If you wouldn’t mind …

The web editor at Onze Taal, Raymond Nöe, recently asked me what I thought of politeness.

Onze Taal (‘Our Language’) is the journal of the Dutch ‘Society for Our Language’, which was founded in 1931. To protect Dutch from encroaching Germanisms, at the time. These days, it publishes on terrifically authoritative research by top-notch linguists.

By which I mean: the next issue, which comes out on Friday, will have an article about me on Dutch English. Right before the article on the Dutch sports presenter Mart Smeets and his thoughts on language (because sports commentators are, naturally, known for their authoritative views on language).

I am quoted on such weighty topics as the Dutch take on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, and pictured doing a suitably academic arm fold (I was told to look ‘wetenschappelijk’) in front of King’s (the background had to be either a notable Cambridge building or, alternatively, a bookcase). Oh, and I’m sporting a yellow jacket (mustard to be precise) that looks orange in the photo, and thus suspiciously like a creepily sycophantic nod to the Netherlands. So yeah, buy the magazine.

But about politeness. The question was: are Dutch people politer in English than they are in Dutch? Opinions were divided, according to Raymond. Some people think that in English, the Dutch are somehow politer, nicer, less direct; that is, when they speak English they take on the politeness of English, and the English. Then there are others who think the Dutch are always lomp, no matter the language. What were my thoughts?

Now there’s a can positively overflowing with worms. My easy answer: probably yes. The Dutch probably are politer in English than they would be in Dutch. But they are probably not politer than native speakers (let’s say Brits). You could picture it like this:

The Dutch in Dutch                The Dutch in English              Brits in English >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> politeness

Note, of course, that we are defining ‘polite’ here as the use of politeness formulae. These include obvious, overt markers of politeness like please and thank you; the shift of modal verbs like will and can to would and could (‘Could you take out the rubbish?’, ‘Would you not put your grubby feet on the dash?’); and of course elaborate Brit-style circumlocutions (‘I wonder if you’d mind terribly passing the salted peanuts?’).

Naturally, there are other ways to be polite. In Dutch you might use fewer of these overt politeness markers, but that is not to say the Dutch are just plain rude to one another all the time. Suspect though it may sound, Dutch – and the Dutch – have the capacity to express the full range of politeness, just like any other language and people.

But that politeness can be encoded through other means, such as intonation or body language. I’ve whinged on this topic before, here. That was about that loved (by the Dutch) and loathed (by everyone else) Dutch ‘directness’. The sort that purportedly means ‘As an earthy and upright folk, frankness is a noble national trait of ours’, but really says ‘I’m about to be downright rude, but let’s call it “expressing my cultural identity”.’

But sure, I’ll grant you – every culture has its jerks. So what about the normal people, with normal politeness standards?

Certainly, that English calls for profuse politeness – by Dutch standards, anyway – is drummed into all adolescent Dutch brains during their school years. Those with reasonable English (read: all of them) are usually well aware they need to throw their pleases around like they’re going out of fashion.

As an aside, it’s not uncommon for Dutch expats with highly proficient English to say this has affected their Dutch, too – they’ll now toss in abundant asjebliefts in Dutch.

So for some nerdy fun, I decided to have a poke around in my corpus. How many times do the Dutch say ‘please’ in 400,000 words of written texts? 139, to be precise.

And how does that compare to the comparable British corpus (ICE-GB), or the American one (yes! In some cool news for corpus linguists – and terrifically underwhelming news for everyone else – ICE-USA was recently released.). As it turns out, ‘please’ turns up less frequently in native English: 120 times in the British corpus, and only 55 times in the American corpus.

Can it really be that our Cloggies, far from being rude, are in fact ultra-polite?

Unlikely. The probable explanation is that, as said above, the Dutch tend to be all too aware of the need to be politer in English. And the easiest, most obvious strategy to do so – the quick fix – is just to add the overt politeness marker ‘please’ to everything.

But of course, being polite in English is about much more than minding your p’s and q’s. Take the sentence ‘Get in the kitchen and cook my dinner … please’. Tacking ‘please’ on the end doesn’t really make it ok.

