High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

Irksome English
© Red Morley Hewitt / Unsplash
© Red Morley Hewitt / Unsplash © Red Morley Hewitt / Unsplash

Irksome English

Why do the Dutch so readily turn to the English language? Cultural philosopher Ton Lemaire has long been bothered by the use of English words when there exists a perfectly good Dutch alternative. In this sneak-peek abstract from his latest book, Lemaire warns against the rise of a monoculture that threatens to erase diversity.

For several decades now, English has been worming its way into our language. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t notice yet another English word firmly situated among the Dutch: an interloper, come to join its thousands of predecessors. Some I find useful or funny, others I find ugly, but most I find just plain unnecessary. Why must kinderen be called “kids” or poesjes be called “kittens”? Why has uitverkoop become “sale” and lijfwacht become “bodyguard”? Why did I, always a keen observer of birds, all of a sudden become a vogelspotter, a direct translation from the English “birdwatcher”? Why is steun now “support”, drijfveer or motief “drive” and inwerking or invloed “impact? Walking around Amsterdam, one might not know they are in a Dutch city at all – most signs these days are found exclusively in English. It is almost as though a solid understanding of the Dutch language now also demands a mastery of English. In short: English vocabulary seeps in through every pore, sometimes even supplanting native words. I confess that this annoys me, and that this piece was written out of that annoyance.

First of all, allow me to clarify my position: of course, I have nothing against English – I am not Anglophobic. I consider it a special language in its flexibility, brevity, and directness; in the richness of its vocabulary, the simplicity of its grammar, and the variety of its idiomatic turns of phrase. Nor am I a language purist who rejects borrowing from other languages. Languages are ever-changing, influencing and loaning words from one another – nothing is more common. It is a process that has been ongoing for millennia and one that accelerates in this age of globalization.

It is obvious that, thanks to the economic and/or political reach of the country in which it is spoken, a language will be poised to take on the role of lingua franca for several surrounding languages. In Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this was French. Now it has become English, especially since the last war. Along with modern technology, this has everything to do with the influence and spread of American-style capitalism, and its permeation in commerce and modern media.

Flattening and depletion

For the nation to become bilingual, or even trilingual if we include regional languages, is something to applaud. But what I find undesirable is what we now see happening across the board: regional languages are being supplanted by standard Dutch, and the national language is, in turn, being supplanted by or mixed with English. These are, in my opinion, forms of flattening and depletion in language development. The three languages should not intermingle, as now happens due to certain power dynamics, but should maintain a mutual purity that guarantees greater linguistic diversity. What I am totally against in this context is what I call “unnecessary English”: the adoption of an English word when there is a perfectly good synonym available in one’s own language. I listed some of these at the beginning. It is high time that we introduce some order to the many Anglicisms we now have, which are estimated to comprise about ten to fifteen percent of our vocabulary.

The first category of Anglicisms comprises “new” words: issue, item, target, event, page-turner, skill, spoiler, cliffhanger, influencer, statement, boost, content. The list is almost endless. The second category involves tacking the Dutch verb ending -en onto the back of English words, like gamen, crashen, faken, bashen, checken, triggeren, updaten, browsen, crossen, dealen, linken, (fun)shoppen, chatten, joggen, downloaden, and so on. The third category includes existing Dutch words that have taken on a new, English meaning – for example controleren, originally borrowed from French, meaning “to check” or “to watch”, but which now also means “to control”. Similarly, another French word variëteit, meaning “race” or “type”, has also taken on the English meaning of “variety”. The word match is also a special case, having been borrowed from English a long time ago to mean, for example, a football match. It now takes on an additional meaning as a verb: “to match”, or to fit well together. Finally, there is a residual category of idioms and expressions where the English influence is veiled, but still present: literal translations of making a difference and doing your own thing, for example.

I would also like to point out the general tendency to give existing words an English-sounding ending, as with university, centre and orchestra. The relatively new role of a mediator is, of course, called a mediator in the Netherlands, whereas the Flemings – a traditionally more language-conscious bunch – are satisfied with the term bemiddelaar. A shop that wants to go with the flow of the times will of course call itself a shop (I once saw a groentezaak reincarnated as a “greenshop” overnight). The Dutch national airport has long been called the airport, because vliegveld is far too provincial. I also find it curious how many Dutch magazines are given English names, like Seasons and Happinez. A well-known pocket series is called Rainbow-pockets, though Regenboog would work just as well. Observing this, I wonder what a foreigner might think – that Dutch must be a rather poor language, to apparently lean on so many loan words.

How can it be that an entire nation is so ready and willing to succumb to the influence of English?

How can it be that an entire nation is so ready and willing to succumb to the influence of English? Of course, people imitate one another, which applies to all fashions and norms. Does it stem from affectation and snobbery? Does it offer prestige, to occasionally sprinkle an English word into speech? Does it sound cool and sexy compared to everyday Dutch? Does it make people feel more like citizens of a global world? Or is it simple convenience? But that would imply that people are not creative enough with their own language. Which would be consistent with a weakly developed national awareness, and an equally lacking interest in one’s own history.

Commerce and technology

Truth be told, the Netherlands is a small country; one that is surrounded by three larger neighbouring countries, each with influential languages in their own right. Rather than adopting words from any of those languages, an opposite reaction could also have been conceivable: to defend the purity of one’s own language. Moreover: the Dutch language area is not quite as small as one might think – there are 24 million Dutch speakers, making it one of the medium-sized languages. Many countries, including in Europe, have much smaller populations and far fewer speakers.

