June 19, 2004

This is not your granddaughter's spelling bee

(First of a planned triblogy on the wonders of Dutch spelling.)

The scene is a lushly appointed red-carpeted assembly room, walls hung with golden-threaded tapestries and heavily framed portraits of monarchs, princes and ministers; even the ceiling is wall to wall fine art. This is the main assembly room of the Secretary of State. Sitting in carved wooden seats, pew-like except for the heavy green upholstery, are sixty worthy citizens of two lands, many of them famous from the worlds of literature, politics, television, theater and sports, while a panel of even more distinguished judges sits on a dais at the head of the room. Two gray-haired gentlemen in full evening dress, white bow tie and tails, stand unmoving in either wing: their sole function in the next hour and a half will be to collect pieces of paper. In the room's two huge upper galleries hundreds of common folk eagerly watch. 

The event is televised in one of the most widely watched broadcasts of the year. Almost one in ten of the population is sitting at home, glued to the screen, volume turned up slightly higher than usual, pen and paper in hand. Though many of the worthies are media personalities, and usually able to affect an easy, relaxed air before the cameras, most of them seem a little awkward - they must be nervous. They also have paper in front of them, and fine pens.

A senior television personality, smartly dressed, stands at the center of the room. He has cataloged for us the history of the room and the event, and now he warns us that we have nearly reached the appointed time. He provides instructions for those in the hall, and then gives advise to viewers at home. He tells us we must make sure to be sitting comfortably, and must seal the rest of the world out: close curtains, turn cell-phones off, and shut the door (much as you do when reading LanguageLog.) After more procedural details, he wishes everyone strength. He pulls his spectacles from his pocket, flicks them open with a practiced definiteness and sits them on his face. What is about to happen in this scene is something that happens every year. The outcome is a matter of pride for the two small countries that compete. But what is about to happen?

What is about to happen is: The Great Dictation. Or more properly, for the proceedings are entirely in Dutch and intended only for Dutch and Flemish eyes and ears, it is Het Groot Dictee. The host will read a 200 hundred word text, and all across the Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium), people will take dictation. The 2003 text begins: In deze dagen van buiig sinterklaasweer en goeddeels illusoire kerstpakketten.... (In these days of windy Santa Claus weather and largely illusory Christmas packets [i.e. the sort you get from an employer]....) You can watch the entire 2003 proceedings in Realplayer (big/small) or Windows Media (big/small) formats.

Amazing, I hear you cry. Yet you are not amazed at the mere fact of spelling being treated with so much gravitas. No, as a language lover you find that easy to understand, albeit that most of your fellow countrymen couldn't give a toss. What amazes you is that a Dutch Great Dictation would even be possible.

Is not Dutch spelling state controlled, and the responsibility of the Dutch and Belgian Ministers of Culture? Were there not four times in the twentieth century panels of language experts assembled by the two states, panels which legislated new and improved Dutch spelling? Did not the most recent, 1994 commission finally straighten out almost all uncertainty or illogicality left in the language? And did not our very own Bill Poser recently worry that spelling reform would mean the end of even the humble American Spelling Bee, a competition which by comparison with Het Groot Dictee is literally child's play? Yes, yes, yes and yes. So how can it be that educated Dutch and Flemish people still make so many spelling errors that a dictation can be a challenge? How come even the winner (in 2003, a Dutchman) made seven mistakes in 200 words?

Well, Dutch spelling certainly has a logic to it, and is wonderfully deterministic. When you don't know how to spell something, there is almost always a right answer, and the answer is probably in the official bi-nationally approved word list. But deterministic is not the same as easy, as the next installment of this triblogy may clarify. I will tell you about ants fucking. Or ant fucking, as the Belgian minister of culture argued back in 2002. (It was probably just cheap populism, vote seeking before the elections soon afterward.)

[To be continued.]

Posted by David Beaver at June 19, 2004 03:40 AM