Saturday, 31 December 2011

Word of the Year 2011

With the mince pies and sherry at the ready, there’s probably no better time to reflect on the year gone by. Since words are the tools of my trade, it's worth taking a look at some of the words that made it on to the scene over the last 12 months.

First of all, what’s the criteria for Word of the Year?  
Well, according to the Oxford Dictionaries website:
"The Word of the Year is a word or expression that we feel has attracted a great deal of interest in the year to date. It need not have been coined within the past twelve months and it does not have to be a word that will stick around for a good length of time. It may not currently be in our English dictionaries, and it may never be deemed common enough to be included. It simply has to be a word which we feel has been embraced by the general public this year and has lasting potential as a word of cultural significance."

So, what were their findings?
"Protest was a huge inspiration in this year’s Word of the Year contest, and our shortlist in the UK included Arab Spring, Occupy, and hacktivism. Phone hacking (hardly new to the English language but one which resurfaced in the wake of the News of the World phonehacking scandal) also came close to the top spot.

"Some more colourful contenders which were considered earlier in the selection process, but which didn’t quite cut the mustard, included: bunga bunga, as used in the context of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous parties, crowdfunding, defined as the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, facepalm, a gesture in which the palm of one’s hand is brought to one’s face as an expression of dismay, exasperation, embarrassment, etc., and fracking, the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at a high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas."

Fighting off this stiff competition, the word (or words) that was deemed more appropriate than all the rest was squeezed middle. This term is defined as “the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes, and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those people on low or middle incomes.” The phrase is attributed to the Labour leader of the opposition in the UK, Ed Miliband

There were other words too that popped up in the news. Economic phrases included bond yields, sovereign debt and haircuts. But does anyone know what they mean? We were also one step closer to knowing who Higgs Boson was with the elusive subatomic constituent known as the God Particle travelling between Switzerland and Italy at speeds unfathomable to the human mind.  

So, what about Dutch?
In the Netherlands, Tuigdorp was voted the Van Dale Woord van het Jaar 2011, an isolated location where habitual offenders are sent to and a term which has been attributed to none other than Mr Geert Wilders. In second place comes caviapolitie, or 'animal cops' who now form their own division within the police force. Number 3 is occupy: hardly surprising that there is some cross-over between languages here. Likewise, the youth word planking, a craze that involves posing for a photograph whilst lying facedown in a rigid planklike position. In sport, wordfeuden, from Wordfeud, a multiplayer word game for iPhone and Android devices, has been popularised, though I'm not entirely sure where the element of sport comes into it.

Are you, like me, one of those people who likes their creature comforts when travelling by train? Well, fear no more, in 2011 the NS came up with the idea of the plaszak. The national train operator dreamed up this receptacle so that passengers on toiletless trains could gain some relief should their trains ever get stuck in snow-drifts, or, as is more common in the Netherlands, suffer downed power lines.  

My own personal favourite?        
There's something about confined public spaces that gives certain types of people (teenagers usually) an urge to play tinny music to each other on their mobile phones. Well now someone's devised a word for this irritaing habit: it's called sodcasting.
If I had my way, I'd have these mobile devices chucked into a plaszak - after it's been used of course. 

What a cheerful note to end the year on. Happy New Year folks! 

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Taalcultuur in Limburg

I usually flick through the local free weekly newspapers just to check I’m not missing anything important. Now and again however, there’s an article that catches my eye. On 16 October, for instance, an article on Limburg dialects appeared in the weekend freebie, Zondag, announcing the establishment of a new professorship, Taalcultuur in Limburg, at the University of Maastricht. Ever since my Dutch teacher (see previous blog entry) told me about the sjlips-kravatt line (the Benrather Linie), I’ve been interested in Limburg dialects. Plus I’m fascinated by the fact that although my son and I have always spoken English with each other, his mother-tongue is actually Limburgs. Below is my loosely translated English version of the article (written by Frank Benneker).  

