Tuesday 26 July 2011

An unwelcome intrusion

Every Saturday, the Ombudsvrouw (Margreet Vermeulen) writes a column in de Volkskrant, a leading Dutch daily. In it she addresses issues, complaints and comments relating to articles in the newspaper and the journalistic content. Last week’s article (16 July) by the 'ombudswoman' was about the intrusion of English in the paper’s columns. Below is my translation of her article:

English has been making ever increasing inroads in the pages of de Volkskrant. Whereas in the past, an editor might surreptitiously work an English word into one of his pieces, headline writers nowadays have discovered English too. ‘Mission impeccable’, ‘Rutte is een echte free-rider’, ‘Big pictures’, ‘Suspense en rookgordijnen’, ‘Koreaanse leider racet door Yangzhou’ are just a few recent examples. Whilst this development is rubbing some readers up the wrong way, newspaper editors remain seemingly oblivious to the trend. One or two (older) senior editors grumble about it, but at the same time see any efforts to stem the tide as a lost cause. “The younger generation has grown up with English. And anyway, they have fewer sensibilities when it comes to language.”

So, our mission is: Volkskrant editors must avoid unnecessary English. It’s a principle that the editor-in-chief wishes to adhere to. “The paper should be accessible to a wider readership. This means no unnecessarily difficult or alien words.” He himself regularly changes words such as ‘bodyguard’ to lijfwacht; ‘fair’ to eerlijk and - as far as he’s concerned - a ‘CEO’ is simply a bestuursvoorzitter. “Our wording should be as clear and precise as possible. The use of English tends to obfuscate and exaggerate.”

In practice, the reverse is happening. In the financial pages, words like ‘headhunters’, ‘hightech businesses’, ‘start-ups’ and ‘brains’ are all the rage. It’s no different on the foreign pages either, with words like ‘heartland’, ‘all out war’, ‘land for peace’ and ‘flotilla’. Even parliamentary writers are guilty. In his ‘Rutte is een echte freerider’ article, one political commentator manages to churn out an English term in every paragraph: ‘good cop,’ ‘bad cop’, ‘catch 22-dilemma’, ‘no way’ and ‘voodoo-economics’. “Why ever not?” he retorts, “Prime Minister Rutte does it himself, his sentences are half English anyway”, and then adds in the following breath that he’ll try harder next time.

When it comes to using English, the weekday supplement, de V, is the undisputed champion. It doesn’t seem to worry its editor however. On the contrary. “Of course, we have to be careful using the type of ugly jargon found in the entertainment business, but I prefer a clever and sophisticated headline in English to one which fails to come up to the mark in Dutch. It’s all a question of taste.” The editor-in-chief is hesitant in his response. He thinks the supplement has more of a license to use English in its columns than the main body of the newspaper and finds English headlines often more imaginative, but as a rule, he believes, Dutch should be used.

Readers are not impressed at all by this ‘disgorgement’ of English, as one letter-writer puts it. In their view, de Volkskrant should be using Dutch effectually and not gratuitously mimicking euphemistic (American) terms such as ‘loverboy’ (pooier), ‘embedded journalism’ (afhankelijke journalistiek) and ‘collateral damage’ (onbedoelde schade, veelal burgerdoden). They wonder whether editors appreciate the fact that not all readers understand what ‘impeccable’ (onberispelijk), ‘frolics’ (grollen) and ‘granny chicks’ (sexy oma’s) mean. (These words were recently garnered from a recent article in de V.) I’ve also been asking myself how many readers know exactly what headlines like ‘Big pictures’ and ‘Golden boys’ refer to. In fact, how many readers are really happy with the pretentiousness carried by these English headlines?

One or two readers feel that de Volkskrant has a duty to make a stand against the Anglicisation of Dutch. That’s going a bit too far in my view. A news organisation should not be held accountable for defending the Dutch language. Linguists who write for Onze Taal (a magazine dedicated to the Dutch language) are keen to point out that loan words have always been entering the language. Around 50 percent of the words we use are mongrel words. Stekker (plug) is German, as too is beëindigen (to end, terminate). Arriveren is French, just like souteneur (pimp). And does anyone really get het up about baby and box (the latter which might mean anything from a playpen to loudspeaker in Dutch)? Nevertheless, Dutch doesn’t always follow English: ‘teenagers’ are tieners and a ‘penalty’ in soccer remains a strafschop.

Most linguists would even argue that English usage represented an enrichment of the language. After all, new  words can add subtle differences to the way in which we express ourselves. For example, ‘sorry’ is easier to say than het spijt me. Deleten is a handier term for wissen when it comes to getting rid of computer files. Then again, linguists tend to applaud any change in the language, so we shouldn’t see this as a guiding principle for editors of de Volkskrant.

The style guide for editors of de Volkskrant is the Stijlboek (2006 edition) which stipulates that English should be used sparingly. To encourage journalists to use their native tongue, the Stijlboek lists 2400 English words along with their equivalents in Dutch. However, it would seem the list is not often used. In fact, de V encourages the opposite. De V prefers an urbane, imaginative headline in English to a more boring one in Dutch. I don’t agree. If we adopt this rationale, the creators of de V will become less adept at producing clever and poignant headlines in Dutch. For a Dutch newspaper, that would be a real shame.