Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Polyglot Dutch Worry That European Unity Will Doom Language

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Polyglot Dutch Worry That European Unity Will Doom Language

Article excerpt

THE multilingual Dutch are worried that the expansion of the European Union (EU) could sound the death knell for their mother tongue.

No longer content to sit back and watch while English, French, and German conquer the Netherlands, they have gone on the offensive to fight for the rights of their native language.

Part of the problem is the Dutch ability to master foreign languages and their constant exposure to them.

Films and television programs from abroad are usually shown in their original languages. Foreign books and newspapers are widely read in a country where all children start to learn English at the age of 10.

American-born writer Ethel Portnoy, who made the Netherlands her home 25 years ago, has frequently attacked what she calls a "humble attitude toward everything that is not Dutch."

"People here think that by doing away with Dutch they will penetrate the marketplaces of the world more quickly ... but I don't see why one should deliberately set out to cut the throat of a language that way," Ms. Portnoy says.

Dutch is the mother tongue of 21 million people in the Netherlands and Belgium, making it the sixth most spoken language in the EU, ahead of Portuguese, Greek, and Danish. A linguistic cousin of German and English, it is also spoken in the Dutch Antilles and Suriname - a legacy of the Dutch colonial empire.

Support for the language has come from the highest quarters.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has described Dutch as "the bearer of our identity, which we want to uphold and protect in a unifying Europe."

Belgian professor Ludo Beheydt says that maintaining the lesser-used European languages "is an absolute necessity if the democratic bankruptcy of Europe is to be avoided.

"A democratic Europe ... means a society where every linguistic community has a valuable position," he wrote in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad.

The Dutch are aware that their receptivity to foreign languages could backfire on their own native tongue. "Dutch is as open as a pub and as leaky as a sieve," wrote Charles Crombach in "A language which cannot die," his prizewinning essay in a 1989 competition run by a foundation that promotes Dutch. …

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