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  • Writer's pictureMorana Lukač

Dutch grammar grievances

As the first semester is coming to its end, I’ve been taking another look at some of the work the cohort of LU students taking Sociolinguistics produced in the past months. Rather than shelving their reports, it’s been fascinating to explore the extent to which sociolinguistic phenomena are clearly discernible in the investigations they carried out in the field.

In October last year, students collected lists of the most common grammatical grievances among lay speakers of languages of their choice. The assignment evoked David Crystal’s list of the top ten most disliked grammatical usage problems (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 1997, p. 194). Crystal compiled the list after the listeners of the BBC Radio 4 were asked to send in lists of their most disliked points of grammatical usage. Although the students’ reports focused on a variety of different languages, from Syrian Arabic, and Czech to Korean, the number of those who interviewed speakers of Dutch allows for observing some patterns. What was interesting to see is the almost complete overlap between the lists produced by the students and the one Renée van Bezooijen published in 2003 in the journal Onze Taal.

In my summary of the reports so far, the top three grammatical annoyances as reported by the students include

  1. The usage of the pronoun *hun (‘them’) in the subject position instead of zij (‘they’) *Hun zijn maandag naar de kermis geweest. (‘They went to the fair on Monday.’)

  2. The usage of the conjunction *dan (‘than’) instead of als Mijn nichtje is even groot *dan mijn zusje. (‘My niece is as tall as my sister.’)

  3. The choice of definite articles de/het (‘the’) *de huis (‘the house’)

The only item not reported by van Bezooijen is the choice of definite articles (3), which the respondents attributed to non-native speakers of Dutch. The inclusion of this feature arguably points to the rising numbers and the visibility of this group of speakers. As for the large overlap, the consistency with which certain grievances are mentioned even over a span of two decades is another testament to the fact that what speakers identify as their own pet peeves are often those that are simply part of the transmitted canon of prescriptive rules in highly standardized languages such as Dutch. It seems that we are not as free in choosing our pet peeves as we may think. It seems to me that ‘our’ pet peeves are often rather collective ones, which have been transmitted for decades and longer through institutions and channels involved in language standardization.

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