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August 24, 2009

Op anger tale
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:02 PM * 75 comments

Something Old

The Dutch are famed for, among other things, their excellent command of English. Children here start studying it at the age of ten or so, though they have generally been exposed to it on TV and in music from a much earlier age.

What very few people outside of the Netherlands realize is that, for a substantial proportion of the population outside the Randstad, English is not the second language, but the third. The old dialects and regional languages are still the mother tongues of children in many parts of the country, most particularly in Friesland and Limburg.

Fans of Eddie Izzard know all about Frisian already. I’m more closely acquainted with Limburgs dialect, since my better half grew up in those parts. (He doesn’t speak dialect, but it sounds like home to him.)

Limburgs is old. We have written examples of it from about 1170. But it isn’t a single entity; there are actually over 550 dialects, pretty much one for every village and hamlet in an area that covers the southernmost province of the Netherlands, parts of northern Belgium, and a fair chunk of land in Germany. It has something under two million speakers, for most of whom it is the modertaol, the mother tongue. It’s the language they speak at home and at the local bakery1, the tongue of lovers and mothers and talkers in sleep. Dutch is for school, for work, for outsiders.

So it has been for nearly a thousand years.

Something New

Then into this descendant of Babel comes the internet.

More specifically, in comes a Limburgs Wikipedia. The ‘pedia has an entire policy for creating versions in different languages2, and many Dutch dialects and regional languages have their own.

But creating a Wikipedia in a language like Limburgs isn’t easy. First off, most Limburgs speakers are barely literate in the language. They all learned to read in Dutch, remember, because that was the school language. This is both a practical and a psychological barrier, and the page on writing in the language (which also has a Dutch version) is written in very reassuring style:3

How do I write in Limburgs?
Many Limburgers ask themselves that when they read books, newspapers, or other material in Limburgs. Speaking it isn’t a problem, but writing it? We only learned to write Dutch in school. In the beginning it may be a problem to even figure out what it says here! And it’s even harder to learn to write well. Nevertheless, anyone who speaks Limburgs can, in principle, write it. You can find a few easy tips for doing so on this page.

The other major problem that the Limburgs Wikipedia has is that there isn’t one single master dialect4. Every village has its own usages, its own terms and grammatical quirks.

There is an ongoing attempt to create something called Algemein Gesjreve Limburgs, a kind of lingua franca of Limburg dialects. The common articles in the Limburgs Wikipedia are written using it (including Wie shrief ich Limburgs itself). But since very few Limburgers seem to use AGL as a regular thing5, it would constitute another barrier to contributions.

So the Limburg Wikipedia has taken another tack6. Each article is written in the dialect of the original author, which is marked at the top of the page. Subsequent contributors try to match the article dialect in small corrections, and trust that a native speaker will fix any mistakes they make.

But sometimes a contributor will want to add or change a significant portion of text—a paragraph or more. In that case, they can write the paragraph in their own dialect, and tag it appropriately. So you can have an article whose head and foot are written in ‘t Mestreechs (Maastricht dialect) but whose inner paragraphs are in ‘t Norbiks (from Noorbeek, about 20 kilometers to the southeast).

(Irony: The article on Lucius Ferenius is blank.)


There’s no real point to this. I just enjoy seeing people do neat things op anger tale (in different languages).

  1. My first sight of written Limburgs was on a pastry box in Voerendaal, which we brought to lunch with one of Martin’s high school friends.
  2. The only omission there that surprises me is Láadan [fixed, thank you, ACW]
  3. Many other dialect Wikipedias have similarly gentle pages. It’s clearly a pervasive problem for languages in these niches.
  4. It shares this with even the largest of Wikipedias, of course.
  5. Actually, in this, they’re not far off the rest of the Dutch. There is an official spelling reference from 2005 (‘t Groene Boekje), which is almost universally snubbed in favor of an unofficial alternative (‘t Witte Boekje).
  6. In common with the West Vlaams Wikipedia, but not the Frisian, Nedersaksisch or Zeelands ones.
Comments on Op anger tale:
#1 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:01 PM:

Has Laádan grown enough vocabulary for a Wikipedia?

#2 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:12 PM:

I was really expecting this to be about something else. What, I wasn't sure*, but it had made you angry.

*probably some kind of operation, whether military, medical, or political-dirty-tricks

#3 ::: Amanda ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:36 PM:

I was imagining what Op Anger could be if it was like Op Art, but in the anger dimension.

#4 ::: Arwel ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 07:42 PM:

I sympathise with Limburgers' spelling problems. I was heavily involved in setting up the Welsh Wikipedia back in 2003, and while we were OK with writing articles on Wales-related subjects, we had no end of problems deciding how to spell foreign placenames and personal names... I remember the debate on where to put Tchaikovsky - use a Welsh transliteration of his name, give "Pedr" as his first name (the Welsh form of Peter) or what - we started with the article at Pedr Ilits Tsaicofsgi, then decided that no-one would think of looking for him there and eventually renamed it to "Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky" and put as many redirects as we could think of into the system!

