December 21, 2005

Unnecessarily unclear and ugly

Expatica News has been interpreting the controversy over new Dutch spelling reforms for non-Dutch-readers: "New Dutch dictionary sparks debate" (10/13/2005), "Media revolts against 'double-Dutch' revision" (12/19/2005), "Dutch language 'too complicated' for locals" (12/20/2005). A quote from the last-cited article:

The new spelling rules that come into force on August 2006 are unknown to 67 percent of the public. ...

Only 28 percent of the respondents feel they have mastered the 1995 standard, as laid out in 'De Groene Boek' (the Dutch language 'bible'), and an equally large number of people say they still use the pre-1995 spelling.

The latest revision of standard Dutch has caused a lot of debate in recent days. Several Dutch newspapers, magazines, the national news broadcaster NOS, and news website have announced they will boycott the new spelling.

The editors claim the latest revision makes the language unnecessarily unclear and ugly.

This kind of fuss is an apparently inevitable consequence of trying to treat language as a "made order" rather than a "grown order", even in the area of orthography, where arbitrary standards seem to the modern mind to be not only desirable but even essential. We think this even though Shakespeare and the other Tudor and Elizabethan writers somehow got along with catch-as-catch-can spelling. Since those days, the users of English have managed to create and impose spelling standards without designating any single official authority. Of course, we've paid the high social and educational cost of maintaining an orthographic system that is unnecessarily complex, inconsistent and hard to learn. Maybe an occasional top-down spelling reform would have been a good thing -- certainly we share with the Dutch a situation in which voluntary reform seems to be essentially impossible.

But what I want to know is, is "double Dutch" a calque of a Dutch expression that has been used to describe the 1995+2006 spelling reforms, or was the Expatica headline writer just using quotes to draw our attention to a bit of wit intelligible only to English readers? I somehow doubt that there can be a direct Dutch equivalent, since I guess the allusion must be to the English expression double dutch meaning "a language that one does not understand, gibberish" (according to the OED's gloss), rather than to double dutch meaning "A game of jump rope in which players jump over two ropes swung in a crisscross formation by two turners" (according to the AHD's gloss).

The Expatica link came from Arne Moll, who observes that journalistic discussions of this sort of thing seem inevitably to confuse "language" with "spelling". Thus the first sentence of the last-cited Expatica article is

Dutch is a complicated and illogical language, according to 60 percent of the Dutch people taking part in a new opinion poll.

The rest of the story makes it clear that they are talking about spelling (and especially changes in spelling, intended to make it simpler and more logical), not the subtleties of Dutch pronunciation, nor the suprising cross-serial dependencies in Dutch syntax, nor any of the other genuinely linguistic complexities of Dutch. Of course, this is an English-language article -- do we find this confusion even among the journalists of the country where the excellent language-oriented magazine Onze Taal is widely read?

And if you can read Dutch -- in any spelling -- with less pain that I can, you can see a rational discussion of the spelling reformat Onze Taal's site here and here.

[Update: Arne Moll responds:

To answer your last question: yes, unfortunately even among the Dutch there is plenty of confusion between language and spelling matters. For example the Dutch research agency that carried out the quoted research has rougly the same news headline as the Expactica one, and confuses the respondents of the questionnaire by using the words 'language' and 'spelling' without proper definition within the same question.

What I find surprising is that most commentators seem to dismiss new (and hence still 'complex') spelling matters such as "in which context should we write 'Middeleeuwen' [middle ages] with a capital M and one with a small m" as highly irrelevant and confusing, yet become very emotional when one suggests that in fact *all* spelling is rather arbitrary and could easily have been arranged differently.

More generally, I suspect people tend to get very emotional about rules they do know how to apply, and are indifferent about and even hostile towards rules they don't know how to apply. It would be interesting to test this hypothesis in other languages as well.

Perhaps we should say that many people are attached to familiar patterns, and suspicious or antagonistic towards unfamiliar ones. And as in other areas of culture, people often seem ready to conclude that those who don't display normative linguistic patterns are morally flawed. Trevor summed this up by changing one letter in Walter Davis' lyric:

You been doing something wrong
I can tell by the way you spell.


[And Bruno van Wayenburg writes:

No, 'Double Dutch' doesn't have an equivalent in Dutch (I remember actually being somewhat miffed when learning that the word 'Dutch' figured in so many negative meanings in English idioms). So the Expatica headline is genuine witty headline English, not a calque.

To answer your question about above-average linguistic awareness in the country of Onze Taal: most of the discussion is explicitly about 'spelling', not 'language'. In all the hubbub, I don't remember anybody lamenting that our language is going to the dogs because of the new rules (although it's of course going to the dogs for many other reasons, the main one being borrowing from English).

But the rope-skipping kind of "double Dutch" is not at all negative -- on the contrary! And the gibberish sense of "double Dutch" seems to go back to a time when Dutch meant something like "Germanic". At least, the OED gives "high Dutch" as an alternative phrase with the same meaning:

1789 DIBDIN Poor Jack ii, Why 'twas just all as one as High Dutch.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 21, 2005 07:46 AM