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‘We speak an own English since decennia’
Our unique second language
Ten years ago, a call to cast off our shackles and speak English in our own way received little response. Now, a linguist at one of Britain’s most prestigious academic strongholds, Cambridge, is studying ‘Dutch English’ as a potentially independent variety of the world language.
Stone-coal English, Tulip English, Dutchlish, Erasmus English, Dunglish or Dinglish: there’s no shortage of names for the language that the Dutch produce when using the most important lingua franca (or contact language) of modern times. And with none of them meant as a compliment, the message is loud and clear: we Dutch speak English less well than we think. We stumble over sounds, mangle the grammar, fluff our word choice, bastardise expressions, violate the norms of politeness and spell worse than Dutch celebrities in the National Spelling Bee. And it’s not hard to come up with countless examples of all these claims; personally, I need look no further than the English that I myself speak and write.
And yet, there are few countries in the world where so many people are able to hold a conversation in English without it also being an official national language. In fact, in many African and Asian countries where English does have official status, far fewer people – relatively speaking – are competent in the language than in the Netherlands.
This fact does not sit pretty in the ‘three circles model’ often used to describe the spread of English around the world. In this model, devised by the Indian-American linguist Braj Kachru, countries like the United Kingdom and the United States form the inner circle. The majority of people here speak English as their mother tongue. Each of these countries has its own norms, with its own dictionaries, one or more recognisable accents and a noticeable pride in their language: ‘We’ll speak English however we please.’
The next circle, broadly speaking, encompasses the former British colonies where few British people actually settled. Here, English often serves as an official language and as a lingua franca between population groups, who each speak different languages amongst themselves. Most of these countries have seen the gradual rise of their own English norms, albeit with a lower status than those of England, the US or, say, South Africa. In countries like Singapore, India, Nigeria and Jamaica it is normal to speak a locally ‘flavoured’ English and – to a lesser degree – write it. For instance, in Indian publications one rarely comes across the word ‘million’, but is much more likely to find the Indian English terms lakh (‘hundred thousand’) and crore (‘ten million’).
In the outermost circle (Kachru’s ‘expanding circle’) English is used exclusively for contact with the outside world. Amongst themselves people speak their mother tongue or a national lingua franca, such as Russian or Indonesian. And should they feel the need to use English, the language of England or the US serves as the guiding norm. It is here, in the expanding circle, that the Netherlands has traditionally been placed.
Many linguists are beginning to wonder whether it is appropriate that the English of Dutch people is still located so far from ‘real’ English. One of them is Professor Marc van Oostendorp, whose 2002 book Steenkolen-Engels (‘Stone-coal English’) called on us to set our qualms aside and speak English as we wish. A world language, he argued, has no owner. So why would it be ‘wrong’ to express ourselves differently to someone from London or California? If we let ourselves be bullied in this way, we are automatically putting ourselves on the back foot in our international contacts. No: if English is the world language, everyone should be able to speak it however they please, without condescending correction by native speakers. The aim is mutual understanding, and that calls for effort from both parties.
Van Oostendorp’s aim was to kick off a debate on Dutch and European language policy – a goal he only marginally achieved. “It sparked a debate among English teachers on whether they should keep trying to teach students ‘the Queen’s English’”, he recalls. “But for the most part, the whole language debate remains at a fairly low level. What’s interesting is that you can observe how the situation is gradually changing without anyone actually paying any attention. Except, of course, the doomsayers who get all up in arms about us selling out on Dutch.”
The linguist Alison Edwards, too, sees the changing nature and position of English in the Netherlands as an interesting issue. After several years in Germany and the Netherlands, the Australian eventually wound up in Cambridge, England. But it was during her stint as an editor at Maastricht University that she became intrigued by the English of her Dutch surroundings. While usually perfectly understandable, it often showed characteristic peculiarities. Some of these are illustrated in the title of this article, ‘We speak an own English since decennia’, which was invented for this purpose. It deviates on at least three points from Standard English: the choice for the imperfect aspect, the combination an own and the word decennia. Still, Edwards considers it “fully intelligible for any English speaker” (see also the box ‘Our English: examples’ on the next page).
Edwards, too, is inclined to the view that the Netherlands belongs in the middle circle. While she refrains from the claim that we have definitively made it so far, “that’s certainly the direction you’re heading”, she says. “English doesn’t have formal status for its use within the Netherlands, but functionally it plays a key role in all sorts of areas. Education is leading the charge. Bilingual secondary schools are a sign, but more important still is the fact that you can hardly do a master’s degree here without having good English. And in the workplace English can be essential; in many companies it’s the mandatory language of meetings and also of email correspondence, even when non-Dutch speakers form just a small minority of the employees.”
Most Dutch people don’t spend their days in universities and multinationals. Surely Edwards is talking about an elite group that has to master a foreign language, just as they always did? “In the Netherlands it goes much further than that. To start with, in 2006 some 87 per cent of the population reported being able to hold a conversation in English. That’s much more than the 10 to 20 per cent of a country like India, which belongs quite clearly to the middle circle. And the Dutch media often choose not to translate English texts. Not just the quality newspapers, but also TV programmes like RTL’s So You Think You Can Dance, which I watched when I lived in Maastricht. The Dutch participants and the viewers had to be able to understand the American judge, and apparently they managed just fine. In a similar vein is the fact that Dutch people so easily switch to English with foreigners. This habit is often seen in a negative light, but you could also interpret it as a sign that English competence is now part of the Dutch identity.”
