July 11, 2004

Onze Taal and Perlentaucher

In discussing an article by Thierry Chervel on Europe's failure to take advantage of the internet, I questioned the author's claim that a key problem is the dominance of the English language. "Look at Onze Taal, for example", I wrote.

Marc van Oostendorp responded by email:

Thank you! I share your analysis that "Europeans may be less willing to try informal, inexpensive, bottom-up experiments, of the kind that were involved in the very early stages of Amazon and Google".

Onze Taal is very much an exception, maybe because it is exceptional in other ways: an association of approximately 40.000 'language lovers' (most of them obviously not linguists), and probably the largest association of its kind in the world. Originally (back in 1997) our plan was to cooperate with a few other Dutch organisations, but because they suffered from the problem you sketched (we do not want to start until we have the money, but potential sponsors obviously do not want to give money until they can see what it is that we want to do), we decided we would start independently.

Our website is indeed informal and inexpensive. I am the only person who is employed to do some work for it -- I have been hired by the association for four hours a week, but I also write articles for the monthly journal (the other days I work as a researcher). There are also two editorial assistants to the monthly journal who are allowed to spend some working time on it, esp. for the Taalnieuws. The design, scripting etc. is done by us as well. The website is hosted at a commercial internet provider; the costs of this are a few hundred euros a year. The association Onze Taal thinks it is worth it, because the web site attracts new members, and the association has always seen it as its goal to inform the general public about language. The site attracts approximately 3000 visitors each day. A large majority (70%) is from the Netherlands; 20% are from Flanders (most people there would consider us to be still too 'Netherlandish'.

I wonder what other organizations like this exist? If there's anything similar in the English-speaking world, I don't know about it.

Quite apart from his work on Onze Taal, Marc is a serious and accomplished linguistic researcher, with many interesting papers and courses linked on his web site.

Marc also wrote that

I am a fan of Language Log. It is very useful that you often give sensible reviews of misunderstandings in the media.

Well, I hope that they are sensible. There are certainly plenty of misunderstandings to choose from. Of course, we have to accept it cheerfully when others point out misunderstandings and omissions in Language Log, as Margaret Marks did by email with respect to the same post:

...the small bio of Chervel says he was a co-founder of Perlentaucher, and Perlentaucher is a really excellent website that reports on the literature pages of all the German-language newspapers. So even if he hasn't got his own website, he is involved with a good one!

I'll confess that I did find Perlentaucher, both by Googling "Thierry Chervel" and from the link on his little Eurozine bio page. Originally I wrote a paragraph about it, which I cut because the post was pretty long, and I didn't have time to figure out how integrate it, and so on. However, as a result the post is unfair to Chervel, twitting him for lacking a home page when he is responsible for a major German-language A.L.D.-like site. And my omission also means that I failed to underline one important aspect of Chervel's complaint, namely that he apparently envies Denis Dutton of A.L.D. the (surely much wider) range of English-language web content to draw on.

However, as I wrote back to Margaret:

I might argue that this just reinforces my point. Chervel is obviously web-savvy and so on, but his web participation so far might be seen as indicating a certain kind of formality, and a certain threshold for "seriousness" and level of investment, which tends to inhibit the rather anarchic low-level experimentation out of which most new ideas and new applications develop.

And let me point out that A.L.D.'s editor Denis Dutton -- like Marc Oostendorp -- has an extensive and interesting personal web site.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 11, 2004 11:58 PM