January 23, 2006

Unheimisch op straat

Rita Verdonk, the Dutch Immigration Minister, has recently called for a national code of conduct forbidding the public use of languages other than Dutch. Apparently the city of Rotterdam already has such a code. According to the article in de Volkskrant,

'Nederlands praten op straat is heel belangrijk. Ik krijg van veel mensen mailtjes dat zij zich unheimisch voelen op straat’, zei de minister zaterdag op een VVD-congres over integratie in Rotterdam.

"Speaking Dutch in the street is very important. I get email from many people who feel uneasy in the street", said the minister Saturday at a VVD meeting on immigration in Rotterdam.

What is at issue is not a law, but a set of rules of conduct (what Ms. Verdonk calls gedragsregels) that would include a commitment to use Dutch in all interactions in public places. I think the Rotterdam code might be here, though given my extremely limited command complete ignorance of Dutch I'm not certain that I've found the one that Ms. Verdonk favors rather than some alternative or opposing proposal. [Later: Dutch correspondents confirm that this is indeed the Rotterdam Code.] This burgerschapscode ("citizenship code") lists seven points:

Wij Rotterdammers
1. nemen verantwoordelijkheid voor onze stad en voor elkaar en discrimineren elkaar niet;
2. gebruiken Nederlands als onze gemeenschappelijke taal;
3. accepteren geen radicalisering en extremisme;
4. voeden onze kinderen op tot volwaardige burgers;
5. behandelen vrouwen gelijk aan mannen en met respect;
6. behandelen homoseksuelen gelijk aan heteroseksuelen en met respect;
7. behandelen (anders-) gelovigen en niet-gelovigen gelijk en met respect.

We Rotterdammers
1. take responsibility for our city and for one another without discrimination;
2. use Dutch as our community's language;
3. accept no radicalism or extremism;
4. raise our children as full citizens;
5. treat women equally with men and with respect;
6. treat homosexuals equally with heterosexuals and with respect;
7. treat adherents of different religions and atheists equally and with respect.

The context of all this is the situation symbolized by the murder of Theo van Gogh.

The de Volkskrant article quotes Laetitia Griffith, a member of Amsterdam's College of Aldermen, and a native of Suriname:

'Ik vind dat te ver gaan. Amsterdam is een wereldstad met buitenlandse investeerders, die juist de tolerantie prijzen. Als ik met een vriendin Surinaams op straat spreek en wij veroorzaken geen overlast, dan is daar niks mis mee.'

"I think that goes too far. Amsterdam is a world city with foreign investors. If I speak Surinamese [Sranan?] with a friend in the street and we don't cause any trouble, there's nothing wrong with that."

The Amsterdam mayor, Job Cohen, has been quoted as calling Ms. Verdonk a "hot-head with a cold heart", though he later back-pedaled a bit.

I'm not clear whether the part about speaking Dutch on the street is being emphasized because Ms. Verdonk and her party are emphasizing it, or because it's the part of the proposed gedragsregels that her political opponents object to. I imagine (though I don't know) that points 5 through 7 of the cited code are goals that the VVD (a "liberal", i.e. right-wing, party) shares with the Dutch left, though not with all of the immigrant communities; while point 2 (and perhaps the interpretation of point 3) is where the "liberals" and the left part company.

[Thanks to Bruno van Wayenburg for a pointer to the de Volkskrant article. Apologies to the Dutch nation for my (mis)translations from their gemeenschappelijke taal. Bruno also contributed this observation:

The rules are attempts to take a tough stance on the, admittedly very real, problems of integration and social exclusion of significant groups of Moroccan, Antillian and Turkish descent, but I doubt if lapsing into 19th century style language suppression will do the trick. No response yet from the Frisian language minority in the North by the way, although columnist Remco Campert predicts that they might definitely declare independence now.


[ Readers should be aware that in this post I'm writing about both political and linguistic matters where I have little or no personal knowledge. I invite you to read the comments below and form your own opinions.]

[Marrije Schaake writes:

Thank you for your article on Language Log about Minister Verdonk's plans.

The discussion about it is (today) focussing on the larger explanation of the rules of conduct in the Rotterdam code.

On page 4 of the code you link to (which is the code in question in the whole matter, you found the correct one!), there's more about 'our shared language', and particularly that everybody should speak this language at work, at school, in the street and at the community centre. That's where the rub is: should people be allowed to speak their own language in the street?

The minister of course denies now she would like to implement a 'language police', but she does keep repeating the bit about getting mails form people who feel unheimisch in the street. And I bet she doesn't mean people who are upset about American tourists speaking English: it's Surinamese speaking Surinamese, Turkish people who speak Turkish, and most of all bearded Moroccan men in djellaba who speak Arabic or Berber.

To me, it's quite funny that she uses the word 'unheimisch', since that's a loan from German. It's a correct and accepted word, but still somewhat funny in view of the troubled relationship we used to have with the Germans. Speaking German in the street would have (at least) earned you frowns twenty or thirty years ago.

Michel Vuijlsteke adds this information:

How very, very ironic that the very word Rita Verdonck uses to describe "uneasyness" is a German word.

I'm from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) and I'd never heard the term before, even if Taalunieversum says it is a generally accepted loan word (cfr. http://taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/826/).