Since October of this year the University of Maastricht has had a chair devoted to local dialects in the province called Taalcultuur in Limburg. The holder of this new position is Leonie Cornips and she will be responsible for research into the local dialects that are spoken in the region.

Although she grew up in the province, surprisingly Ms Cornips doesn’t speak the dialect. “I understand all the different variants, I just don’t speak one.” Cornips received a doctorate for her study of Dutch that was being used in Heerlen, which has been heavily influenced over the past century by outsiders moving there, and later she immersed herself in the dialect of the town. “Compared to the eastern and western parts of the country, there are differences in sentence structure. In Limburg you’ll hear sentences like ‘Ik schenk me een kop koffie in’ which sounds odd to other Dutch speakers and is often labelled as incorrect, even though such sentences are widely used in Limburg.”

The new chair is co-funded by the Dutch province of Limburg. Cornips will be researching the relationship between language and identity in Limburg. “The province has its own distinct identity, especially since Limburgers are keen to differentiate themselves from Hollanders. Even so, there are differences in identity within the province too, for example, between the north and south of Limburg and between rural and urban areas. The question remains: to be a real Limburger, is it necessary to speak Limburgs?”

As part of her research, Cornips will be investigating how children who are brought up in Dutch and Limburgs are influenced by the two. “A lot of studies have been done into children who are raised bilingually, say in Dutch and English, but of course these two languages are distinct. Part of my research is to find out how children’s command of Dutch is affected by the amount of dialect they speak. For example, recent studies have shown that the neuter definite article het is dying out in the highly urbanised west of the country, so nowadays kids there are starting to say de meisje instead of het meisje. Children who speak Limburgs are quicker to identify masculine, feminine and neuter genders because dialect differentiates between them, which can be more of a help when they start learning German or French.”

“I’ll also be carrying out anthropological studies to find out in what situations use of Limburgs prevails over Dutch as a spoken language. Class, it appears, plays no role at all in dialect use and it’s not unusual for management meetings to be held in Limburgs, where this would be unheard of in other parts of the Netherlands. How big a factor does regional identity play in this? This is one of the questions that I will be asking.”

One thing’s for sure: dialect is alive and kicking in Limburg. “A study in 2004 asked parents what ‘language’ they spoke to their children. The results showed that parents in Limburg more frequently spoke dialect with their kids than their counterparts in Friesland and Zeeland. And throughout the province, it’s common to hear children speaking dialect.” 

For more information:
Limburgish (Wikipedia article in English)
in Dutch:

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Paul van der Velden 1946 - 2011

Sadly, my Dutch teacher passed away last week and I’d be wrong to say it hasn’t affected me. The first years I spent living in the Netherlands left a vivid impression on me, as too did the people who played an important role in my ‘acclimatisation’. Paul van der Velden was certainly one of them.

The first thing I did when I came to live in Limburg was to enrol on a Dutch course. No sooner had I done so, than I found myself sitting in one of Paul’s classes. He made an immediate impression since, with his bearded and slightly dishevelled appearance, he came with all the trappings of an ageing hippy.
In terms of ability, motivation, age and nationality, my class was anything but homogenous. My group had all of these: a Vietnamese ‘boat person’; a trainee German priest who had been seconded to a rural parish in Limburg; a Brazilian lad who wanted to move to Amsterdam and become an actor; a French girl who had recently moved in with her Dutch boyfriend; a housewife from Aachen who had moved across the border and has a desire to learn Dutch; and a Turkish man who – having worked down the mines for 20 years - could only speak dialect and was only now learning ABN.
Nevertheless, lessons with Paul were always fun. In what must have been trying circumstances with this motley bunch of nationalities, he had his own idiosyncratic style of teaching, which involved dollops of humour. This extended to poking fun at his compatriots and their customs, which I suppose was his way of teaching us about Dutch culture. Even though he was a full-blooded Limburger, he had an antipathy towards Carnaval. On one occasion he asked us what the difference between yoghurt and Carnaval was. The answer of course, was that at least yoghurt had culture.
I had a feeling for languages that others in the class didn’t seem to have, so it wasn’t long before I’d attained all the diplomas I needed and moved on, but I missed attending classes with Paul.
I wasn’t aware of it, but Paul was probably amongst the leading teachers of Dutch as a foreign language in the whole of the Netherlands at the time.

