Archive for March, 2009

Nenglish and Dederlands

March 27, 2009

I have bit of a background in linguistics. That was one of my loves at high school when I first read “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, so I went on to study it before university. First, self-taught, I tried my hand at building machine translation programs (in Basic, on the ZX81 on then a BBC micro), which is where I found out it was pretty useful in Artificial Intelligence. Then I actually studied it as an A-level before university, and found I had a certain knack for it. My dad persuaded me at the last moment that doing a joint honours in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science — I’d been programming for a decade already — would be a lot more useful in the ‘real world’ than a degree in Artificial Intelligence and Linguistics. Neither of us foresaw the rise of search engines or how their rise would be fed by Computational Linguistics graduates and researchers.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an eternal dabbler, who loves taking deep dives into subjects before moving on to the next subject that I grew to love learning new languages. I speak about two adequately and about 15 extremely poorly. The natural result of that is a passion for linguistics.

One of the first differentiations I learnt was between ‘prescriptive’ grammarians and ‘descriptive’ grammarians. The former are old school types who state how a language should work based on our understanding of its roots and how we were taught it. This presupposes that languages are best pinned to the floor and dissected carefully. ‘Descriptive’ grammarians watch a body of language moving in the wild and describe what they see and hear, but never fall into the trap of thinking that because one generation does one thing, so should the next.

In English, much of how the language was taught thirty years ago — and still is taught today in some places — comes from the prescriptivist approach. Students are taught not to use the words and ways of putting those words together that they would use in spoken language at home. Instead, they are taught a single way of speaking and writing English. The prescriptivist approach is true to its Victorian roots: it is very morally clear on what is ‘proper English’ and what ain’t. Oops — sorry that was a little under the belt.

There is no doubt that it is useful for children to learn a certain requisite flexibility in their language. In linguistics, this is sometimes refered to as varying the ‘register’ of a voice. Different dialects (particular words and syntax used more frequently or solely in certain places in a country) and sociolects (ditto for different social strata) can be very useful for communicating more effectively, just as the Queen’s English can be useful in certain situations. The important thing is not to teach a single register to the exclusion of others. That reduces flexibility and the effectiveness of communication.

So, imagine my surprise when the first rumblings of prescriptivism stirred in my belly. Commercials using Dutch words in English sentences seem to be on the rise. A packet of crisps announces that they are ‘delicious chips’ (‘chips’ is ‘crisps’ in Dutch, but is a common false friend that Dutch people use in their English too). I wouldn’t have an issue with ‘lekker chips’ or ‘delicious crisps’ but mixing the two together? Similarly, a bus tells me to “Take a ING hypotheek”. My closet prescriptivist jumps up in anger. I wouldn’t have too much of an issue with “Take an ING mortgage” but using a Dutch word in English, and then making a basic mistake with a/an — I can’t take it!

Maybe it’s me getting older but my natural tendency is to damn rather than describe. In fact, this is a fascinating phenomenon. English is being used more and more frequently in the Netherlands, for teaching at University, on TV (with Dutch subtitles) and some are even suggesting that we should use English to teach high children because the best text books on the newest subject matter is only available in English (the same arguments as we used for the universities).

A Pidgin is not misspelt small bird, but a ‘contact language’ with relatively simplified grammar and vocabulary that is often created when two different sets of language speakers are brought into contact with each other and without a shared language. But this is not like a Pidgin, more like starting to use English as a dialect of Dutch or Dutch as a dialect of English. Is the start of the death throes of Dutch, or the start of a new form of language in the Nethelands, or just advertising that sounds hip to the ears of its main audience? Perhaps the closest analogue is actually cool-looking Japanese script on a tee-shirt, which actually reads ‘this foreigner is an idiot’.

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