We have an extra complication in Welsh, in that we've got northern and southern dialects (we decided on a bit of give-and-take, and formal written Welsh is virtually a separate language from either spoken dialect anyway), and some people don't mutate initial letters when they ought to - so our article on Peter the Great is at "Pedr I, tsar Rwsia" with redirects from "Pedr Fawr" and "Pedr Mawr" (mutated and unmutated forms of "the Great"), "Pedr I o Rwsia" ("of Russia"), and "Pedr I, ymerawdwr Rwsia" ("emperor of Russia").

We eventually settled on using traditional Welsh names where they existed, and local forms where they don't. so Rome is Rhufain, New York is Efrog Newydd, but Buenos Aires is at Buenos Aires even though there's a logical Welsh transliteration we could use. China moved several times between "China", "Seina", "Tseina" to the current "Tsieina" since all have been used in print in the past.

#5 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 08:06 PM:

Russian transliteration can be confusing enough even without the complications of mostly-spoken languages.

The mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev is a particularly extreme example. The first letter of his surname is transliterated as Ch, Tch, C with a hacek, or Tsch. The second letter is transliterated as 'e' or 'ye'. The 'y' is also written 'i'. The 'e' near the end can also be 'ye', 'o', or 'yo'. The 'v' is transliterated as 'v' or 'ff'. And that's just the transliterations into English.

There's a list of 207 transliterations and the number of Google hits they got, at

Some of the variations look like typos, but eleven spellings had more than 10,000 hits.

#6 ::: Liza ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 08:31 PM:

I followed your link to "Wie sjrief ich Limburgs" and like Dutch and Danish, it's just close enough to German for me to think I ought to be able to understand it, but not close enough for me to get all the important words in any given sentence.

Thanks for your post, I enjoy reading about this sort of thing! (And thanks for the Eddie Izzard video too, that was fun.)

#7 ::: Darth Paradox ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 09:27 PM:

When Eddie Izzard was introducing the concept of the video, I was really expecting it to go in the direction of a Pythonesque comedy of mistranslations. I'm pretty impressed by how it turned out.

#8 ::: ACW ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 09:38 PM:

@ Abi #0 and Don Simpson #1: It's spelled Láadan; the first syllable has falling tone, not rising.

#9 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 10:00 PM:

Me too, Darth Paradox. I'm surprised how much of it I could understand, mostly from context but also just... hey, they're speaking English, but have really funny accents.

I'm better with English accents tending toward Dutch/German/Old English than Caribbean, which bugs me some.

#10 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 10:13 PM:

Diatryma @ 9:

I felt like I could understand what they were saying in the video reasonably well, although it was a very small sample of vocabulary and also not spoken very quickly. I'm not sure how well it would work for everyday conversation, though, as that language has had just as much time to diverge from Old English as English has. (It probably hasn't as much for various reasons, but enough.)

Then there was how I fared in Trinidad, when I had to remind myself that these people were, in fact, speaking English. I could only understand them when they were speaking directly to me, and only slowly at that.

#11 ::: Dan S. ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 11:00 PM:

"the Randstad

That would be somewhere in the Twee Rivieren district, I assume?

#12 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 11:04 PM:

I initially read the thread title as "Ob anger tale." Why tales of anger should be obligatory was beyond me.

#13 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2009, 11:44 PM:

ACW @ 8: I just followed Abi's spelling; I haven't looked at my Láadan dictionary in ages. But my question was the important part. Has there been a Láadan language-building effort?

#14 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:36 AM:

Dialects are not unique to the old country. The first time I watched "King of the Hill"* I thought that Boomhauer wasn't speaking real words. I thought the joke was that he was completely unintelligible. A coworker from Texas assured me that Boomhauer was, in fact, forming actual English words. I watched it the next week, concentrated hard, and was amazed to find myself understanding what had previously seemed like pure babble.

*animated TV show set in Texas.

#15 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 02:16 AM:

I hate transliterated russian. I can't understand it. Why? Because there is no standard. I've learned (or tried to) not less than seven different systems. All of them pathetically unable to map the phonemes.

If there were just one, then I might be able to figure it out, but there isn't, so I don't. Thank goodness for cyrillic.

#16 ::: dave ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 04:32 AM:

Ah, language! It's all about communication. Or not, apparently.

#17 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 06:54 AM:

Written Limburger? That just stinks.

#18 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 06:58 AM:

Janetl @14: I have a similar problem with "South Park" -- I've given up watching it because I simply can't follow the dialog in real time.

(I've heard anecdotal reports that the movie "Trainspotting" was subtitled in American cinemas. Is this true?)

#19 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 07:15 AM:

Charlie @18:

When I saw Trainspotting in Wisconsin, it was not subtitled, and I don't think it was elsewhere.