There was a lot more to Paul than just the teacher. Even then, in his mid-thirties he had acquired a reputation for himself in Heerlen. He was a product of the Sixties. He liked his music, especially the Rolling Stones and was involved in cultural-literary initiatives in Heerlen, including Café de Nor and Galerie Signe. He wrote short stories (bundels) about Heerlen (though never prolifically) and earned recognition and acclaim for them. And he also had a thing about clothes pegs.

Paul was very much part of the Heerlen scene. He was a familiar figure around town, always on foot, so much so that he was dubbed by some the stadsnomade. He lived there all his life, despite his father - a bank manager - advising his children never to return to Heerlen when they had completed their studies. Paul was the only one that stayed. When the coal mines closed in the Oostelijke Mijnstreek in 1970s, the city fathers ripped the heart out of the town, sanctioning ugly developments such as office complexes, unsightly flats, out-of-town shopping ‘boulevards’ and ring-roads. Despite all this Paul never left, and loved living in Heerlen. Today, the town is a much more upbeat place, with recent urban regeneration happily respecting, rather than neglecting its past. I’m certain the latter was partly due to people like Paul who had a passionate commitment to their home town.     
Despite never being able to pin him down in a long dialogue, he was an entertaining conversationalist with a witty repartee. ‘Jij bent mijn beste student geweest’, he would tell me whenever I ever bumped into him and started chatting (though I never did find out whether he said this to any of his other students too).       
Once when he was telling me this, he held out two matchsticks in his hand and asked me in Dutch how many he held in his hand. ‘Je hebt twee’ I answered. ‘Nee’ he said wagging his finger with a mischievous look in his eye, ‘ik heb er twee’, as if to say that I still had a long way to go.
Ironically, I now give English lessons to Dutch-speaking students at the same evening college where I sat in Paul’s classes. 

One of his regular haunts was Café Pelt in the centre of town where he held a regular Stammtisch with friends and where our paths would occasionally cross. Sadly, in the last few months of his illness, I never got the chance to ask him whether I really was his best ever student, but it would certainly be a great honour if I were.

Adieu Maestro!

Article in De Limburger

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.

Monday, 9 May 2011

A renaissance?

According to a feature on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme Today this morning, there’s some good news and some bad news for foreign language learning in the UK. In 2004, the Labour government took a lamentable decision to make the learning of foreign languages at GCSE level optional rather than compulsory. This policy signalled a rapid downturn in the take-up of what was already unfashionable in UK schools. Language teaching was always the poor cousin of more traditional subjects.

Amongst other things, this decline in skills - the news item went on to say - had led to under-representation of Britons working in EU institutions. Despite the fact that the UK’s share of the overall EU population amounts to 12%, only 5% of the workforce in the European Parliament and Commission is British. The argument goes that the smaller the representation, the less influence you are likely to have at a European level. The report did not go on to contend that there was a causal link between these inadequate language skills and the under-representation, but it’s fair to say that the inference was clear

When interviewed, Michael Shackleton, who runs the European Parliament Information Office in London, had this to say: “People like me are coming to retirement and its very clear there are not enough people to take our places. I think it matters at all levels of the institutions not just at the highest levels - having people from British backgrounds adds to the mix, it's really important if you want to influence what is going on. The balance of the use of language has been in favour of English, but to understand what people are thinking about you also have to get a sense of them and how they see the world.”

So much for the bad news. Now for the good, although this needs “qualification”.

