Do you speak Mestreechs?

29th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

Crossroads' editor, Sueli Brodin, on Maastricht's metamorphosis.


Maastricht is no longer a small town in a forgotten corner of the Netherlands, but a beautiful and vibrant provincial capital with international ambitions. I notice new developments at every visit.

Just the other day, on my way to the Chinese hairdressers' off the Market Square, I discovered a new Japanese Sushi bar right opposite the Town Hall. Maastricht is increasingly opening its ancient walls to the outside world. Some say that it is a matter of survival, because the city is ageing and must attract new blood. But for some true born and bred 'Maastrichtenaars', their city's very soul is being threatened by the changing landscape. Could their age-old language be the first victim of the growing impact of exterior influences?

Should Sinterklaas speak Dutch or 'Mestreechs'?

The local news section in the regional newspaper Dagblad De Limburger gives a fascinating insight into current issues and concerns in the area. Many headlines last week dealt with the highly sensitive question of whether Sinterklaas (the Dutch predecessor of Santa Claus) should speak Dutch or dialect during his arrival ceremony in Maastricht.

New bridge: a sign of the times

The whole commotion started when a young mother from the northern city of Groningen, who recently moved to Maastricht, sent a letter to the paper criticising the fact that Sinterklaas only spoke 'Mestreechs' in the capital of Limburg. She said that her four-year-old son had been very disappointed not to understand what the holy man was saying. She complained that she and her son had felt "unwelcome" and argued that the tradition of Sinterklaas was a national celebration and that Sinterklaas should be understandable to all Dutch children. "As a city that is struggling with an ageing population and a brain drain of educated young people, Maastricht has missed a chance to prove that it is open to everyone, young and old, Maastrichtenaars, Hollanders, and non-Hollanders," she wrote.

Her letter caused an uproar and the paper was flooded with readers' letters and online comments, both from people who agreed with the 'imported-mother', as the woman from Groningen was described, and from 'true Maastrichtenaars' who felt that "the identity of their city" was under attack. Some of the reactions were very aggressive: "If she cannot integrate here, let her go back to where she comes from!" "Why do we always have to adapt to these unpleasant, finicky Hollanders who come to live here?"

Many angry Maastrichtenaars used the same terminology as we are used to hearing in the Dutch integration debate. Referring to the former right-wing Minister of Integration Rita Verdonk, who recently launched her own political party 'Proud of the Netherlands', someone wrote: "Verdonk would be proud of our Sint. He passed his integration diploma. He's adapted to Maastricht and speaks our dialect. And so it should be. Maybe [the woman's] child can ask Sinterklaas for a course in Mestreechs!"

The intensity of the reactions clearly showed that the woman's criticism had hit a sore spot among many 'Sjengen', the nickname given to the native inhabitants of Maastricht, who rallied to the defence of their city's dialect and traditions.

The indignation of the Sjengen was not really surprising for they have the reputation of loving their city to the point of chauvinism. They are often accused, even by their fellow Limburgers, of adopting a superior attitude towards all non-Maastrichtenaars.

Yet this character trait may have played a positive role in preserving the city's rich and unique cultural heritage. Maastricht certainly deserves much praise for the way it has succeeded in saving and integrating its historical assets into its new urban landscape. All street names are displayed both in Dutch and in dialect: 'Muntstraat-De Mäönt'. The name of the new Mosae Forum shopping centre is a tribute to the city's Roman origins, when it was first established as the 'Mosae Trajectum' military outpost. The Selexyz bookstore in the renovated Dominican Church and the Kruisheren Hotel in the converted 15th century monastery are receiving worldwide interest. The great charm of Maastricht resides precisely in the harmonious combination of past and modern features.

Flikken Maastricht

Maybe it's just my impression but Maasttricht's cobblestone streets have seemed even busier since they have appeared on national television every week for the past three months. With 1.2 million spectators and a 20.8 per cent viewing rate, the police series 'Flikken Maastricht' proved such a big national success that broadcaster TROS has decided to commission a second batch of 13 episodes. Just about everyone agrees that the series showed Maastricht at its best and that the beautiful shots of the city and its surroundings worked better than any promotional campaign. Maastricht's tourist office even started offering a 'Flikken Maastricht city tour and several adventure games based on the series. My husband and I watched and enjoyed the programme very much, because it was fun to try to recognise the various locations in each episode. Gerd Leers, the mediagenic mayor of Maastricht, even appeared in one of the stories!

