Go on: give Dutch English a big hug

Here is an article about my research in yesterday’s NRC:

Nederlands Engels wordt een taal apart

Engelse taal Nederlanders schamen zich vaak voor het Engels van hun landgenoten, terwijl Engelssprekenden er juist bewondering voor hebben.

Maarten Huygen

9 maart 2016

Nederlanders maken elkaar nogal eens belachelijk om hun Engels. Dat ze het niet goed spreken, dat ze een accent hebben, dat ze uitdrukkingen al te rechtstreeks vertalen. Dat ze dénken dat ze goed Engels spreken.

Alison Edwards, afkomstig uit Australië, denkt daar anders over. Zij vindt dat Nederlanders juist heel goed Engels spreken. Volgens haar ontstaat hier een nieuw soort Engels – afwijkend van het Brits of Amerikaans, maar toch duidelijk. Zij promoveerde in 2014 op dat ‘Nederlandse Engels’ aan de universiteit van Cambridge.

Click here for the full article.



The rise of New Englishes

Marloes van Amerom wrote this nice article after my talk in Twente last month (click here for the full publication).

Yes, getting a lot of mileage out of this photo.

‘I want to sign up for the course English as a Foreign Language. Everyone seems to speak English, but no one can understand me!’

UT news article

‘There is not a lot of sympathy for Dunglish’

I gave a talk for Studium Generale at the University of Twente a few weeks back. In case you missed it (ha, ha), here’s a fairly accurate summary:

‘There is not a lot of sympathy for Dunglish’

11 March 2015, 13:11
Michaela Nesvarova, UT News

English has many varieties, but is Dutch English one of them? How do we decide what is a legitimate variety of a language? That was the main topic of a Studium Generale lecture, held on the 10th of March 2015 and presented by Alison Edwards, a researcher with a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Cambridge. 

Edwards specializes in sociolinguistics and her doctoral thesis focused on English in the Netherlands. She is interested in World Englishes, which is a term referring to localized varieties of English all over the world. ‘Wherever English goes, the locals mold it to fit their culture and way of life,’ explains Edwards.

Mistake or a local flavor?

If new varieties of English really emerge everywhere the language is used, how do we tell a difference between the local variety and a mistake? ‘There are many native and nonnative varieties of English. Native speakers are outnumbered by non-natives, who don’t try to mimic British or American English, but use English to represent their own environment,’ says Edwards. ‘Deviating from native English is not necessarily and error, but can be an appropriate innovation.’

Do people speak Dunglish in the Netherlands?

Does Dunglish exist? To answer that question, we first need to determine what constitutes a legitimate language variety. Edwards says: ‘The criteria of an English variety include widespread competence, expanded functions of the language, identity construction, linguistic innovation and finally local norm orientation towards the language.’ Let´s see if Dunglish fulfils all these criteria.

Widespread competence

It is said that almost everybody in the Netherlands speaks English. Indeed, 90% of Dutch people claim they can hold a conversation in English. ‘Competence in English is assumed and expected in the Netherlands,’ says Edwards. Dutch people often use English words while communicating among each other, and not only in spoken form but also in writing. English words or even entire sentences can be found in official texts, such as news announcements intended for Dutch readers.

English as a part of Dutch culture

English has become a typical feature of an everyday life in the Netherlands. ‘We can see ‘Englification’ of Dutch higher education, English commercials or conferences and work meetings held in English, even when all their participants are Dutch. English doesn’t have an instrumental function, but more of a signaling role – it represents a cosmopolitan and progressive group or culture,’ elaborates Edwards. Yes, English has become an element of the Dutch national culture and identity.

Linguistic innovations

As people accept this English-knowing identity, it gives them a sense of ownership over the language. That leads to linguistic innovations in English grammar, accents or vocabulary. Edwards herself has created a corpus of Dutch English and found some systematic innovations, that might suggest a new variety of English has emerged in the Netherlands.

Dutch don’t aim for Dunglish

Based on all of the above statements, it seems that Dunglish does exist. However, Edwards explains that Dutch English doesn’t fit the last of the mentioned criteria. Dutch people do not aim for a local variety of English. They do speak English and use many English words within Dutch sentences, but they generally aim for a neutral, international form of English, not for creating their own version of it.

‘There is not a lot of sympathy for Dunglish in the Netherlands,’ concludes Edwards. ‘Therefore it is difficult to say if Dunglish truly exists, but there certainly are a lot of interesting things happening with English in the Netherlands. It is not black and white.’

Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe

A while back I translated Taaltoerisme, a most excellent popular language book by the journalist Gaston Dorren. It was picked up by Profile and the English version is out in the UK now: Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe. Obviously I’m biased, but obviously I recommend it!


Here’s the blurb:

Welcome to Europe as you’ve never known it before, seen through the peculiarities of its languages and dialects. Combining linguistics and cultural history, Gaston Dorren takes us on an intriguing tour of the continent, from Proto-Indo-European (the common ancestor of most European languages) to the rise and rise of English, via the complexities of Welsh plurals and Czech pronunciation. Along the way we learn why Esperanto will never catch on, how the language of William the Conqueror lives on in the Channel Islands and why Finnish is the easiest European language.

Surprising, witty and full of extraordinary facts, this book will change the way you think about the languages around you. Polyglot Gaston Dorren might even persuade you that English is like Chinese.

Engelstalige gedoe in de Volkskrant

The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published an interview with me today.

“Het grappigste vind ik het logo ‘police’ op de uniformen van politieagenten in Amsterdam. Het heeft een pet, een uniform en een wapen. Rara wat zou het zijn…”

For the record, I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘Hou toch eens op met al dat Engelstalige gedoe’, and in my opinion Dutch is springlevend. That said, my attitudes survey is getting many more responses, which can only be a good thing 🙂

Click here for the original article.

Volkskrant 12 sept 2013 artikel Alison (2)


We speak an own English since decennia – Update

I’ve managed to get around to translating Gaston Dorren‘s article about my research in Onze Taal last month. Happy days.

Click here for the Dutch version.

‘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.

Three circles
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.

‘Stone-coal English’
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.”

Bilingual education
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.”

RTL programme
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.”

Common core
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.

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.