The Netherlands is located in a delta of Western Europe, and has traditionally oriented itself towards the Atlantic. The nation is focussed on trade and export, active in the global market, and relatively cosmopolitan in spirit. The nation wants to be taken seriously, and tries hard not to fall behind in the worldwide rat race for a place in the global market. By mastering the language of that market, they show that they are indeed at the bleeding edge of “progress” and willing to sacrifice part of their identity for a large market share. Could this, perhaps, explain the increasing number of Anglicisms taking root in our language? My aggravation would thus be better understood, as it is also directed at the general progression of Dutch society in the second half of the twentieth century – namely, the modernization and globalization of Ango-Saxon and especially American culture.

We have arrived in an era where the American model of business, management, commerce, and technology reign supreme

We have arrived in an era where the American model of business, management, commerce, and technology reign supreme, and in the EU, the Netherlands is clearly the most Americanized country. The worlds of media, popular music, film, the internet, Facebook and Google also operate in an English-speaking universe. Many TV programs have English titles, as do art pieces, conventions, conferences, and exhibitions. Job listings, certainly for roles in business, commerce, and technology, are usually written entirely in English: people are looking for Facility Managers, Chief Executive Officers, and so on.


Higher education in the Netherlands has also been based on the Anglo-Saxon model for several decades now. Students earn bachelor and master degrees, follow masterclasses or perhaps an Honours Academy. At universities, the majority of lectures are given in English, and dissertations – certainly in the natural sciences – are invariably written and defended in English. The Dutch correspond with and debate one another in English and prefer to publish their articles in English-language journals. The only foreign language that most academics still know is English and many professors, even, no longer read German or French, and are therefore dependent on translations. In my opinion, this clearly demonstrates that the Netherlands has completely surrendered to this trend without mounting any meaningful protest or resistance against it.

It seems nigh impossible to curb the living development of language

Not even in right-wing factions do they protest, or, to my knowledge, make any effort to save the Dutch language from such “foreign stains”. It is much easier to scapegoat population groups like Muslims or Jews than something as elusive as the linguistic dimension of globalization; the universal penetration of the Anglo-Saxon virus. It seems nigh impossible to curb the living development of language. Even the Académie Française, whose task is, among other things, to ensure the purity of the French language, has not been able to hold Anglicisms at bay. Although it must be noted that these have invaded France less forcefully than in the Netherlands because of the greater demographic and cultural volume of France, and because of greater language awareness. It could also have been conceivable that a manifesto were published in our country by Dutch people, possibly together with well-known writers and poets, to protest against all this unnecessary English. Or a policy among editors of newspapers, weeklies and other periodicals to avoid unnecessary Anglicisms in their columns.

Acceptable English?

Now, it is by no means easy – and perhaps impossible – to draw a line between what should be seen as unnecessary English and acceptable English. I know that I also use English words, especially terms that were already common in my youth: sorry, fit, weekend, happy ending, okay, and so on. I was accustomed to eating jam and pudding for years before learning that those, too, are English words! Our language has loaned thousands of words from other languages: Greek and Latin, Arabic, Malay, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, and even Aztec (via Spanish), among many others. One could argue that this demonstrates the strength and openness of a people and language, to absorb the necessary words from other languages. The difference from the current situation of a massive influx of English is the scale and speed with which it is happening, so that some, like myself, get the impression that we are really being inundated – or are allowing ourselves to be inundated – by a tidal wave of Anglicisms.

I’ve noticed that some people use a lot more (unnecessary) English words than others and that I’m certainly not the only one who is annoyed by this “English disease” (as a friend of mine calls it). The question is whether there is anything to be done about it, except to partake as little as possible, that is, to consciously cultivate good Dutch. When someone says that something is “stunning” or “amazing”, where apparently the word verbazingwekkend no longer suffices, I tend to inadvertently react rather coldly. Likewise when zwaarlijvig gives way to “obese”, the call to keep a date free becomes “save the date”, and putting on an act becomes faken. What is it other than snobbery? The fact that many people do it is no reason for me to follow. In short: it annoys me! And all the more so because I believe that the phenomenon, placed in a broad context, is one worth combatting. The dominance of all things English and American goes along with global tendencies – it corresponds to globalization, the world market, and hyper-capitalism, which promotes cultural and linguistic uniformity. Languages, especially those used by ethnic minorities, are constantly disappearing and cultural diversity is in decline.

Hybridization may be an excellent development in terms of race, but not so in terms of language and culture

Incidentally, this is a familiar process that repeats itself. With every major cultural revolution in the history of mankind – the transition to agriculture, the rise of cities, the industrial revolution – these revolutionary changes spread like an oil slick over mankind and result in the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. Our current phase of globalization fits into that same self pattern. As Lévi-Strauss famously said, the wealth of humanity does not exist in any one successful culture, but in the entirety of her differences.

So there is a fundamental reason to oppose any monoculture and to distrust the imposition of English – including the increasing use of hybridized language, the curious mix of Dutch and English that becomes a kind of pidgin English. Hybridization may be an excellent development in terms of race, but not so in terms of language and culture. Even more so when we know that since the electronic revolution – the advent of the PC, the smartphone, and the rest – a certain kind of simplistic language has become normalized, consisting of short sentences, fragmentary statements, and catchphrases. All of this may track well with the smooth, Dutch/English communication that our digitized society promotes. But the question is whether that is beneficial for accurate and in-depth exchange of views on the important things in life.

This text is a pre-publication from Tegen de tijd. Kanttekeningen bij de wereld, the new book by Ton Lemaire, which will be published in March 2022 by Ambo|Anthos.

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