High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

Show Empathy for Those Struggling with Dutch Grammar Rules

Show Empathy for Those Struggling with Dutch Grammar Rules

Language rules remind linguist Marten van der Meulen of national borders: both are historically evolved, arbitrary agreements. Showing a little compassion for those who can’t immediately recall these rules is therefore warranted.

Ah, language rules. We would love for them to be easy, but unfortunately, it’s quite the opposite. They are awkward, show considerable arbitrariness, are often difficult to reconcile with actual language usage, and, above all, are unnecessarily complex.

Take the rules for using the so-called comparative conjunctions such as as (als) and than (dan). You hope for it to be easy to distinguish when to use each. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. We need to make a distinction between exceptional comparison (Nobody other than me) and unequal relations (Clark is twice as smart as Bruce) to bring some order to the rules. There are five rules in total, with an arbitrary line seemingly drawn between how we use than and as. It results in a confusing situation, which almost inevitably leads to mistakes.

Another example of a mistake that immediately gets people all worked up is girl who (meisje die). You will often see this mistake in poorly formulated lists of the Worst Language Mistakes Ever. In Dutch, girl (meisje) is neuter, which means it should be the girl who (het meisje dat). I agree, of course, but then you also have to be consistent and say that the girl and her bike (het meisje en haar fiets) is incorrect. After all, you refer to a neuter gender noun with his (zijn). The correct grammatical form would thus be the girl and its bike (het meisje en zijn fiets). Right? Otherwise, it’s just arbitrary!

One more example. A well-known group of language rules concerns the use of the relative pronouns that (wat) and that (dat). Linguist Joop van der Horst distinguishes six slightly different rules, where the use of these two relative pronouns depends on what they refer to. For example, the attributive adjective is used with that (wat) (The kind that Jan has), but the embedded antecedent is used with that (dat) (You must do that what she says). Now, you almost have to be a graduated Dutch linguist to know these terms. More important is the question of why sometimes one is necessary and sometimes the other. What is the logic behind these rules?

I could go on like this for a while. Doom and gloom with language rules. Yet, among all these complex, arbitrary, and inconsistent rules, one stands out: because (omdat/doordat). On paper, the distinction is easy to make. The correct use of omdat and doordat is related to reason and cause. So, you only need to know the difference between the two, and Bob’s your uncle, as our English neighbours say.

The difference is relatively easy to explain. Reason has to do with human will. I was late because (omdat) I left home late: reason, because you could have left earlier. Minnal dropped Shaan because (omdat) she thought he was dumb. Again: the action is premeditated. In contrast, the cause is beyond human control. The clearest example of causes is found in natural phenomena. The tree burned down because (doordat) lightning struck it: cause, because it is unrelated to human actions and without any harmful intentions.

You will always have people who stubbornly hold on to the adage "people who make language mistakes are dumb, you just need to know the rules.” Those people simply don’t understand language

Easy? Well, no. It’s actually not so obvious when something is a reason or a cause. Language is simply difficult to categorize logistically. Take the following example from the language style guide Schrijft u ook zulk Nederlands? (1962) by F.C. Dominicus:

Let’s assume we are talking about the housing issue and say: Nowadays, two or more families often live in one house because (omdat/doordat) there still isn’t enough housing available. The cause is the lack of housing, but at the same time, there is a reasoning along these lines: If there is no other option, we reluctantly accept part of a home. So, it’s difficult to determine whether we are dealing with a cause or reason here.

What about the following sentences? Decide for yourself whether it should be omdat or doordat, and whether we are dealing with a cause or a reason.

In Southeast Asia and the Australian region, there are chicken-like birds called large-footed finches because (omdat/doordat) they have large, strong legs.

I wouldn’t be surprised if redheads are more mature in personality because (omdat/doordat) they have had to explicitly process something.

Did you find this challenging? You’re not the only one. Renowned linguistic researcher Jaap de Rooij presented these and a number of other sentences to “ten academically trained Dutch linguists” in 1982. What was revealed: they didn’t agree on any of the sentences. Of course, these were not easy examples. But still. If academic experts cannot even agree on this or that, how can humble language users be expected to understand?

You will always have people who stubbornly hold on to the adage “people who make language mistakes are dumb, you just need to know the rules.” Those people simply don’t understand language. Language rules do not arise from reality. They are a limited way to create order in a stimulatingly complex whole. They are nothing more than a tool. It reminds me of national borders. They are not an absolute given, but a historically evolved, arbitrary agreement.

Language phenomena are always more complicated than the rules suggest. They are 'general rules'. We just don’t realize it

Many linguists believe that language rules do not influence language usage. I have my own thoughts on this. But what language rules certainly have an impact on is the way we think about language. Countless people believe that language rules adequately cover the issues, whether or not people adhere to them, but that’s incorrect. Language phenomena are actually always more complicated than the rules suggest. They are general rules. We just don’t realize it.

What should we do with this insight? I suggest we have two options. We can stick to our traditional rules and get angry when people don’t follow them correctly. Given how difficult the language rules are, this seems unfair to me. The other extreme is that we make the rules more consistent and easier to understand. Given the strong link between language and identity, there might not be sufficient backing for such simplification.

There is also a third option. Keep the rules as they are, but show a little empathy towards those who don’t have the language rules perfectly memorized, let alone act accordingly. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems. Most importantly, let’s show some compassion. In my opinion, that’s generally a constructive attitude. Both in life and in language.

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