The next obvious politeness strategy is about modal verbs, as I mentioned above: e.g. changing can to could and will to would. So what proportions do we find in the corpora for these?

To start with, there are more hits for ‘could’ in the British than the Dutch corpus (not many more, but a few), and fewer hits for ‘can’ in the British than the Dutch corpus. This may suggest that Brits are more likely to say ‘Could you…?’ and the Dutch ‘Can you …?’).

[*Extreme caveat alert*: this is a quick and dirty find just from eyeballing the numbers, but not all these hits will be relevant; ‘I can run 27 miles an hour if I’ve got my superwoman cape on’ uses the word can but doesn’t have much to do with politeness).]

Similarly, there are far more hits for ‘may’ in the British (885) than the Dutch (361) corpus. Six of the British ‘May I’ hits come from the business correspondence section (e.g. ‘May I take this opportunity to…’), while the equivalent Dutch section has only two hits, one of them being the irrelevant ‘In May I had an interview with you …’ (small numbers, yes, right you are).

Other words are strongly associated with politeness too (or at least downtoning and hedging). As an example, possibly is nearly twice as frequent in the British corpus than the Dutch one (44 vs 25 hits), as is potentially (15 vs 7 hits). But interestingly, there are three times as many maybes in the Dutch (107) than the British (36) corpus. Editors will recognise this abundance of maybe as a dialectal and register issue, e.g. Dutch clients overusing the fairly casual maybe in academic texts, perhaps made more salient by a British preference for perhaps – and indeed, we get many more hits for perhaps (perhapses?) in the British corpus (128, vs 72 in the Dutch corpus).

Further caveats, as do not particularly befit a highly un-academic blog post: One, these are written corpora. The results could be much more fun (oh yes, super-wacky-delicious fun) in spoken texts, because you’d expect more politeness markers in direct communication. Still, these corpora do include instructional writing as well as social and business correspondence, where there is still a need to be nice to people.

Second, the numbers are not huge; for proper vocabulary work you’d want massive corpora with millions upon millions of words. And the Dutch corpus texts were all written after 2005, whereas the British and American ones date from the early 1990s. Were people ruder or politer back then? (Rhetorical question, because I can only do so many asides at once.)

In any event, it seems that while Dutchies are good at bandying about obvious politeness markers like please, they may tend to avoid more sophisticated formulae. This could be a transfer issue: they wouldn’t dream of being so bootlickingly polite in Dutch, so they don’t do it in English either. But – to call on that bulwark of anthropological observation, otherwise known as irritated personal experience – it can also be a mistranslation issue.

Take for example the mistranslation of fijn in Dutch into ‘fine’ in English. A client sends a 10,000 word translation request late on a Friday night, saying: “If you could deliver by 8am Monday that would be fine”. Here’s the thing: ‘fine’ in English is actually not overly good – it’s ok, not spectacular, just satisfactory. So while I know they mean it would be FANTASTICALLY GREAT, it comes off as “If you work your ass off over the weekend in your free time, which is worth nothing – NOTHING, you hear? – to us, that would be just barely acceptable.”

Another example – and this holds for German too – is the literal translation of ‘for me’ (voor mij/für mich), in a sentence like “Do you have a euro for me?” The intended meaning is actually the much more innocent “…that I could borrow”, but to English-speaking ears it makes you want to reply “Well, I have one I could lend you, but have I been carrying it around since the euro was introduced specially for the purpose of saving it for you? Got to say … no.”

On a related note, Joy Burrough-Boenisch, the British editor based in the Netherlands, has published widely on hedging in the English scientific writing of Dutch academics. Hedging is toning down claims by using words like may, might, couldpossibly, etc. She concluded, as others have, that Dutch authors use less hedging than native English speakers. Scientists have found the Higgs particle and the world will change forever, the Dutch may say; while a Brit might write, We may have found the Higgs boson, or one of them, we’re not sure, and the world may or may not stay the same.

So, in short: it’s possible that the Dutch may or may not be more or less polite in English. Stay tuned for more … if you wouldn’t mind terribly, of course.


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