‘It ís good’: Call to embrace Dutch English

My article ‘It ís good’: Pleidooi voor het omarmen voor Nederlands-Engels will appear in the July/August issue of Onze Taal. Here’s an English version.

‘It ís good’: Call to embrace Dutch English

The English spoken in the Netherlands is developing much like it has in countries like India and Singapore. Yet the Netherlands is trailing these countries in one important aspect.

In the 1970s a radical new discipline emerged in linguistics: World Englishes. Its pioneers called for the democratisation of English: the recognition that the language was no longer only at home in Britain and America, but that varieties such as Indian, Nigerian and Singapore English had sprung up.

Today, English has become firmly rooted in Dutch soil too, albeit through globalisation rather than colonisation. I wondered whether the Netherlands will follow the same path as postcolonial societies: will it develop and embrace its own, Dutch-flavoured form of English? I will defend my PhD research on this question at the University of Cambridge on 16 July.

British plus

My research makes use of the linguist Edgar Schneider’s model of the evolution of postcolonial Englishes. This model distinguishes between several phases:

  • Phase 1: English is introduced in a society through colonial expansion and trade.
  • Phase 2: English becomes a fixture in domains such as education, where it remains firmly British oriented.
  • Phase 3: English is now entrenched in its new environment, and it becomes ever more apparent that it is not exactly British English. Consciously or otherwise, the locals shape and mould it into a sort of ‘British-plus’: based on standard English, but with a local twist in accent, vocabulary and grammar.
  • Phase 4: speakers accept and even take pride in their new variety (as in Singapore, for example).

Although Schneider’s model was designed with former colonies in mind, my research reveals linguistic parallels with the Dutch situation. The obvious question, then, is what phase is the Netherlands in now?

Nose in the butter

The Netherlands has clearly come through phase 1. British soldiers were present in the Low Countries as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fighting alongside the Dutch against Spain. Religious Britons also abounded, seeking shelter from persecution in England. In the early 1900s a form of pidgin arose to facilitate trade; the term Steenkolen-Engels derives from the simple English used by Dutch port workers with British coal ships. English began to play a major role in the Netherlands in the second half of the twentieth century, when rapid globalisation saw English take on the role of international lingua franca.

The parallels continue into phase 2 of Schneider’s model. This can be dated in the Netherlands to the decades following World War II, when English established itself as the dominant foreign language in Dutch education (with British English as the target model, of course). English competence spread, laying the groundwork for the next, crucial phase: phase 3, in which English is given a local ‘flavour’. This, too, has happened: you can spot a Dutch person speaking English a mile away.

This is partly thanks to the accent. Consider the pronunciation of the or those rolled r’s, which lead some Dutch people to pronounce three as ‘tree’. The vocabulary and grammar, too, can show traces of Dutch influence. We’ve all seen signs like ‘price not includes saus’, and the overly literal translations in books like I always get my sin by Maarten Rijkens: He fell with his nose in the butter, I work myself the blubbers and so on. This improvised English is not always easy to understand for those not fluent in Dutch.

Plenty of Dutch people, however, speak a brand of English that is perfectly intelligible in international company. In some cases they know full well what a native speaker might say, but deliberately deviate from it. I know Dutch people who’ll ask of a party Who are going? instead of the conventional Who is going? – because unless it’s a very sad party, then the plural form is ‘surely more logical’. Other Dutch people give accents to English letters to indicate emphasis, as in the sentence It ís good, even when they know this is not customary in English-speaking countries. In this way, they are purposefully filling a perceived gap in native English.

Mark Rutte

Phase 3, according to Schneider, also sees the emergence of a ‘complaint tradition’: the common refrain by purists that British English is the ‘real thing’ and the emergent local variety little more than a bastard. The recent ruckus over Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s – perfectly good – English shows how far the Netherlands has already progressed down this path.

In this phase a collective ‘English-knowing’ identity also arises. Put simply: virtually all Dutch people feel that they speak good English. Here, in fact, the Netherlands really takes the cake. Think about the last time someone with an English accent addressed you in Dutch. Did you switch to English immediately? Chances are that you did. After all, everyone knows that an English speaker could never speak better Dutch than a Dutch speaker can speak English. This dovetails with the oft-cited overestimation by Dutch people of their own mastery of English.

‘Bad English’

Where the Netherlands stalls is in the transition to phase 4, when a new English variety is recognised as such. I questioned close to two thousand Dutch people on their views of ‘Dunglish’, and found that seven in ten consider it merely ‘bad English’. But give the phenomenon a milder label and suddenly people are much more accepting: the same proportion, seven in ten, have no issue with ‘English with a bit of Dutch flavour’.

This strikes me as quite sensible. Dutch people’s proficiency in English ranges along a continuum from a sometimes comical mish-mash (‘with his nose in the butter’) to idiosyncratic phrases like ‘Who are going?’ But for almost all of them, British English is unattainable. So why keep on chasing it? How useful is it, for instance, to force children endlessly to practice saying the when in practice de never harms communication? It may be better to aim for the highest possible level that is within reach.

My findings also give rise to the suspicion that the label we stick on the tin might make all the difference. No one wants to speak steenkolen-Engels, or even Dunglish; these days, few Dutch people spend their time shovelling coal from British ships, and it must be conceded that ‘Dunglish’ sounds a bit lowly.

But what if we were to use the term ‘Dutch English’ to refer to that good, internationally intelligible English with a touch of Dutch? Sounds a bit more appealing, doesn’t it? It has more status than the Dunglish of ‘I work myself the blubbers’, is more attainable than the ‘Queen’s English’, and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

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