belgians)...

Anonymous said...

@Joren it is not accurate to say that Brussels was not a French-speaking city until after WWII. The "frenchification" of Brussels has been ongoing for almost 200 years, and the major shift from Dutch to French came in the late 1800's. It was only after World War II that MONOLOGUAL French speakers, who could not speak any Dutch, became the majority in Brussels. But for decades before that French was already the lingua franca of Brussels.

Joren De Wachter said...

Well, any statement on history around language in Belgium typically reflects a political position, rather than facts.

But that's not my main point. My main point is that Dave seriously misrepresents the language situation in Brussels today.

By saying that only 7% speak Dutch, he implicitly repeats the francophone propaganda that all the rest speak French. They don't.

The city is multilingual, except in the mind of the French language supremacists. I'm not refuting that French is, today, the first lingua franca (even though under threat from English). But it's not the majority primary language - there are no majority primary languages any more in Brussels.

The fact remains that the monolingual Francophones are the main threat to linguistic tolerance. After all, the Flemish nationalist intolerance to French in the Périphérie is a reaction to this, not the other way around.

And my main criticism remains that Dave misrepresents the situation. Non-Belgians get wrong (because incomplete) information.

It's called "framing", as I'm sure you know.