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Recipe for a dash of English
Research

Recipe for a dash of English

When do young people start associating English with ‘cool’? And what makes English loanwords a hit in Dutch?

8 minutes
25 November 2020

The English language is a major influencer across the globe. How much influence does it have on Dutch? Linguists in Leuven search for traces of English in the newspapers, on Twitter and … at the kitchen table.

A typical scene around a Flemish table: in cosy chaos, a mother and father try to divide their attention between their children. One of the three children starts leaving the table. “Can he be excused, mummy, he has eaten all his dinner?” the father asks his wife (in Dutch), before suddenly switching into English and saying: “There are some strawberries.” A clever way to suggest strawberries as dessert without letting the children know.

“That was a very recognizable example,” says linguist Eline Zenner, who recorded the mini-conversation during a recent study. “My husband and I also use English as a secret language sometimes. When we discuss whether the children are allowed to watch television earlier, we do so in English because otherwise they get too excited. When I was a child myself, my parents used French in the same way.”

This reveals something about the position that English has attained over the past few decades: we tend to use English more quickly than our second national language, French. English is not only gaining ground here. In addition to the approximately 400 million native English speakers, there are more than a billion people who speak English as a second language – in countries where English is a national language – or as a foreign language. This makes it the most successful lingua franca in history.

Such a world player inevitably also has an influence on our native language. And this is Eline Zenner’s field. She has spent the past thirteen years researching the impact of English on Dutch. This has taken her, among others, to the dining tables of Flemish families. Along with her colleague Dorien Van Mieroop, she analysed the use of language of eight families with children who are seven years old or younger. “My original intention was to analyse standard language and vernacular usage. It immediately became apparent how little English we had in the dataset. Further analysis confirmed this. English words were only to be found in one percent of expressions. I must add, however, that the typical fields in which you find many English loanwords – such as IT – are not common subjects at the dinner table in young families.”

In interviews with the researchers, parents were asked the open-ended question of whether there are linguistic constructions that they consciously avoid using with their children. “A typical answer was: swearing. Parents avoid that at the dining table … or claim to (laughs). But there were also a number of parents who explicitly stated that they intentionally avoid using English words. We must be careful drawing conclusions from this preliminary research, but it does show that in these families, Dutch remains the language of identity formation. This is reassuring to people who are afraid that English will devour Dutch.”

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Starman sees stars

If children are not consuming ladlefuls of English at the dining table, then where? Indeed, before they have taken a single English lesson at school, children have already built up a considerable vocabulary. According to the research of Professor Elke Peters, an expert in language learning, children know approximately three thousand words at the age of twelve. For children, English is of course the gateway to games, YouTube videos and other fun times. They gradually start associating the language with ‘cool’, ‘trendy’ and ‘international’. This makes English all the more attractive.

Eline Zenner wanted to ascertain when English acquires this social significance among children, and with her colleague Laura Rosseel, she visited primary schools to present a video about a new superhero. ‘Sterrenman’ (Dutch for ‘Star Man’) talks about his struggle against ‘Duistermaan’ (Dutch for ‘Darkmoon’) and his gang. In a second version of the video, the superhero is called ‘Star Man’ and he peppers his language with English: he has a ‘backpack’ with ‘gadgets’ for his fight against ‘Darkmoon’ and his ‘gang’. Children in the first, third and fifth year of primary school were shown the videos in random order and were then given a questionnaire to fill in about both superheroes. ‘Is he clever?’ ‘Is he funny?’ ‘Would you share your sweets with him on the playground?’ And especially: ‘Would you prefer to watch more videos of Sterrenman or Star Man?’

In the first and third years, the answers are very diverse. In the fifth year, the results still vary, but there is one striking difference: there are almost no children who give Sterrenman a higher score than Star Man. “At that age, they also start referring to language to explain their preference,” Eline Zenner says. “For example, they say: ‘He speaks English, so he’s more fun.’ In other words, Dutch starts losing something of its prestige among children of that age. We are now going to research how this evolves in the first years of secondary education.”

Size matters

Do we also find the social significance of English in loanwords that we incorporate in our vocabulary: do we use English for things that are cool and keep Dutch for whatever is more boring? In other words, what makes an English term a hit in Dutch?

Newspapers are a useful source for determining which English words are more popular than their Dutch equivalents and for establishing a systematic overview. In 2012, Eline Zenner and her colleagues used a corpus of no fewer than one and a half billion words from Flemish and Dutch newspapers.

The most important factor for the success of a loanword appears to be ‘lexical lacunae’: if something is new in society and we do not yet have a name for it, it is handy to stick an English label on it. ‘Workaholic’ and ‘webmaster’, for example, were firmly established before the Dutch alternatives ‘arbeidsmaniak’ and ‘webstekbeheerder’ even had a chance. It turns out that displacing a common Dutch term for an established concept is much more difficult: ‘zakenman’, for example, is still a much more popular term than ‘businessman’. Another finding: size matters. English loanwords are more popular if they are shorter than the Dutch equivalent: it is faster to say ‘soulmate’ instead of ‘zielsgenoot’, and ‘hooligan’ is shorter than ‘voetbalvandaal’.

English loanwords are more popular if they are shorter than the Dutch equivalent.

In a new study with colleagues from Ghent University and VUB, Eline Zenner is researching whether the context in which we use words plays a role. “We ask Flemish and Dutch test subjects to choose between a Dutch and an English term. ‘Which of the two do you think is more appropriate for an article in the newspaper?’ ‘Which of the two would you use in a conversation with friends?’ We use word pairs such as ‘keeper’ – ‘doelman’, ‘babysitter’ – ‘kinderoppas’, ‘zakenman’ – ‘businessman’. We are still processing the results, but the context clearly has an influence: people more often choose the English term for a conversation with friends than for a newspaper article.”

The shit is on

One step further than loaning words from a different language is ‘codeswitching’. This refers to zapping between your mother tongue and a different language. After analysing three seasons of the reality programme Expeditie Robinson, Zenner concluded that the influence of English is not often so far-reaching. The participants do occasionally use English, but there is barely any real codeswitching; it is usually limited to catchphrases like ‘Ready to rumble!’ and ‘Go for it!’

This was also one of the findings in more recent research into English swearwords that Zinner found in six million Flemish and Dutch tweets. These usually concerned words or phrases that were taken directly from English. The tweeters rarely formed their own sentences or linguistic material in English. But they were very creative with the borrowed words or expressions: ranging from ‘Nu is de shit wel aan’ (‘the shit is on’) to ‘The bitch is dead maar de teef bleef (‘the bitch is dead but the bitch stayed’, the underlined words rhyme in Dutch).

In my research, I often see that great creativity emerges when two languages coalesce.

Eline Zenner says this is an important observation: “In the debate around anglicization, you sometimes get the impression that we are linguistically lazy. The idea is that we use English words because we can’t be bothered to think about how to say something in Dutch. But in my research, I often see that great creativity emerges when two languages coalesce.”

Vital language

When Zenner surveys her research results thus far, she is not too worried about the anglicization of Dutch. “I would like to collect more recent and more robust data before making any claims about codeswitching, for example. But to those who are concerned about anglicization, I am inclined to say: chill. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think Dutch is nearing extinction.”

“Views on how pure a language should be diverge, of course. But I see plenty of signs that Dutch is flexible yet vital. It remains the language of identity, which we use to raise and socialize our children. It has a dash of English, to be sure, but is there anything wrong with that? It all depends on how you look at language.”