Belgium Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The nation of Belgium has an interesting history, which has had some interesting impacts on its ethnic diversity. In this lesson we'll look at ethnicity in Belgium, and see what it means to the nation today.


Every wonder why they call it a Belgian waffle? I have. Turns out, the Belgian waffle is a specific variety of waffle, featuring a lighter batter that was originally a popular entrée in Brussels, capital of the nation. During a World Expo in which Belgium was showing off its waffles to the world, the alleged inventor of the Brussels waffle, a man named Maurice Vermersch, realized most Americans didn't know where Brussels was. So, he just called it the Belgian waffle. And now you know. I mention this because, one, it's cool, and two because despite that fact that Belgium is an important Northern European nation, a lot of us actually know very little about it. For example, who lives in Belgium? Believe it or not, neither Belgian nor Waffle-maker are actual ethnic categories. So, let's get to know Belgium a little better. You're on your own for the waffles.


Flemish Ethnicity in Belgium

The largest ethnic category in Belgium is not Belgian. This is a national identity, not an ethnic one, so all citizens of Belgium are Belgian. So, what is the ethnic distribution amongst these people? About 58% of Belgians are ethnically Flemish. The Flemish ethnic group speaks local dialects of the Dutch language, sometimes called Belgian Dutch or Flemish by outsiders. So, where did the Flemings come from? Historically, what is now Belgium was occupied by Romanized Celts, who were invaded by various Germanic tribes across the centuries. In the northern part of the region, a group of Germanic Franks managed to push out the Romans in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE and establish control. Their language would eventually become Dutch, and these people the Flemings. To this day, the northern half of Belgium is dominated by Flemings. All street signs and government publications are, by law, written in Dutch, which is the official language of the North.

Road signs in northern Belgium are in Dutch

Walloon Ethnicity in Belgium

So what about the rest of the Belgian people? Well, the next largest ethnic group are the Walloons, who make up 31% of the total population. Walloons speak a variety of French dialects. Way back when, the Roman Celts, who were pushed south by the Germanic tribes, settled in what was then part of the territory called Gaul. Frankish tribes later moved into the region as well, and over time the Celts, Gauls, and Franks formed the French language. One group of these people became the Walloons, and to this day the southern half of Belgium is dominated by people who are ethnically Walloon. In this half of the country, which begins just below the capital city of Brussels, the official language is French.

A sign in the Walloon dialect of French

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