Linguistics in Dutch society

MarcvOLinguist Marc van Oostendorp is a professor of Dutch language and academic communication at Nijmegen, as well as a prolific writer pouring out high-quality popular books, columns, daily blog posts, frequent videos and more. He has just published a brief paper about linguistic outreach and popularisation in the Netherlands. With his permission, I am reproducing here substantial chunks of it for those of you who are interested in comparing the Dutch situation with that in your own country. Word of warning: unlike Marc’s popular writing, which is playful and lively, this academic piece is factual and dry, so don’t expect a juicy blog post. If you can’t get enough of it nonetheless, the full three-page text is available for download.

Skimming through old issues of Dutch newspapers may sometimes provide for surprises: linguistics seems to have been taken very serious as an academic discipline in the period before the Second World War. After the Second World War, findings of linguistic research continued to reach the general public in a more or less constant stream until this day.

Although I do not really know how to draw the comparison, it seems clear to me that this connection [between academic linguistics and the general audience] is more intimate [here] than it is in other countries. There is a lot to be wished for, and the average Dutch person clearly does not know enough about the results of the language sciences, but at least somebody who wishes to, would be able in principle to get up to date with the most important insights of linguistic research. And an important reason for this, it seems to me, is that the Dutch linguistic community has for a long time shown at least some interest in outreach activities.

A central place in such a history would undoubtedly be played by the Society Our Language (Genootschap Onze Taal). Founded in 1931, Onze Taal still exists, and with its 23,000 members it is one of the largest associations of its kind in the world. Many practicing Dutch linguists have contributed to or been interviewed at least once in the magazine, which also features articles on language games, on usage, minority languages, language policy, and a variety of other topics that are on language but not necessarily linguistic.

It seems to me logical to think that this magazine has set the tone in a lot of other media. There have been several radio programmes on public radio. None of these programmes is characterised with the fascination for correctness that we find in other language areas; all of them have regularly hosted interviews with professional linguists.

Similarly, books on language tend to be rather light-hearted, and at least in some cases written with at least some basic understanding of linguistics. Most Dutch newspapers also have language columnists; most of them have at least some training as linguists, such as, in the current age, Ton den Boon, Peter-Arno Coppen, Paulien Cornelisse, Liesbeth Koenen and Ewoud Sanders. A language journalist that is known also internationally is Gaston Dorren, not originally trained as a linguist, but well-versed in many aspects of the field.

I think it is sometimes underestimated by Dutch linguists that this atmosphere is a blessing for the field. It is true that the average Dutch person will still believe that linguistics is about correcting spelling mistakes, and a lot of publications tend to be very superficial, but it is also true that very little outright nonsensical books appear here. Again, my evidence is only anecdotal, but my impression is that the situation in the Netherlands is relatively better than it is elsewhere.

Inversely, many Dutch professional linguists have shown an interest in outreach. Several important linguists to have done so are mentioned: Jac. Van Ginneken (1877-1945), Henk Schultink (1924-2017), Hugo Brandt Corstius (1935-2014), Nicoline van der Sijs (‘probably the best example’), Hans Bennis, Pieter Muysken, Jacomine Nortier and Jan Stroop. He modestly omits his own name, but it should most certainly be included.

Linguists have also discovered the internet. Peter-Arno Coppen, already mentioned as a newspaper columnist, but also a professor of linguistics at Nijmegen, was a pioneer in this, discussing grammatical issues since the 1990’s, initially under his pseudonym Taalprof (Language prof). Nowadays, scholars like Marten van der Meulen and Sterre Leufkens have a popular blog. The National Research School for Linguistics LOT has been supporting ‘popularizing’ activities since 1996, with an annual prize and by paying the work of Mathilde Jansen, again a linguistics PhD, as a linguistics journalist on a popular science blog (Kennislink). The work of Maaike Verrips, who has a PhD in language acquisition, deserves special mention. She currently owns a ‘language bureau’ that is unique in the world and among other things organises a yearly conference on language and multilingualism for a wider audience.

None of this should suggest, again, that things are ideal. There is probably a vast majority of Dutch linguists who have never shared any of their knowledge with a wider audience, and there may be a group of people looking down on such activities. Yet my impression is that relatively speaking more scholars are involved in these activities than in most other countries.

 

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