You may be thinking of Ken Loach's film Riff Raff, which I think was released with subtitles in the US.

#20 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 07:48 AM:

Fragano: The idea does sound a little cheesy but it's nothing to get jacked up over.

#21 ::: Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 08:30 AM:

My Chinese prof in Belgium was for several years a Limburger. Spoke crystal clear Mandarin, but I couldn't hardly understand his Dutch. For the non-Dutch English speakers out there, Limburgish has the same kind of relation to Dutch - in terms of comprehensibility and social status - as Geordie has to BBC English. Anyone who doesn't know Geordie can surely find some audio of it on the web.

#22 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 08:34 AM:

But my question was the important part. Has there been a Láadan language-building effort?

Last time I checked there was an expanded vocab list online, but in poking around today I can't seem to find it--my link goes to a dead page. You could try checking the Wayback Machine for

I tried to learn Láadan, but the restrictive phonology led to all the words pretty much sounding the same to me.

#23 ::: Dave ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 08:48 AM:

Janet@14: Don't know if you've seen the following spoof of the Batman/Joker interrogation scene in The Dark Knight

Utterly brilliant, though it has somewhat ruined the original scene for me.

#24 ::: Phiala ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:04 AM:

That's fascinating. I love languages. I'm not fluent in anything but English, but I can read smatterings of others, and speak bad Spanish and bad American Sign Language. (I'm a somewhat-embarrassed product of the US educational system, you see.)

I'm also relieved by the opening sentence, as we'll be in Amsterdam and Eindhoven in September, and I have about three words of Dutch.

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:07 AM:

What's that about hop anger ale?
("It's 'op anger tale', Serge.")
That's a relief.
I thought there was trouble brewing.

#26 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 10:10 AM:

Serge @ 25: I'll drink to that!

#27 ::: Amanda ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 10:18 AM:

Láadan is located at nowadays, with a Livejournal community at .

Me, I can't learn it because of major disagreements with parts of its design philosophy (failure to use redundancy in a natural-language way, by making sure similar-sounding morphemes fulfil different grammatical roles and vice versa - in other words, I can't accept that the different forms chosen for the different speech act morphemes are báa, bée, bíi etc. instead of more easily distinguished, completely different-sounding morphemes.)

#28 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 10:31 AM:

Note on #26... Just as I run out of Jamaican ginger beer...

#29 ::: Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 11:18 AM:

"א שפּראך איז א דיאלעקט מיט אן ארמיי און פלאָט"

Or maybe we should say a ויקיפדיה instead?

Only tangentially related, I was at a conference two weeks ago, and I saw a presentation from RU Groningen on using graph spectral derived from accumulated Dutch dialect data to find the dialect boundaries in the Netherlands. It identified Frisian, Limburgs and Lower Saxon (Nedersaksisch) dialects quite cleanly. It wasn't so good with the internal dialect structure of the Dutch language areas - e.g. separating the Brabants and Zealand dialects, which sound pretty different to me, from "Randstad" Dutch.

Still... if even the computers think Limburgs isn't Dutch, I think it's justifiable to call it a language and not feel like an idiot when you can't understand it.

#30 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 11:29 AM:

Scott Martens @ 29:

What's a language and what's a dialect can be very slippery things. The Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish students in my high school could all speak in their own native languages and all be intelligible to each other. Then there are the Chinese languages, but, say, Mandarin and Cantonese are completely different and mutually unintelligible despite both being called dialects of Chinese.

#31 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:01 PM:

KeithS @30 said: Then there are the Chinese languages, but, say, Mandarin and Cantonese are completely different and mutually unintelligible despite both being called dialects of Chinese.

IANAL*, but it is my understanding that the reason Cantonese, Mandarin, Fukinese, etc, are all called 'dialects of the Chinese language' is (a) they can all be written in the same bunch of idiograms, and (b) the Beijing government has a massive vested interest in insisting that "There Is Only One China, No We Mean It, This One, And All Chinese People Are Alike. Except Those Troublemaking Splittists In The West. And Falun Gong. And ... Oh, I'll Just Come In Again."

According to them there is only one intuitively obvious** way to transliterate spoken Chinese (yes, of course, Mandarin, because that's the RP of China; everything else is just sloppy speech, you know!) into Latin character sets, too.

*I Am Not A Linguist. In fact, despite having spent four years studying Latin in high school, I've never been productively fluent in any language but English; I'm mildly receptively fluent in Spanish (in that I can sort of follow a Telenovela if I try) due to childhood exposure.

** When I hear defenders of this viewpoint speak, I am reminded that my father thinks there is only one intuitively obvious way to interpret the text of the Bible ... at least, as he puts it, "If you come to the text with an open mind and a listening heart." It is, of course, the way he reads it. And everyone else is self-deceiving or actively malicious, in his opinion. Um. Yeah. I try not to talk about religion with him ...