The news item reported that the coalition government is aiming to reverse the trend, though its efforts have fallen well short of making foreign language learning compulsory again at secondary schools. The instrument that aims to drive language learning forward and reverse a trend that has seen the proportion of students taking language GCSEs has fallen from 61% in 2005 to 44% in 2010 is called the English Baccalaureate.

However, the EBacc, dreamed up by Tory education minister Michael Gove, is not a qualification, but simply a performance measure. With the EBacc, pupils can gain recognition by securing a satisfactory grade or better across a core of academic subjects at GCSE level – English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. Supposedly, the theory is that, because it’s a performance measure, schools that want to achieve higher standards (= better stats) will start introducing the EBacc, and in turn this will lead to a higher take-up of languages. The number of pupils gaining the EBacc will be included in schools’ league tables data, and demand for language teachers will increase, as institutions move to boost baccalaureate subjects.

It remains to be seen what the increased take-up of languages will be. At this stage the jury must still be out: any evidence of a systemic upturn can only be anecdotal thus far. Cynics on the left argue that the EBacc, as a performance tool, is too strongly oriented towards traditionally academic (rather than vocational) subjects. The contention is that it is simply an instrument that will be used to knock schools doing good work (in other subjects) in poorer neighbourhoods and to show that they are failing, whilst schools that churn out academically gifted university material will prosper.  

It's a shame really. Language learning is overarching and shouldn’t be categorised as being either academic or vocational. It is actually both. After all, languages can be used, on a higher plane, as a means whereby different societies and cultures can be better understood, and from a more prosaic point of view, as a way of furthering business with overseas partners.

Further information:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A book that changed the English-speaking world

When I was fifteen I was confirmed into the Church of England. To mark the occasion, I was given a book by my godfather, one which was frequently presented to those taking their confirmation vows for the first time. Curiously, its text dated back to 1611, no less than 361 years previously. In an era where instant messaging, emails and tweets mean that the language is constantly undergoing change, it’s quite amazing to think that a book of this age had not only survived into the modern world, but at the time – in the 1970s and later - was still being widely used in churches throughout the English-speaking realm. That book of course, was the King James Bible.

We might not know it, but English expressions from the King James Bible trip off the tongue easily. We use them every day whilst being completely oblivious to their origins. For example, employees might not see eye to eye with their boss, because he or she is a law unto themselves. A nervous student might be at their wits’ end revising for an exam, but still manage to scrape through by the skin of their teeth. And although your brother might be of your own flesh and blood, it still doesn’t mean you’re his keeper

A great deal of media attention has focussed on the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the Kings James Bible, with a spate of books and radio and television programmes on various aspects on its making, and its legacy on the English language. Author and broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg, argues that it is the most influential book in the English language and was the main instigator for Western democracy. Adam Nicolson, author of God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, claims it was a book that changed the world. And linguist and writer, David Crystal has analysed its impact on idiomatic English today.

The seeds of the King James Bible were sown in 1604 when a conference was called at Hampton Court bringing together the Puritan and traditional factions of the Church. At the time, the Reformation was still in its infancy. King James VI of Scotland - the son of Mary Queen of Scots who had been imprisoned and later executed by Queen Elizabeth I because of the Catholic threat she presented to the English Protestant monarchy - had acceded to the throne as King James I of England the previous year. The 1604 Hampton Court Conference was ostensibly convened to respond to reforms called by Puritans which had been set down in their Millenary Petition of 1603. But James was also keen to placate both sides, through a policy of divide and rule, so that he would be able to secure his own authority on his newly acquired status as King of both Scotland and England. A commitment to a new English translation of the Bible was a by-product, but nevertheless a key outcome of the talks, partly addressing Puritan criticism to existing English Bible versions being used in churches.

