Steenkolen-Engels, I know there nothing over

I’m always impressed by just how much the Dutch love their language. Well, not ‘their’ language specifically, but language issues in general. Last week, the indefatigable Gaston Dorren published an article in Onze Taal about my research, called ‘We speak an own English since decennia: Onze unieke tweede taal’ (Dutch version; English version). He did a good, accurate and entertaining job; so if you liked that, you can read his blog, on other language issues, here. Or better yet, buy his book, Taaltoerisme.

As it turns out, the Onze Taal article kicked off a bit of a kerfuffle – as I said, the Dutch are inexplicably diverted by language debates – and so the national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad picked up the story as well. By ‘story’, of course, I mean the fact that in Cambridge someone from Australia who wears mustard-coloured jackets is eavesdropping on the Dutch, not that we have actually released any results yet.

Then, fright of all frights, I was asked to make an appearance on the RTL4 TV programme EditieNL, which you can watch here. It was a terrifically hard-hitting piece presented by a guy in a shiny snake-skin jacket where I was asked to comment on such linguistic marvels as the unwitting sexual innendo of Ruud Krol, the former Dutch football star, during a CNN interview. You can read the programme info from their website below.


Lesson learned? When you discuss the English of Dutch people WITH Dutch people, they immediately think of the term steenkolen-Engels. They are thinking of all those awkward mistranslations that you read about in I always get my sin (‘How do you do and how do you do your wife?’). The thing is, steenkolen-Engels is at the low end of the proficiency spectrum. We are looking at what I call Dutch English, which you find among much more proficient speakers. So steenkolen-Engels, Dunglish, Nederengels, no; Dutch English, or Nederlands-Engels, yes.

Update – click here for an article I wrote for SENSE Netherlands, in which I explain the difference.


12 thoughts on “Steenkolen-Engels, I know there nothing over

  1. I loved reading this. I have been a strong advocate of the Dutch English idea, or concept, for a long time. Probably since the first time that I found out that I could spell and phrase better then some of the natives, when working as a text editing temp with the IWC, the whaling commision having their annual meeting in Noordwijkerhout in 1990. I was 25 then and though I mostly read cyberpunk in its original I was unaware of any proficiency, nor did I know the proper meaning of the word just then.

    There is Australian English and Nigerian English, Irish and Jamaican, South African, American and you name it, … and why not Dutch English, Nederengels? Can be, maybe I think so.


  2. I think there is a difference: Indian English, South African English, Malaysian English, USA English (OK, OK – bad example, they do a pretty good job at destroying everything they love), pigeons etc., are variants of English spoken as a ‘real’ means of communication. Dunglish is not worth worrying about. Dutch English, if that can be defined, is a rare experience (een vreemde gewaarwording) and also not really worth getting worked up about.

    I find the subtle differences between Leiden, Den Haag and Rotterdam variants of Dutch much more interesting especially considering their close proximity. Limburg, including Venlo & Geert Wilders, should be eliminated from the equation obviously.

    How about “English as it is spoke” the stuff all our foreign friends live on? Internet and similar modern means of communication are really mixing up (or messing up) the boundaries of expectation. I think that is a good thing in the long run, despite the minor aesthetic obstacles it may involve.


  3. Hi Stephen, thanks for your comment. You are right that Indian English, South African English etc. are used as ‘real’ means of communication, by which I assume you mean for ‘intra-national’ communication, i.e. Indians among themselves, South Africans among themselves. This is a good point, and indeed one of the loose ‘criteria’ for defining English as a second language as opposed to a foreign language is whether it is used for intra-national communication, or only for international communication (with foreigners). Broadly speaking, if it is used intra-nationally sociolinguists consider this characteristic of a second language, and thus a ‘legitimate’ variety of English. If it is only used internationally, it is considered a foreign language and thus a ‘learner’ as opposed to a ‘user’ variety. I think it is interesting to consider the Netherlands in this light, i.e. in terms of whether Dutch people use English with one another. Many don’t, but some do. Consider university faculties or companies, where English is the designated working language. There you have Dutch people emailing one another in English. Or university courses where the official language is English, but 9 out of 10 students as well as the tutor are Dutch. This sort of thing is on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely not saying all Dutch people speak to each other in English all the time, or that Dutch is going to disappear … just that there are some small but increasing pockets of the population who sometimes do use English with one another. That’s worth investigating, I think. Generally speaking, I agree with your last comment – that new means of communication are mixing up the way English is used, and this is a cool and exciting thing! I would simply add to that that new PEOPLES using English more and more are also ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ in terms of our expectations, and I think this, too, is a good thing!


    • Allison, thanks I am exposed to the university version of English on a daily basis so I have first-hand experience of this sort of mincemeat.

      I found the following Wikipedia lemma rather fascinating:

      That language will evolve in different and novel ways within the global (internet etc.) means of communication is obvious but possibly not fully appreciated (yet). Consider the language used for twitter, and SMS. 😉 TX S


  4. But the irritating thing, for a native English speaker who has lived in NL for over 20 years (and earns a living correcting academic texts in Dutch) is that they’re so dang proud of ‘how well they speak English’. Sigh. And no, I’m not bashing. I enjoy living here.


  5. Hi Alison, To stand by someone through thick and thin looks like a perfect example of Steenkolen-Engels to me, but it is used by the respected BBC. This has always intrigued me that so many proverbs are literally translations from an another european language. What is your explanation for this ? Cheek by jowl on the other hand is a unique british proverb. Wij zeggen mannetje aan mannetje, dacht ik.


    • Hi Leo, yes, ‘through thick and thin’ is certainly English, very much so! Usually there are two possible explanations for this sort of thing: either the proverbs have a common source (English and Dutch are both Germanic, for example, but I don’t know that that is the explanation in this particular case), or one of the languages simply imported the proverb from the other at some point in time. In which case, it is probably more likely to have been borrowed into Dutch from English, along with many other proverbs. Although sometimes – not often, admittedly – the English do borrow from the Dutch as well, e.g. apartheid!


  6. Hoezo steenkolen Engels ?
    Eens de opmerking van een Engelse vriend:
    Why should we learn an other language ? Everybody understands us !


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