Like Van Oostendorp, Edwards believes that English native speakers have lost their authority over the one, true world language: “After all, most English communication today involves no native speaker at all. English has to be democratised.”
So what would such a democratic English look like? Edwards: “That’s still being studied. In one model we retain the circles, but they’re arranged very differently. In the middle you have a big circle called ‘International English’, or the ‘common core’. It’s not a precisely defined language, but encompasses the grammar and words found in all varieties of English, and is influenced in part by the ‘mistakes’ that almost all non-native speakers make. Rather than being a real language, it’s a set of communication strategies where adaptability plays a key role, and the precise grammar, word choice and pronunciation vary depending on the interlocutor.
“Surrounding this International English, and partly overlapping it, you would have smaller circles: American English, Australian English, Nigerian English, Dutch English, Japanese English and so on. The idea is that in your contacts abroad you speak International English – a language with no native speakers, and so also no norm set in London or Washington. In every separate language area your ‘own’ English – for example, Dutch English – can play a certain role, and otherwise you just keep on speaking your local native language. In this model, everyone with international contacts speaks two ‘dialects’ of English: a local dialect and the international one. And on top of that, most people also have their mother tongue.”
Not only International English still has a fairly vague form; the same goes for Dutch English. For her doctorate, Edwards is trying to pin down exactly what this looks like. To this end she has compiled the Corpus of Dutch English (CDE), a collection of unedited texts written by Dutch people. (Corpora – the plural of corpus – preferably also contain spoken language, but that’s something for the future.) All 400,000 words are marked up with information on the text and the author, and can be used to answer all sorts of research questions. As the CDE is built according to international guidelines, it will soon also be possible to compare the Dutch material with the Irish, Malaysian or other material.
Will the CDE be able to prove – or disprove – the development of a Dutch English? Edwards shakes her head. “The corpus is too small for that. It seems like a lot, 400,000 words, but you need many more than that to get anything approaching the full story. For example, a Dutch English word like beamer isn’t in there.” Excuse me, beamer isn’t English? “Sorry. The English word for that thing is ‘projector’. But you’re in good company: a Dutch linguist I know how has lived in England for more than ten years also didn’t know. For English speakers beamer is a slang word for a BMW.”
There is also a second reason why the corpus study will be inconclusive as to the nature of Dutch English. “The existence or otherwise of a particular regional variety is also a societal question. There will only be interest in Dutch English, and a market for dictionaries and grammars, if sociolinguistic research shows that enough Dutch people believe that they have their own English. Only then can a local variety with its own norms really get off the ground. In Singapore, the existence of ‘Singapore English’ or ‘Singlish’ is widely acknowledged, albeit sometimes grudgingly. Here you’re not so far down the road. Most people are insulted if you say they speak Dutch English.”
What Edwards does hope is to catch the development of Dutch English in the act. Or at least two aspects of it: nonstandard preposition choice (‘Welcome in Amsterdam!’) and the characteristic use of progressive verb forms(‘We are living in Amersfoort’). Others may use the material to look at different aspects of grammar and vocabulary – but this, for now, is more than enough for one PhD student.
No easy task
Compiling a corpus is no easy task. “The CDE took a whole lot of time and part of my soul”, says Edwards. So what happens if there is no Dutch English to be found – will all that work have been for nothing? “Definitely not”, she says. “The material will still be very valuable in education. You can use it to see how the English of Dutch people differs from Standard English. In other words, opponents of the whole idea of Dutch English can bring the corpus to bear in the fight against typical Dutch ‘mistakes’.”
Our English: examples
Whenever we speak or write English, Dutch seems to creep in on all sides. Below is a small selection of the examples collected by Edwards, followed by the Standard English version.
- I live here since four years: Should be ‘I have lived here for four years.’
- In 2002, the euro has been introduced: ‘In 2002, the euro was introduced.’
- Opening hours library: ‘Library opening hours’, or, alternatively: ‘Opening hours of the library.’
- In the third year students write an own thesis: ‘In the third year, students write their own thesis.’
- Do not hesitate to mail us: ‘Do not hesitate to email us.’
- Guests will be welcomed from 16.30 hours: ‘… from 4.30 pm.’
- ICT-facilities for PhD-students: ‘ICT facilities for PhD students.’
- This happens (too) often: ‘This happens often, perhaps too often.’ The Dutch use of parentheses is very different from that of Standard English.
- Decennium, lustrum: While these words can be found in English dictionaries, they are rarely used. A period of ten years is a decade; the third lustrum is the fifteenth anniversary.
- Taxi’s, dilemma’s, faq’s Standard English: taxis, dilemmas, FAQs. Incidentally, native speakers often also pepper their writing with unnecessary apostrophes.
More examples can be found at www.onzetaal.nl/nederengels.