#32 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:02 PM:

This sounds really familiar. Most of the Amish and many Mennonites have the same thing--a mother tongue that's unwritten (Pennsylvania Dutch, Plattdietsch, Sweiss), a "formal language" that's used in school and for talking to outsiders (English or Spanish), and a formal form of the mother tongue ("Hochdeutsch"--Church German--a very archaic form of High German, written in Gothic/Fraktur).

And the spoken languages aren't standard; people from different places can't always understand one another easily.

#33 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:12 PM:

Abi, can you say a bit more about ’t Groene Boekje and ’t Witte Boekje?  As far as I can make out, the government produced an official list of Dutch spellings but a lot of media outfits, including major newspapers, rejected it and are still using the old spellings.  Is that right?  It sounds like fun (and characteristically Dutch).  Can you give us one or two examples?

#34 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:33 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 31:

I don't have much more than a passing aquaintance with how Chinese all works, but it's my understanding that written Chinese was essentially its own language (kind of like how Latin remained the written language of the educated in Europe despite the vernacular becoming Italian, French, Spanish, and so on), and in mainland China is now picking up Mandarinisms left, right, and center. You're almost certainly dead-on about the politics of the situation, though.

I'm not sure that Pinyin is intuitively obvious, but there is a great advantage in having a single, official transliteration system, as Terry Karney notes. It's a bit easier to read to my letter-reading eyes, too.

Still, it's a similar situation to the Netherlands, in that people grow up with their local dialect as their first language, and, if they ever have much of an education, will go on to learn Mandarin as well.

My own linguistic credentials involve being able to translate between American and British English, stumbling through language classes in school, brokenly conveying what I was trying to say to French- and Spanish-speaking shopkeepers and waiters, and gesturing a lot to Chinese shopkeepers, so take everything I say with the appropriate amount of salt.

#35 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:35 PM:

I really think most Americans should be required to take a semester of Chinese in college or earlier. Earlier, if the point is to encourage understanding. College, if the point is to make it clear that languages are not easy, it doesn't matter how smart you are or how hard you work, you still can't pick out certain sounds if you weren't raised with them, and how frustrating it is not to be able to talk.

Yes, my single semester of Beginning Chinese 1 affected me greatly. It wasn't all my own shortcomings as a student, nor those of the teachers, but an unpleasant alchemy of text, grading system, classmates, and me ending grad school.

#36 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:42 PM:

KeithS @34 said: I'm not sure that Pinyin is intuitively obvious, but there is a great advantage in having a single, official transliteration system, as Terry Karney notes. It's a bit easier to read to my letter-reading eyes, too.

I agree it's useful, but as it provides a single Latin transliteration (and implied Anglophone pronunciation)* for each ideogram, it intitutionalizes a winner in the 'dialect' issue. There is more than one dialect (REAL dialect) even of Mandarin, and the one pronounced as Pinyin is spelt is the official 'only' one, not the one used by the most people. My objection is opolitical, not practical. :->

See also 'Peking,' 'Mumbai'.

* Barring the 'Zathras problem' that is tonality ...

#37 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 12:45 PM:

re 15: When I was in the Slavic Male Chorus of DC I forced myself to learn to read Cyrillic largely for that reason. Then I got stepped on by the problem that the Ukrainians and Serbs and Russians could not always agree on how to pronounce Church Slavonic.

#38 ::: Per Chr. J. ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:17 PM:

Charlie @ 18:

Concerning Scottish films, I remember hearing that the film Gregory's Girl from 1981 was dubbed for the American market (but not with American voices, however, but by Scottish actors with less pronounced dialect). Don't know if this is true.


#39 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:27 PM:

Charlie Stross @18: This WaPo article says they considered subtitling the film, but decided to dub some parts instead.

On TV5 Monde, the French-language channel that runs programs from France, Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, French Canadian sitcoms aired on the TV5 FBS* edition are subtitled**. Otherwise plenty of viewers wouldn't understand the slang.

*France, Belgium, Switzerland
**I don't know if French-language programs produced in Europe are subtitled for the Québec edition.

#40 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Pendrift @ 31... French Canadian sitcoms aired on the TV5 FBS* edition are subtitled

I can well believe it.

#41 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:47 PM:

The difficult of undestanding Geordie is a lot less if you come from the former Danelaw. It's still one of the boundaries in English accents and dialects. "BBC English" is a distinct and slightly artificial version of English, more an accent than a dialect, and solidly based in the speech of the English upper class.

As much as anything, it's a Midlands English, and for a while it might almost have been claimed to be a non-accent. But definitely from south of Watling Street.

Now, the Norse-influenced Anglish dialects also show an east-west split. The west of the country, such as Cumbria, had more influence from Norway.

Anyway, Geordie doesn't seem so strange a sound. Things such as vowel sounds are less unfamiliar than they would be for a Southerner.