[Steve from Language Hat points out:

I was delighted to see that unheimisch is borrowed from German; by my count that makes a majority of loanwords among the content words in Ms Verdonk's quote: straat, mailtjes, unheimisch, minister, zaterdag (I guess you could just count the zater- if you were being strict), congres, integratie. Amazing how unaware these linguistic nationalists are.

Also, as far as I know there is no language called "Surinamese"; the main languages of Surinam are Dutch and Sranan (oddly, an English-based creole), and I suppose the latter is being referred to.


[Rob Malouf writes:

Interesting discussion of language attitudes in the Netherlands! One thing that struck me too is the irony of Verdonk's use of a German loanword. It's not just that it's a foreign word -- the Dutch have a very complicated relationship with the German language. As a non- native I won't claim to understand it, but I will note that when Dutch racists painted anti-foreigner slogans on a Turkish-owned gas station in my neighborhood, they did so in German. The use of a German word by Verdonk (or her correspondents) carries a lot of meaning.

I also noticed that in the story about this in the Algemeen Dagblad (a less politically-activist paper than the left-leaning de Volkskrant), Verdonk is quoted somewhat differently:

Veel mensen voelen zich niet prettig omdat op straat geen Nederlands wordt gesproken
Many people feel unpleasant because no Dutch is spoken on the street.

In a related article, they quote Leonard Geluk, a Christian Democrat in the Rotterdam city government, as saying:

Veel autochtone Rotterdammers voelen zich ’unheimisch’ als op straat buitenlands wordt gesproken
Many native Rotterdammers feel 'uneasy' if a foreign language is spoken on the street.

Here unheimlisch gets scare quotes, but "autochtone" goes by without notice. "Autochtoon" is the opposite of "allochtoon", which usually gets translated as "foreigner" or "immigrant". Technically, it's any first or second generation immigrant from a country outside of Europe besides the US, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, or Japan.


[Stefan Tilkov wrote:

"Unheimisch" is not a German word, at least not one that I (as a native German speaker) have ever heard. There is "unheimlich", which means "sinister", "strange", or "uneasy", there is "heimlich", which means "secret", and there is "heimisch", which means "at home" (in the sense of "heimisch fühlen" -- "feel at home").

I asked him what he makes of the Taalunie page on the topic, and he responded

A Google search for "unheimisch" in German pages only yields 231 results; in Dutch pages, it's 688. Not really significant, I guess ... the first few of the German results use "unheimisch" in the sense of "not at home".

My Dutch is almost non-existent, still: this document - the first hit for "unheimisch" in German - mentions

"MAAR/ABER: "unheimisch" is Pseudo-Duits, dit woord bestaat niet in het Duits. Er is alleen "unheimlich"


[Bruno van Wayenburg commented further:

Thanks, Mark, your story is quite accurate, as far as I can judge. Here are some comments, for your information (unless of course you want to change the log name into Dutch Language Policy Log):

Job Cohen didn't really back-pedal: he later declared that his 'hot-head' qualification was used in a different context in the interview, -more importantly- the journalist acknowledged this and apologized quickly and publicly. (However, Verdonk is predictably backpedaling now, as Marije Schaake mentions)

Although I noted it myself, I think Rob Malouf and (especially) Steve of Language Hat make a bit too much of the German loan unheimisch. It's recognizably German, a bit learned but quite an ordinary word to use (though apparently not for Belgians), probably something like 'Deja vu' in English.

Besides, as far as I can see, the issue is not so much linguistic nationalism, purism or even language at all, but tolerance of foreign cultures. Verdonk might as well have started the old discussion about head-scarfs again, using English loans.

German and Germany are not by far as loaded as they used to be (even leading magazines to declare Germany 'cool' again). Still, I think Dutch racists use German for an obvious reason: the Nazi associations. (Although I didn't ask them).


[Lane Greene wrote:

You've already had many e-mails on this, and this isn't really a correction so much as a perception, but the VVD wouldn't normally be considered "right-wing" in the European context, though it is "liberal" in Europe. Liberal parties tend to be something like what we call libertarian: small government, lower taxes, but also socially permissive. I'm sure you know a bit or more of this. In the context of language policy, though, surely it's the socially permissiveness, and not economic policy, that's at issue, and in this context the VVD isn't particularly right-wing at all. (European countries, including the Netherlands, have Christian Democratic parties for their social conservatism.)

I think the real story here is how, since Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh were murdered, even the traditionally socially liberal parties (also including the standard center-left Labor party) are starting to be tempted by the anti-immigration bandwagon, though the socially left parties (including VVD and Labor) tend to dress it up as a need for "integration" of immigrants, not hostility.

It's easier, I think, to translate between Dutch and English -- or even Berber and Dutch -- than to translate between European and American political parties. By putting "liberal" into scare quotes in writing about VVD, I meant to clarify that this word doesn't mean in Europe what in means in the U.S. I guess that "libertarian" would be a better translation than "right-wing", since European liberal parties are also not generally counted as being on the right. But their small-government, tax-cutting, degegulation-oriented outlook tends to make them look Republican, even if their laissez-faire social attitudes don't... Maybe the best American translation would be "South Park Republicans", without the overall contempt for government.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 23, 2006 06:23 AM