Lingua Franca

22nd July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Many Dutch conversations are peppered with English words and phrases. Louise Doorn reveals how the Dutch are adapting foreign languages to meet their own needs.


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This is a Dutch conversation, but one highly influenced by fashionable English words. And despite the scattering of "reality-TV", "hype", "PC" and "kids", most Dutch people who don't speak any English would understand perfectly what is meant here.

Is the Dutch language endangered by English words?

The growing importance and popularity of IT, television and advertising has led to many new words. And the world dominance of the English-speaking culture has brought many English words into the Dutch language, especially in youth culture and business.

It is often difficult to find a Dutch alternative for words such as helicopter, computer, e-mail, impact, hot pants and management. But most Dutch people seem to be perfectly happy using English. They feel the English language is, unlike Dutch, a powerful and attractive way to express themselves.

"English words are refreshing," says Dirk-Jan Dublin. "Those Dutch swear words that refer to all kinds of scary diseases are pretty limited."

What the purists say

A minority of language purists is trying to introduce Dutch alternatives to English imports. The Actiegroep Taalverdediging pressure group uses the slogans "It's more sensible in Dutch" and "Dutch is our language". By suggesting Dutch is superior to foreign languages, and by making up new Dutch words, they hope to prevent English becoming integrated into Dutch.

But they have had little success, perhaps because of suggestions such as changing "Yo!"- a popular greeting among teenagers - to "Vooruit met de geit," meaning, "Come on with the goat."

Fabian Valkenburg of BTLNederland, another pro-Dutch-language group, hopes the current influx of English words is only temporary. "When English words sink into our language, it will change forever within just a couple of generations," he says.

English - but with Dutch rules

Even though a large number of English words are used now, they are always subject to Dutch rules of grammar.

As linguist Liesbeth Koenen says, "Prefixes, suffixes, conjugations and declensions - all these elements of Dutch grammar are easily mixed with English words." The result, such as the verb "ontstressen" (meaning getting rid of stress), is widely accepted in oral communication.

Diminutives are very popular in the Dutch language and are easily mixed with English words. "We live in a nice flatje and make a great goaltje," says Koenen by way of an example. "We use diminutives to make words sound more sweet and nice, resulting in 'moppie', 'liefje' or 'lekker koppie.'"

"Therefore we have got rid of the English word 'junkies' and adapted it to 'junks' or 'junken.'"

The Dutch language, while soaking up English words like a sponge, adapts them to fit in with its rules of grammar. And many Dutch people are jumping on this new vocabulary as a powerful means of expression.

As Dick Smakman, a linguist at the University of Nijmegen, says, "In the best case, foreign influences in our language are an enrichment. In the worst case, they are a failed opportunity for creating a new Dutch word."

Subject: Dutch use of foreign languages

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