#42 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:54 PM:

Mad Max (the original, not "Road Warrior") was dubbed for the American market, because the Australian accents were deemed too thick to be understood.

Apparently there is a reality TV show here in the Netherlands that follows people in Volendam (a notoriously quirky and isolationist town), and is subtitled in Dutch. Martin mentioned it to me, and my response was, "Rab C Nesbitt!" (A Scottish TV programme notorious for the thick Glaswegian accents of the cast).

#43 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 01:54 PM:

Charlie, #18: It took me about the first 5 minutes of "The Full Monty" before my brain could parse the dialect, and I think there were still things I missed later on. What I really ought to do sometime is re-watch it twice in succession, so that I can figure out the dialogue in the first part.

#44 ::: ppint. ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 02:01 PM:

keiths, #30: what's a language and what's a dialect [?]:

a language is a dialect with an army, a legal system and a legislature.

#45 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 02:31 PM:

John Stanning @33:
Abi, can you say a bit more about ’t Groene Boekje and ’t Witte Boekje?

I can, but I'm no expert. I'll gather some information from my colleagues and write more later, but here's a brief glimpse.

Het Groene Boekje is produced by the Nederlandse Taalunie (the Dutch Language Union). The NTU is not a government body as such, though it gets its funding from the governments of Dutch-speaking member countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname). Really, it's a language academy like L'Académie française. They produce a wordlist every ten years (it used to be less frequent, but that's the current status). The most recent one was in 2005. The words aren't defined; it's just a list of words and associated forms (plurals and articles for nouns, all parts of verbs). You can find it online here.

There's a general perception that 't Groene Boekje is difficult to use and a little too rule-bound. However, at the same time, people talk about its inconsistencies. Hyphenation and capitalization are particular problems, apparently. Het Witte Boekje is, apparently, more practical and focuses more on common problem words.

I'm not clear on all of the venues of controversy, but I know one places that people consider 't Witte Boekje better is in the matter of the "tussen-n", the "in-between n".

Dutch frequently forms compound nouns from the plural of a noun (where in English we would use a singular) + another noun. Since most Dutch plurals end in -en, there is a large class of words that this affects. Pretty much any compound noun where the second element starts with a consonant has a tussen-n, and it's worth remembering that Dutch does a lot of compounding.

For instance, the Dutch word for "dandelion" is, according to 't Groene Boekje, paardenbloem (horseblossom). Het Witte Boekje also allows paardebloem, which reflects the actual pronunciation of the term. See also note[n]hout, walnut-wood; panne[n]koek, pancake; and spinne[n]web, spiderweb*, etc.

The next big controversy coming up, from what I gather, is the fate of the diphthong ij. In most of the Netherlands (but not in Limburg, where it's not even a diphthong), it's pronounced exactly the same as ei. This makes it really confusing for spelling, and most people expect it to be eliminated from everything but proper nouns in the near future. How each of the wordlists will jump is of great interest, even among non-linguists.

* See lots of spinnewebben; the major crop of Dutch gardens in the late summer and early autumn is big fat spiders.

#46 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 02:35 PM:

By the way, the best analogy for the Limburgs accent in Dutch (as opposed to Limburgs dialect itself) is the West Country accent in the UK, or the slower of the Southern drawls in the US. (Sadly, this does include a lot of the "rural and not too bright*" negative stereotyping of both English-language groups.)

* The Dutch word for farmer is boer, which is pronounced like its English descendant, "boor"

#47 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 02:43 PM:

Because I haven't seen it mentioned, I'll note my favorite Wikipedia localization effort:

Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch

Not that I can read it (I mostly can't, though knowing German and English helps) but it just tickles me to see that it exists at all, given that every time I've actually heard that language it was being spoken by someone ideologically opposed to casual computer use.

On another note, which of the accents on South Park are difficult to understand for a UK English speaker? The one character on "King of the Hill" I could understand, because you're fighting both a deep Texan accent and mumbling at the same time, but I can't remember anything odd about South Park. (Then again, I'm a native speaker of American "North Midland" English, so most American accents shouldn't be too far off from my own speech)

#48 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 03:02 PM:

#39 Pendrift

On TV5 Monde...French Canadian sitcoms aired on the TV5 FBS* edition are subtitled**. Otherwise plenty of viewers wouldn't understand the slang.

As Serge said, that I believe.

**I don't know if French-language programs produced in Europe are subtitled for the Québec edition.

Not that I've noticed; however, I don't watch a lot of TV5.

#49 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 03:14 PM:

Cheryl @ 48... I grew up in Quebec and I never saw a French movie or show needing subtitles. Going in the other direction, the Quebec accent, and especially the looser grammar, could be rather difficult to grasp by people not used to it.

#50 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 03:22 PM:

Pendrift #39:

I'll third or whatever believing the bit about subtitling stuff from Quebec for continental issue, after noting the reaction of the entire assembled professoriat of the UTexas French department many years ago when faced with an unvarnished Quebec film: stunned incomprehension. The only person not absolutely requiring subtitles was a classmate of mine who had been taught French by nuns in someplace not that far from Jim's way upstate New Hampshire stomping grounds.

