Rutte has an accent. Get over it

I wrote this article for today’s Trouw (English translation below). You can find the original version here.

trouw article

Mark Rutte has an accent. Get over it

Alison Edwards, 29 March 2014

Monday morning, press conference at the Rijksmuseum. Everything about the scene was Dutch. On Dutch soil, in front of Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch, the Dutch prime minister gave a speech. In English.

You might expect a national storm of criticism around this incident. Why was the speech not in Dutch? Does the nation’s language, its heritage, its very identity mean nothing to its leader? A storm indeed arose. But not about the fact that Rutte spoke in English. Instead it was about how he spoke it.

Social media pundits pounced: He said a stone throw away and not a stone’s throw! He pronounces his th’s and r’s with a Dutch accent! No matter that research reveals these to be the least important English sounds for international intelligibility. No – it’s an embarrassment in the eyes of the world, they say.

So what is the world saying about Rutte this week? Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is spearheading ambitious international efforts to turn nuclear security guidelines into law, says the Washington Post. No word on his English. Rutte stresses that the Nuclear Security Summit must make the world a safer place, reports the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. No mention of language there either.

Outside the Netherlands, no one has batted an eyelid that the Dutch prime minister has turned out to be … well, Dutch. So why all the fuss at home? Could the hashtag #zelfhaatvanNederlanders be true? Or is it quite the opposite: the Dutch are quick to pounce on their compatriots’ English because they have inordinately high opinions of their own?

Nine in ten Dutch people think they speak better English than most other Dutch people, according to our research at the University of Cambridge. I’m no mathematician, but this seems statistically improbable. We presented 2000 Dutch people with a series of English sentences. They were informed that some were grammatically correct and some were not, and asked to correct any errors they found. Asking the Dutch to correct things, as it turns out, is like asking children if they want candy.

In seven out of ten cases, they were able to identify and correct the incorrect sentences. But things often went wrong. ‘We are working together since 2005’ (wrong) should of course be ‘We work together since 2005’ (also wrong). Moreover, in a third of cases they enthusiastically ‘corrected’ good English sentences. It was striking how confident they were in doing so, describing perfect English as anything from ‘right ugly’ to ‘totally wrong’.

In my work for Dutch clients, I frequently come across this attitude. My translations are ‘improved’ by Dutch clients who know better, because in the summer of 1972 they spent two weeks camping in the English countryside. And I’m Australian, so how would know what English is?

This Dutch confidence in English could be a precursor to the development of a ‘Dutch English’, akin to the Indian English or Singapore English whose existence sociolinguists now accept. The development of new English varieties happens in phases. First, English becomes entrenched in a society. Over time, the community comes to accept that they speak it in their own way – with a distinctive accent, for example – and eventually take pride in that. The Netherlands is half way there: English has been embraced, but ‘Dutch English’ is still viewed in a negative light.

This is known as linguistic schizophrenia: the English that people are aiming to speak is not the form they actually speak. There is a mismatch between target norm and linguistic reality. The key point is that this phase of linguistic schizophrenia tends to foreshadow the eventual acceptance of a new variety of English. In other words: Dutch English is coming.

And as for a target model, you could do much worse than Rutte’s English. Is it grammatically sound? Yes. Is it intelligible? Absolutely. Does he speak like the Queen of England? No. But neither does Obama. So what? English belongs to us all now.

One finished thesis and a hundred twists of fate

Published in Observant, Maastricht, 19 March 2014

Last Thursday, in a file named ‘PhD thesis version 724,911’ – that’s how it feels anyway – I typed the word ‘Conclusion’. By mid-Friday, with a final flourish of my pen – well, mouse really – it was done.

It’s a wonder that it’s done, especially as it’s a wonder it even got started. It’s five years since I wrote my application to Cambridge, from my little flat in Maastricht. The first professor I wrote to decided the topic wasn’t for him. He could have put it in a drawer and forgotten about it. Instead he forwarded it to the head of the department. It wasn’t really her topic either. But I study the Netherlands, and she happens to be Dutch. She took me on out of curiosity.

Four years before that, I was on exchange in Germany. I went backpacking with a friend, and we flew into England for the first time ever on 7 July 2005: the day of the London bombings. Like thousands of others that day, we were stranded. The first bus we could claw our way onto took us to Cambridge. I remember, clear as day, sitting on the stone wall outside King’s College, watching the students wander about like it was no big thing.

I was on exchange in Germany as a German Studies major. But even that was a fluke. Back home in Sydney I’d initially picked French, but three days later I changed my mind. And it was from Germany that I took that particular flight to England on that particular, fateful day. And because the only bus running that day went to Cambridge, there I found myself, outside King’s, resolving one day to be inside it.

And so it was, thanks to some good luck and a lot of goodwill, that last week, mid-Friday, I wrote the last word of my conclusion and put down my pen. Or I would have, had I been holding one. Instead I hit save. Then hit it three more times for good measure.

So what, after all these twists of fate and turns of good fortune, was that profound conclusion?

Further research is needed. Naturally.