But just like most viewers, and especially viewers from Maastricht, we were bothered by the fact that almost none of the characters spoke with the local accent. When the main actress, who played the part of a young Maastricht policewoman, was told that her new partner came from Amsterdam, she stereotypically lashed out: "What is this Hollander doing here?" but she didn't ring true at all because she sounded like a "Hollander" herself. The first time her colleague from the north offered her a piece of advice, she immediately snapped back: "We're not retarded in Maastricht!", but she wasn't convincing there either because people in Limburg are usually not that blunt and direct. In my opinion, the series would certainly have gained in authenticity and 'couleur locale' if the actors had put a bit more effort in sounding and behaving like native Maastricht residents.



Maastricht:Increasingly open to exterior influences 


Time to learn the dialect...

My three children were born in Limburg and it is lovely to hear them pronounce the letter "G" with the soft southern accent. They don't speak our village's dialect but I suspect that they understand it a little. Two years ago, my daughter learned the Maastricht carnival song at school and sang it in what sounded to me like perfect Mestreechs. It was amazing to witness how well she had picked up the lyrics and the intonation of the song and my husband and I couldn't tire of listening to her sweet rendition of 'Mie Fietske' (My Bike).

I confess however that for all my genuine interest for the Limburg culture, I have not devoted much effort up until now at learning the dialect of my village and at taking part in many local cultural activities. Yet a few weeks ago, I decided to write down my name for a Photoshop presentation at the nearby library. I didn't mind missing my spinning class at the gym for once and even paid the small fee in advance. When I arrived at the library, some groups of people had already formed and I heard them chatting together. In a sudden alarm, I made my way to the information desk and hesitantly inquired: "Is the presentation going to be in Dutch or in dialect?"

The lady smiled: "Oh, it's good of you to ask, because we were just wondering about it ourselves. Most people here this evening, including the lecturer, are used to speaking dialect, you see. But don't worry: if you don't understand it, I'll just ask the speaker to hold the talk in Dutch; it's no problem at all."

The first part of the presentation went well and was followed by a coffee break during which everyone immediately switched to dialect. Since I didn't know anyone and couldn't join in any conversation, I spent the break looking through some books on display. When the speaker resumed his talk, he automatically continued in dialect but was quickly interrupted by the friendly lady from the library: "Oh, in Dutch please", and I saw her pointing at me. I blushed and smiled apologetically. "Am I the only person in this room who doesn't understand dialect?" I wondered in silence. "Maybe it would have been better for everyone else if I hadn't come." That's when I realised that it was perhaps about time for me to learn dialect!

… but which dialect?

The only itch is that there are many dialects and accents in Limburg. People from the northern part of the province don't speak the same dialect as the people from Maastricht. Limburgers from different areas of the province actually say that they don't always understand each other, even though they all speak some form of 'Limburgs', which can be described as a variable mixture of old Dutch, German and some French. As a matter of fact, people in my village, only six kilometres away from Maastricht, speak their own dialect, which uses different words and a different intonation than Mestreechs. There even seem to be slight distinctions between my village's dialect and the one spoken in the village next door, just three kilometres away. This certainly makes things even more complicated for non-Limburgers.

Plea for a multilingual future
Since my experience at the library, I often try to read the columns written in (whatever) dialect in the local newspapers and when I hear people speaking dialect in public, I secretly try to guess what they're saying. It's good practice!

In my view, the influx of non-Limburgers into the region should not have to signal the end of local dialects. It would be much more enriching for everyone if the various languages and dialects would keep co-existing side by side. Some true Maastrichtenaars seem to share this opinion. Maastricht's main carnival association 'De Tempeleers'; for example offers detailed information on its website in five languages: in Mestreechs of course, but also in Dutch, English, German and French. Appreciation and respect come with knowledge.

And if the local library would start offering a course to learn the local dialect, I would be the first person to register. I'd much rather make this effort than contribute to, and perhaps witness, the death of a venerable language.

If you'd like to hear what some of the dialects in Limburg sound like, you can play some sound files at: on each city's weapon)

30 November 2007

Sueli Brodin is the editor of Crossroads, a webzine for expatriates living in and around Maastricht.

[Copyright Expatica 2007]

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