#51 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 03:25 PM:

Daniel Martin @ 47:

I dunno, I could never understand what that character in the parka was saying!

More seriously, I did find Chef hard to understand sometimes (as a North American primarily from the west coast) and I could see how the high, fast, clipped voices the main characters speak in would be hard to follow if it was also a foreign accent.

Respet mah authorahtay!

When we lived in the UK it was generally the children who we had the most trouble understanding. Looser pronunciation combined with microdialects maybe. Like understanding someone else's two-year-old, it took a while to get the hang of it.

#52 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 03:33 PM:

"You talk funny Nash. Where you from?"
"Lots of different places."
- Christophe Lambert in Highlander

#53 ::: Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 03:51 PM:

@30, 31, 34, 36: I am a linguist. At least, that's what my graduate adviser keeps trying to turn me into. I think he's worried that I'm really a coder.

No one knows Yiddish? *sigh* The quote in Yiddish is "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." Max Weinreich is the one who put it in print, in Yiddish.

...and Pinyin is actually pretty easy if you're a speaker of a northern dialect that makes 4 tone distinctions and separates 'shi' from 'si'. Otherwise, it's mostly a pedagogic tool for teaching "correct" pronunciation and making life easier for foreigners who have to write Chinese stuff in Roman alphabet texts. Unlike most of Europe, China has never - even at the height of the Cultural Revolution - made any meaningful effort to eliminate non-standard Chineses from public use. The linguistic facts about Chinese are not strongly contested in China, although people do believe some linguistically weird things about the written language. It's fairly well recognized that Mandarin can't be required in all circumstances, that moving around means picking up a new language, and that half of China has barriers to literacy caused by having to practically learn a new language to learn to read.

話說天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分。 Or, your mileage may vary.

@38, 48, 49: I can attest that people in Quebec rarely have difficulty understanding TV standard European French, but the converse is not true. TV5 and all French language channels AFAIK subtitle entertainment programs from Canada in French. Le Téléjournal on TV5 isn't though, at least, I don't think it is. But that's a very cleaned up Canadian French.

#54 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 04:13 PM:

abi @45:
Thanks!  Fascinating.  I was vaguely aware that some sort of intermittent spelling rationalisation was going on, but never heard about the Nederlandse Taalunie.  I guess back in the 1980’s I learned Witte Boekje-type spellings, because the tussen-n’s that you mention don’t show in my (quite old) dictionary at all.
I always liked the ij dipthong but never understood why it’s still printed as two letters (although in signwriting it’s often written as one).  Maybe it was easier with typewriters so that they didn’t have to have a special letter, but now on a computer it’s so easy to make a y with a dieresis, ÿ.

#55 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 04:15 PM:

Wasn't there an episode of Doctor Who where Eccleston meets the Prime Minister and she shakes her head at his accent?

#56 ::: Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 04:21 PM:

@54: It used to be routinely written "y" without diaresis - you still see it in pre-1940-something books. The shift to "ij" was a standardization, and to distinguish it from the "y" with an "i" sound, used in Dutch words like "baby".

@55: "But Mum, other planets have a North too!"

#57 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 04:46 PM:

John @54:
From what I can gather, the situation in the 1980's was that it had been a long time since the original green booklet had been released (1954). Language was changing, and dictionaries were keeping up with the change. In the Randstad accents, for instance, the habit of omitting to pronounce the terminal -n from both plural nouns and infinitives was pretty universal.

The second edition of 't Groene Boekje, in 1990, was positively retrograde, insisting on a number of rules that the rest of the language had quietly dropped (tussen-n being one of them). Het Witte Boekje was started not to contest the new/reimposed rules, but to explain them in simpler terms.

There was a lot of expectation that the 1995 and 2005 editions of 't Groene Boekje would include spelling reforms such as dropping the tussen-n. However, this did not occur, and in 2006, 't Witte Boekje broke with 't Groen.

Only then did it make the tussen-n optional.

To a certain extent, this just leaves Dutch people confused. The major media don't use official spelling, because it's perceived as stupid, hidebound and retrograde. On the one hand, the Dutch aren't big on stupid, hidebound and retrograde, and are happy to change their language with the times.

On the other hand, they no longer know how to write about a dandelion-motif plate of pancakes sitting on a walnut table without annoying someone.

#58 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 05:01 PM:

the Dutch aren’t big on stupid, hidebound and retrograde
True.  A culture that can distinguish 550 dialects of Limburgs (and still have local bakeries), while living happily and effectively in the modern world, really does have something going for it.

#59 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 05:21 PM:

Pinyin isn't immediately intuitive, even after you've learned all the sounds. I didn't get the hang of 'e' being 'oo as it foot', and I resented that a spelling system created in living memory could have irregular phonetics. But it's not the sort of language I understand intuitively at all, so I don't know how much of an opinion I can have without being an ass about it.