The Bible had already been translated in a number of previous versions, but these hadn’t been without their problems. The first acknowledged English translation, the Wycliffe Bible (1382), had been considered heretical, since the establishment believed if common people were able to understand the Bible it would bring about open insurrection. The version that broke onto the scene at the time of the Reformation was the Tyndale Bible (1530), again deemed propagandist and seditious in tone. The 1560 Geneva Bible (which most closely reflected Puritan thinking) included ‘treasonable annotations’, not least that kings were tyrants (in a reference to Herod).

So, rules were drawn up for the new Bible and a choice of contributors made, representing the most distinguished translators of Hebrew, Latin and Greek in the land. In total, these numbered 54, who came from such widely differing backgrounds and wings of the Church that they were dubbed the ‘Mind of England itself’. They were divided into 6 separate sub-committees, known as companies, two each in Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster, which were individually responsible for translating a set of books in the Bible.

The work started in earnest towards the end of 1604. Each company worked in conformity with the rules set down, having an obsession with precision and total fidelity to the original. In 1609, a General Committee of Review met at Stationers’ Hall, London to revise the completed texts from each of the six companies. At this stage, it wasn’t just how the words were written on paper, but the sound of the language as well (literacy levels at the time were about 33% of the population). Before the final text was approved, they spent a year listening to the product of their labours, verse by verse. Harmony and consistency were all important. 

When it appeared, a lot was already familiar. It borrowed freely from previous translations, most notably William Tyndale’s translation a century before. The companies aimed not “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”.  In fact many of the Biblical expressions we use today, as David Crystal argues, date not just from the King James version but from previous translations as well. But that barely detracts from the influence it has had on the language.

Astonishingly, the King James Bible uses only 8000 unique words, as opposed to Shakespeare’s 30,000. Therein lies much of its success. Scholars may refer to the sheer majesty of its language – few can argue with that - but what has made it survive so long was its simplicity, and the fact that it was a translation of its time. The Bible would have been read out loud to church congregations every Sunday and its language would have been implanted in people’s minds. It probably also set the standard for what was thought to be “good English”.

Melvyn Bragg, in his television documentary, likewise contends that the King James Bible stabilised the language. According to Bragg, its influence was such that it helped shape the outcome of events like the English Civil War, American Independence and the abolition of the slave trade.That may be debatable, but one thing is certain: the King James Bible is a masterpiece of the English language and has left an indelible mark on the way we use it today.

Other links:

Sunday, 6 March 2011

La Flandre flamingante

Département du Nord: over the quarter of a century that I’ve lived ‘abroad’, although my visits are always transitory, I must have passed through this region a hundred or more times on my way to and from the channel ports. This windswept, dune-fringed coastline – which forms part of the exotically named Côte d’Opale – has a hinterland of polders and small rural communities and would seem to have more in common with the Low Countries than the landscapes we typically associate with France. Every self-respecting village may have its own épicerie, boulangerie and marchand de vins, but placenames like Ghyvelde, Hazebrouck, Spycker and Zuydcoote, seem to belie a Gallic past.

Indeed Gijvelde, Hazebroek, Spijker and Zuidkote were once bastions of a Flemish-speaking community that formerly existed in this far northern corner of France but which has now all but vanished. Over the centuries, the age-old dividing line between speakers of Germanic (Flemish) and Romance (French) dialects has been pushed slowly northwards, its de jure boundary now synonymous with the border of the Département du Nord and the Belgian (Flemish) province of West-Vlaanderen.

Up until the turn of the 18th century, the de facto language of literature and administration in French Flanders, which roughly equated to the current départements of Pas de Calais and Nord, was Flemish. But since the middle ages, and certainly after its incorporation into France proper in 1713, Flemish had been steadily losing ground to the Romance dialects of Picardy which were encroaching from the south. So in the middle ages, the language divide would have been much further south and stretched along the whole of the Pas de Calais coastline, beyond Calais (Kales) and as far down as Boulogne (Bonen). In the east of the region, Lille (Rijssel) marked the northern outpost of the French-speaking community.

