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  • Writer's pictureMorana Lukač

Who speaks Straattaal?

As I was reading KLM's in-flight magazine this week, I came across an article on a Dutch street fashion brand Patta. It made me pause as I realized that the word originating from Sranan meaning ’shoe’ must by now be recognized by most speakers of Dutch. The word is one of the typical examples of Straattaal (’language of the street’), a youth multiethnolect spoken in Dutch urban environments (the Randstad region).

In this semester’s sociolinguistics assignment, I asked my first-year linguistics students to interview their peers (speakers of Dutch younger than 25 ) and elicit youth slang words that, the respondents believed, those aged 40 and older would not understand. The words they collected are summarized in the word cloud below in which the size of the font indicates the frequency with which the word was mentioned. 

Although many of the words and phrases originate in Dutch (ziek ’sick’ and soggen ‘procrastinating') or are English loans (‘dope’ and ‘mood'), the wordlists included an overwhelming number of Sranan (doekoe ‘money’; oso ‘house’; sker ’broke’; koalo ’teribly’) and Moroccan (wəḷḷah ‘lo!’ and ewa ‘hi') lexical elements. Most of those aged above 40 (and even those as young as 27!), as expected, often didn't understand the words listed, except for the few popularized in the media or through music. (One famous example comes from this 2004 coffee commercial featuring two older ladies fluent in youth slang.)

Many of those interviewed seem to equate youth slang with Straattaal — but the relationship between the two isn’t as straightforward.  Leiden’s Khalid Mourigh and Maarten Kossmann have recently been investigating the extent to which Straattaal is indeed mixed and shared by the heritage speakers of languages contributing to it. Moroccan speakers, for example, do not see Straattaal as ‘theirs’ but rather as ‘Black’ language belonging to the Antilleans and the people with sub-Saharan background (see Kossmann).

Most of the undergrads reported that those interviewed were of indigenous Dutch background. But these speakers, according to Kossmann’s analysis of online discussions on Straattaal, are not seen as its legitimate speakers either. For example, in one online comment Kossmann cites, a poster of Dutch-Turkish heritage is criticizing an indigenous Dutch speaker for ‘crossing' and using the Moroccan expression qəḥba ‘whore’: 

Ik mix hiertussen maar ewa die persoon die hier zo met e kehba gaat zitten praten, sws ben jij wahed tatta, praat lekker eigen taal, wesh ik ken jullie niet maar niet zo biggy anoniem.
‘I am mixing into this [conversation], but well, that person who is talking like “a qəḥba (you whore)”, you are in any case a Dutchman, speak your own language. Lo!, I don’t know you, but don’t talk big like that anonymously.’

It’s interesting to see that even in a dynamic variety as this one, which was first described in as recently as the late 1990s, is not spared of normative views. I am still left wondering who the ‘legitimate’ speakers of Straattaal are. According to the metacommentary at least, they are a more select group than you’d guess at first.

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