#60 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 05:42 PM:

Re Chinese: Cantonese is plainly a different language (9 tones, instead of 4) in the same language family (oddly enough, if I understand the literature right, the misunderstanding of this means a Cantonese expression for "hello" is believed to be, "the chinese way to greet people", but I digress).

One of the quirks of the ability to use the same writing system to make unintellible utterances plain is that the language has linguistic drift which appears to be unchanged. I have no idea how neologisms, and changes in idea are promulgated to make modernisations propogate. I do know the idea, "all written Chinese is the same," is false. There are things which don't map to the Mandarin.

Example; from the wild. Gary Louie's grandmother was born, and reared (to about her teens, if I recall correctly), in China. The family went back to visit (about 1990). Gary, who had the best Chinese of any of the grandchildren was told to listen, not speak.

Grandmama was dismayed to discover she had a hard time speaking to her coeaval group. The pronunciation had changed that much.

I suspect this is why the shift from Peking, to Beijing; Pinyin was probably much closer to correct with Peking; when it was first written.

I am more interested in the shift from Pusan, to Busan in Korea. Korean is supposed to have one of the most rigidly phonetic alphabets in the world, so has the pronunciation changed, or were non-Koreans too wedded to hard plosives?

On the subject of accents: I was in a shop in Frankfurt. It was a shop which sold Irish things (esp. very nice woolens). The only person in the place who spoke English was a lad of fourteen. He'd learned his English on family buying trips.

His English, was of course, a trifle accented with German. I can't tell you how strongly, because the underlying brogue made the whole an amazingly pleasant variety of English.

This is somewhat different to Sean Connery's Russian in "The Hunt for Red October" which seemed clean enough (grammatically; unlike Oldman in "Air Force One"), but the Scots burr on top of it was... charming, and distracting.

#61 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 07:53 PM:

Terry Karney @ 60:
This is somewhat different to Sean Connery's Russian in "The Hunt for Red October" which seemed clean enough (grammatically; unlike Oldman in "Air Force One"), but the Scots burr on top of it was... charming, and distracting.

Ah, but his character was actually (part?) Lithuanian, so we might expect him to speak Russian with a funny accent...

#62 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 08:01 PM:

Didn't Mao impose "Mandarin" on mainland China? And a syllabary? So far as I know, only Hong Kong and Taiwan uses the traditional ideograms. (And Japan, sort of.)

#63 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 08:06 PM:

A language is a dialect that I can identify by typing a few words into Google and checking the country codes of the result pages.

#64 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 08:29 PM:

Reminds me of the Swabian newsgroups I used to follow. I learned my German in Stuttgart (to the point where people from anywhere north of Frankfurt thought I was from Stuttgart) and it was a breath of something like home.

Back in the day, the people in the Stuttgarter Oratorienchor were trying to teach me proper Swabian. I was pretty good at it, too, for a non-Stuttgarter.

#65 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:00 PM:

Randolph @ 62:

Mao decided to make Mandarin the languge of China (and I don't think it was his own native language/dialect, but I can't remember and I'm obviously failing in my search-fu right now). Officially everyone's supposed to speak it, I think. Unofficially, a lot of people still don't.

Pinyin is the official transliteration scheme for Mandarin that they settled on. As I understand, students are supposed to learn it, but it's not in heavy use outside of freeway signs, bus stops in big cities, and the like. What you may be thinking of is that there was a reform in the way many of the characters were drawn, which are the simplified Chinese characters. These haven't been universally picked up outside of mainland China, and are not always understandable to people who learned the traditional characters (and vice versa).

#66 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:18 PM:

on ij and y-dieresis: I've seen it used where we would expect 'i', in early 18th century German church registers, which were very definitely hand-written. 'Beijde reformiert' is the first instance coming to mind.

#67 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:19 PM:

"The German Bob Dylan" sings in Kölsch:

original video
live, with German subtitles (interesting to see where they line up and where they don't)

#68 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2009, 09:38 PM:

Wingate@37: I remember a Czech disputing the pronunciation of Janacek's "Msa Glagolskaja"; we'd gotten advice from a specialist, but to her it looked like modern Czech.

abi@45: so around you they sometimes spell the 'n' but don't pronounce it, where on the other side of the world they pronounce the 'n' but don't spell it (cf Pago Pago). (Yes, I know your antipodes are (is?) in the middle of a lot of windy not-much.)

#69 ::: Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 05:21 AM:

@62, 65: Modern Standard Mandarin was the spoken language of the court and the bureaucracy under the Qing dynasty (thus the name "Mandarin", synonym for bureaucrat in many modern European languages for long and complicated reasons). The written legal language of the court was what's now called "Classical Chinese" - which has the same kind of relationship to modern Chinese as Church Latin to French. However, the bureaucracy, having a near monopoly on literacy in those days, liked smutty novels and cheezy poetry. And, just as writing a smutty novel or cheezy poetry in Church Latin would be exceedingly bizarre, authors in the early modern era in China used the characters of then standard "classical" Chinese to write the spoken language of the Mandarinate - their principal market and audience.