Because of the overwhelming dominance of French above all other (minority) languages or dialects in Metropolitan France, Flemish has all but disappeared in French Flanders. The French government affords no legal status to Flemish and it is recognised by neither central nor regional institutions or given any educational facilities. There are no newspapers written in Flemish and no television station broadcasting programmes in the language. The Radio Uylenspiegel radio station, based in Cassel (Kassel) broadcasts 10% of its programmes in Flemish. This independent radio station originally operated illegally, until it gained legal status in 1982.

As a consequence, the Flemish dialect has been virtually wiped out. Flemish speakers are more or less confined to the Arrondissement de Dunkerque (Duinkerke), also known as Maritime Flanders, or the Westhoek. It is estimated that 20,000 people still speak the dialect of the region on a daily basis, with a further 40,000 speaking it occasionally, this out of a total population in the arrondissement of 375,000. These numbers of course, hide the fact that it is predominantly the elderly population that speaks the language. 

According to one study 23 years ago (Röhrig, 1987, Die Sprachkontaktsituation im Westhoek), the generation of grandparents divided into 36% French-speakers, 38% Flemish-speakers and 26% using both languages, whereas the generation of parents divided into 75% French-speakers, 25% Flemish-speakers and 25% using both languages. Younger people used the languages in the proportions of 99% French, 1% Flemish and 8% both. That was a generation ago.

The future of the local language does not look bright. Standard Dutch is being offered in French primary and secondary schools in the region, but classes are never taught through the medium of Dutch and support from the national and regional authorities is lukewarm to say the least, so the authentic indigenous form of the language, French Flemish, will continue to lose even more ground.

Other links:

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

English doesn't always work*

The use of English in Dutch adverts only has a positive effect on those under the age of 30, and only then when the message can be readily understood. These are the conclusions arrived at in a Master's thesis written by Floortje Westerburgens who recently graduated from the University of Tilburg.

As part of her research, she presented 160 persons with adverts which used either a Dutch or English slogan. They were asked to assess the ads for their appeal, suitability and comprehensibility. The results of the survey would seem to be at odds with the trend of using more English in Dutch adverstisements. "Advertisers assume that the use of English makes the message more attractive and convincing", Westerburgen concludes. But that's only partly the case.

Neither does English in job advertisements always come up to the mark, another study shows. Last November, Frank van Meurs received a doctorate from the University of Nijmegen for his thesis in which he contended that English job descriptions in Dutch job ads don't necessarily raise the status of the position. However, when readers see an English job title in isolation, they seem to value the status of the job more highly. For example, they seem to think a 'maintenance engineer' earns more than an onderhoudstechnicus.

More info:
* Translation of article in Onze Taal, December 2010

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Living on the edge II

If I forget to switch my mobile phone to silent, it may suddenly spring into life when my telecom provider decides to welcome me by text message to Germany. It’s slightly bizarre, since Rolduc Abbey - where I occasionally perform guided tours to English-speaking visitors - is actually in Kerkrade in the Netherlands. But only just. 

The towns of Herzogenrath (in Germany) and Kerkrade (in the Netherlands) are separated by an international border. This hasn’t always been the case. As far back as the 12th century the towns formed a single geographic and administrative entity, known as the Land of Rode. Back then, it was ruled by the Counts of Saffenburg, who resided in Burg Rode, which survives to this day in the centre of modern-day Herzogenrath.

Through the ages, the map of the region was subject to constant change, like the ebb and flow of the tide. The wider region was a confused collection of duchies, fiefdoms and manors, which were likely to change hands without warning. The local rulers might lose their lands at the throw of a dice, or have them given away as a dowry: that’s if they hadn’t already been invaded by enemy troops. Despite the tumultuous times, Kerkrade and Herzogenrath nevertheless managed to remain united under the name of Landes Herzogenrath.

