March 20th, 2007 - Campaign for Plain Dutch
I cannot help but once again compare what I know best – the UK – with Holland, that I know second best. This is kind of a weird thing to say for me because Holland is supposed to be home. But having been away for 23 years, I no longer know how things work here, where to get information or assistance and how to negotiate the system to get things done. I seem to have lost the appropriate body language and mannerisms and beyond a doubt have shed all desire to comply with the tedium of celebrating a Dutch birthday. I am now an immigrant in my own country, with the UK as my reference point.
Back to language. In 1979, the UK Campaign for Plain English was set up with the aim of eradicating gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. Everyone should have access to clear and concise information, says the website http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/. The Campaign has even helped develop a software programme to be let loose on websites and to check their content against approved plain usage. I have some qualms about this campaign. Though forcing the government, lawyers, doctors and other notorious authors of balderdash to produce texts that a child can understand undeniably is a worthy cause, I feel substantial linguistic impoverishment to be inherent in describing words of Latin or Greek origin as pompous, banning words like ‘quasi’ altogether and replacing archaic words like ‘bestow’ with modern ones like ‘give, award’. The beauty of English is that you can communicate perfectly well with a vocabulary of only 2000 words. But you can do it so much better with two hundred thousand. A thesaurus may list ‘to receive’ as synonymous with ‘to get’ and they may mostly be interchangeable yet each also has a specific kind of weighting or ‘feel’ for specific usage. The English language now counts about a million words, including scientific, medical and technical ones.
Dutch is a different kettle of fish. With a total vocabulary of 100,000 words, including some Jiddish, Surinam, Indonesian and Belgian neologisms, it is nevertheless perfectly adequate to express whatever you wish to communicate. Over the last four decades or so, however, the ruling elite of politicians, managers and journalists has begun to bolster its stronghold by using un-Dutch words that are felt to lend an air of grandeur and breeding, whereas actually, they betray not just an inability to use the Dutch language to the full but also a lack of acceptance that you have to practise as you preach. So, while you may learn that Dutch for ‘to think of’ is bedenken, in the higher echelons you will hear concipiëren. For ‘in this case’ you may acquire in dit geval but hear a journalist use in casu. ‘To ponder’ is overdenken but somehow it’s posh to be contemplatief. Then there’s entertainment instead of amusement; separeren instead of scheiden; feedback instead of commentaar or terugkoppeling and so forth. In writing, that may not present such a problem to those of us whose first language is English or French but hearing it pronounced out of a Dutch mouth with the seemingly unavoidable flat vowels and sharp consonants (coffee pads sounds like coffee pets; feedback like feetbick; I’m going to bed like Uhm coing to bet), it is.
The real issue here is that immigrants are expected to learn Dutch but that the very people who impose that requirement don’t do anything by way of example. The same applies, I feel, to this notion of a mythical Dutch culture or identity. The Dutch have handed over lock stock and barrel their borders, currency, legislation and what limited cuisine they might be proud of (even something as important as their food supply) to Europe but mention immigrants and any idea of internationalism goes out the window. In any event, what foreigner's ear drums can stand Dutch music, schlager or smartlap?