When the Qing were overthrown in 1911 - not by Mao or the Communists but by Sun Yat-sen and the early Guomindang - they knew some kind of language reform was necessary for Chinese, but had considerable disputes about how to go about it. However, they agreed as a first step to officialize as their standard written language the language of the poetry and novels the elite read rather than the stodgy classical language.

Thus, Mandarin became putonghua, "common" language.

At this point, progress in the Chinese Republic stalled and further language reform was shelved. Warlordism took root. Then Japan invaded. Then WWII ended and the Chinese Civil War got underway. And then Mao and the Communists took charge. Mandarin was already long entrenched by the time they gained control of the country, and despite a lot of high minded rhetoric about universal literacy and language reform as a means of uplifting the proletariat, very little was actually accomplished except the officialization of "simplified" characters - a kind of shorthand that practically everyone in China (or rather, everyone who was literate) used and had used in some form since the dawn of grass script 2000 years ago.

The shift to Mandarin predates the Communists and they did very little to meaningfully change that. In Taiwan (legally, the rump remains of the pre-1949 Republic of China) Mandarin is also the official language, in more or less identical form to the PRC except the rejection of simplified characters. Singapore and Malaysia also grant some legal status to modern standard Mandarin, in pretty much identical form to the official usage in China. In all three places, Mandarin is not native to most people who speak some form of Chinese. Hong Kong and Macau have very carefully ambiguous language laws, naming "Chinese" as official without being more specific, in order to tolerate de facto official use of a standardized form of Cantonese.

Mao himself was Hunanese and grew up speaking the rather radically different local variant. He spoke Mandarin with an accent and dysfluency that would mark him as a rural hick. For this reason, very few of his speeches are available in audio form.

#70 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 06:12 AM:
I am more interested in the shift from Pusan, to Busan in Korea. Korean is supposed to have one of the most rigidly phonetic alphabets in the world, so has the pronunciation changed, or were non-Koreans too wedded to hard plosives?
I Do Not Speak Korean but that's just a result of the switch from McCune-Reischauer to Revised Romanization.
#71 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2009, 06:17 AM:

P.S. Apologies. Looking closer, I realise that you must already know that since you wrote "were non-Koreans too wedded to hard plosives?".

#72 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 12:27 AM:

Abi – I love this! The last time I was in Amsterdam (all too many years ago), I wandered into an exhibit on the ground floor of the Rijksmuseum – a permanent exhibit, I think – about the Dutch language, with maps and labels and captions and explanations. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Dutch was not up to the task (and this was the one section of the museum that was monolingual), but it *looked* fascinating!

I sometimes feel left out that my "kitchen tongue" is standard American English. I speak more informally with some people than with others, but basically I grew up entirely monolingual. I've rectified that by extending my knowledge into several other languages, but I have no home experience of a separate dialect for home use and one for formal use. My loss, I think.

#73 ::: modallist ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 12:05 PM:

't Groene Boekje snubbed? If only!

In my recently completed novel I had the audacity to use several spellings that were sanctioned by the White Booklet but not the Green one, and I was severely admonished by the copy editor. Interestingly, the publisher is a division of the same conglomerate which owns several of the large newspapers that turned away from 't Groene Boekje. So I thought I was safe...

On the ij vs. ei issue: I think it's extremely unlikely that the ij will be dropped any time soon. For one, words that use ij look plainly *wrong* to Dutch readers when spelled with ei. There would be just too much resistance to any ruling which mandated use of ei.
For another, the ij is the only 'typically Dutch' diphthong which justifies our very own keyboard layout. Drop it, and we could make do with a generic Anglo-Saxon keyboard. Or maybe a French or German one if we wanted easy access to diacritics. Unthinkable!

#74 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:07 PM:

Scott Martens @53:
Oh, no wonder it only made a little sense if I read it as transliterated English, as opposed to Hebrew. (For some reason I never think of Yiddish.)

Diatryma @59:
"e" as short "oo" makes sense to me, based on French, German, and Hebrew; think "schwa".

#75 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2009, 08:42 PM:

John D Berry, I'm the same way; I am a bit disappointed that I will never be bilingual from childhood.

Geekosaur, the e-as-oo felt a little more closed-off than the German e-as-uh. Part of it was also that if I were making up a pinyin-like system, there's no way e would be that. I am more willing to cut an organically developed language/writing system slack.

French is on my list of languages not to learn. I have already struggled with one language where what is written is not very much like what is spoken*, and that was Chinese. My brother or sister can translate for me in case of French Apocalypse.

*I know, I know, but English is already in me without effort.

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