Rode, -rath, -rade are suffixes which can be found in many place names throughout the southern Netherlands and the Rhineland. They originate from the Dutch word rooien (German = roden), which means to clear land from forest (for example, for cultivation and settlement). Herzogenrath, Kerkrade and Klosterrath would have started out life as clearings in the forest.

In 1804, the jumbled patchwork of lands which included the Land of Rode, were abolished and the whole region was incorporated into Napoleon’s Greater French Empire. Rode-le-duc, or Rolduc, became the French name for Herzogenrath - nowadays this name refers exclusively to the abbey of the same name which had been founded in 1104, and known locally as Klosterrath, now in present-day Kerkrade.

When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, the borders were once again redrawn and the Land of Rode was split asunder. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, new borders were seemingly arbitrarily drawn. The border between the Netherlands and Prussia sliced the Land of Rode in two, with Rolduc (i.e. the abbey) and Kerkrade falling into Dutch hands, and Burg Rode (in Herzogenrath) being assigned to Prussia. Kerkrade became part of the Netherlands, and Herzogenrath Prussia, thus wiping the Land van Rode from the map in one fell swoop after seven centuries of unity.
Even after the division of lands following the Napoleonic wars, the border between the two towns never presented much of an obstacle to normal contact between citizens on either side. Life went on much as before: citizens on both sides spoke the same dialect, pursued the same cultural and social activities, and inter-married across the newly created divide.

This situation only changed with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. For the first time ever, a physical barrier was thrown up on the Nieuwstraat/Neustraβe, a road that runs along the border between Kerkrade and Herzogenrath. A curtain, or wall, around 2 metres in height, was constructed along the central reservation. The border was hermetically sealed and patrolled day and night by armed troops. They must have been tense times.

Things must have been equally fraught during the Second World War, when the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. For one month in late 1944, the residents of Kerkrade were hemmed in on the front line - in a kind of no-man's-land - between American and German troops. Fighting was fierce, because this was the region where the homelands of the Third Reich were first breached by the advancing Allied Forces.       

The two world wars left their scars, in the sense that both towns initially adopted an inward-looking mentality, with their backs to each other: Herzogenrath looked increasingly towards Germany, and Kerkrade towards the Netherlands.

After the end of the Second World War, right up until 1995, a physical border of sorts remained in place, albeit in slowly diminishing degrees. In the course of the intervening decades the two-metre high border fence was replaced by a friendlier-looking wire-netting partition of more modest proportions – just 1.20 metres high. In the sixties, this, in turn, gave way to a 60 cm high wall of concrete blocks.

Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Europe’s internal borders, was the wall dismantled on the Nieuwstraat/Neustraβe. Instead of separate two-way thoroughfares on either side of the border, a single road was brought about, one carriageway on the Dutch side and one on the German side, with no central reservation. In fact, if it weren’t for the different coloured post-boxes on either side of the street, you might be forgiven for thinking this was any other street in the Netherlands or Germany, not an international border. 

Apart from the post-boxes, there’s not an awful lot to distinguish the two towns from each other. They share a common dialect and culture, and the coal reserves buried deep underground on both sides have made an indelible mark on the region’s industrial and economic past. Fortunately, both sides no longer adopt an inward-looking mentality. If a fire breaks out in Kerkrade for example, the fire brigade from Herzogenrath will be first on the scene. There are an increasing number of cross-border services, including international business parks at Avantis and Eurode, and an hourly Euregiobahn train service that travellers between the major conurbations of Parkstad (in South Limburg) and Aachen (in the Rhineland) and places beyond.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Living on the edge

When Google Street View comes to a sudden halt at De Locht, on the Netherlands’ south-eastern rim, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is where the world ends, which, in the minds of many people, it probably does. Centrality and peripherality are concepts that pervade the national psyche, the idea being that the metropolitan area is the vibrant heartbeat of the nation and the provinces the frost-bitten extremities.

