Geography may not be fate, but Fate certainly knows her geography. And when she wanted to inculcate me with a keen interest in languages, she took great geographical pains to achieve it, starting as far back as the 1930s.
In that decade, my father was born in the Dutch city of Enschede (the red dot marked 1 on the map – click to enlarge), a mere five kilometres from the German border. He grew up speaking not only the national language but also the region’s Low Saxon dialect of the Low German language. He went on to become a French teacher, dabbling in Spanish on the side. Having moved to the south of the country, he then learnt another regional language, Limburgish, about which more in a minute. Finally, he also became fluent, though not grammatically perfect, in German, so much so that later in life, when his other languages were temporarily wiped out by a stroke, he would only speak German. From a linguistic perspective, Fate did an excellent job with him.
What about my mother? She grew up in red dot number 2, speaking Limburgish and Dutch. Her village was within waving distance of Flanders – where the Dutch is markedly different from her own – and a short cycle ride away from Germany. She also spent four years under German occupation. After liberation, English was all the rage. But my mother’s true linguistic love has always been Dutch. For her, no conversation is completely satisfactory without occasional recourse to the dictionary.
After my parents got married and my sister and I were born, we settled in a tiny village whose name is pronounceable exclusively – and then only just – for native Dutch speakers (Scheulder, [sxøːldər] – red dot 3). German, French and Flemish-Dutch were spoken just 15 kilometres to the east, south and west, respectively. And that’s without mentioning the variety within the region: the dialects of towns just 30 kilometres apart were so different that people would switch to Dutch rather than be baffled by each other’s Limburgish. I myself was teased by class-mates because my dialect – roughly my Mom’s – sounded weird to them.
In a word, I was fated to be a language buff. Lingo and my other books have been eighty years in the making.