This view is perhaps best encapsulated in Saul Steinberg’s depiction of the world as seen from New York’s 9th Avenue, which first appeared on the front cover of the New Yorker magazine in 1976. The image shows Manhattan’s 9th Avenue, 10th Avenue, and the Hudson River, while the top half depicts the rest of the world. The rest of the United States is drawn as a square, with a thin brown strip along the Hudson representing New Jersey, the names of five cities (Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Chicago) and three states (Texas, Utah and Nebraska) are scattered among a few rocks for the U.S. beyond New Jersey. Whilst taken to an extreme in this example, this metropolitan self-image (and self-importance) persists, not just in the States, but in countries like the Netherlands too.

Not long ago, I was at a translator’s conference near Amsterdam, 250 kilometres from where I live on the Dutch-German border. It’s always interesting to observe how people react when - in my quaint Limburg accent - I tell them about my domicile in the nethermost region of the Netherlands. Some are vaguely aware that Heerlen is close to Maastricht, the southernmost outpost of the realm, whilst others just offer detached, condescending looks, as if to point out the inconsequentiality of my marginal existence. This swaggering self-assurance of the world’s metropolists is a readily identifiable trait, not only amongst the Ranstedelingen of Holland, but amongst Londoners, Berliners, Parisians and Madrileños too. In fact, in itself this characteristic has a curious, inverted kind of quaintness to it. Coming from an island, I can perhaps more readily accept it. After all, the remote corners of the British mainland are extremities by definition: once you get to Land’s End or John o’Groats, you simply drop off the cliff edge.

But De Locht on the other hand, which lies 4 kilometres south of my home, is a different kettle of fish. Here, the cliff edge may be an imaginary one, but in the minds of those who have been conditioned to think in terms of centrality and peripherality is perhaps no less real. At the edge of my cliff however, is the historic city of Aachen - just a cycle ride away - where the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire once held sway. The city of Aachen may have lost its imperial lustre over the centuries, but its current population is still comparable in size to that of Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city. Its university, the RWTH – with more students than any similar such institution in the Netherlands - has been independently rated as Germany’s top centre of learning and attracts students from all over the world. In the other direction, beyond Maastricht, is the French-speaking cultural centre of Belgium, Liège, at the heart of a major industrial conurbation whose population dwarfs that of The Hague. (Dutch holidaymakers will be familiar with Liège as the first major settlement they come to as they trundle south with their caravans in tow.) It should also be remembered that the region between Liège and Aachen was the first to be developed industrially on the European mainland. Cologne, Düsseldorf and Brussels too, are within easy striking distance, so from my perspective it’s strange to think that some in the Randstad perceive Limburg as being beyond the pale.      

‘Population potential’ is a tool that geographers use to quantify the centrality and peripherality of any given geographical location. It measures the proximity of a point in space to other centres of population. If the Netherlands were to be seen in isolation from the rest of Europe, then Limburg, and Heerlen in particular, would - in relation to the high-density regions of the Randstad - be seen as an outlier, scoring low on centrality and high on peripherality. But the world does not end at De Locht, as Google Street View would have us believe. In fact, if we look at population potential at a European level, the picture changes considerably. The isopleths shown in the title map clearly show that the population potential of Limburg is on a par with that of most of the Randstad, so the notion of it being ‘remote’ doesn’t really wash.

Centres of power - more or less synonymous with metropolitan areas - will always be at the forefront of political, economic and cultural development. If you're running a nation state, it's the most efficient way - geographically speaking - to manage it. And of course, the notion of centrality, within the national context, is reinforced by a centralised media on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, if not held in check, it brings about an unhealthy level of mono-culturalism and one-dimensional mentality which obscures the world beyond.

If you ask me, I’m really quite happy living  a ‘marginal’ existence, being able take my pick of three cultures instead of just one. And if that weren't good enough – to make all Randstedelingen green with envy – I enjoy petrol prices (across the border) which are 10 cents cheaper than their own.