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Entries in language (31)


This is why you don't hyphenate names

It is a tricky thing, last names. In the "traditional" (ie, patriarchal) system, women always had to adopt the names of their husbands, so children naturally had the same last name as both their parents. That isn't the case now, as many women keep their own last name after marriage. This does create the tricky issue of what to do with the last names of the child - do they get the last name of the father or the mother?

I don't have a good solution, but the solution I dislike is the hyphenated name. At first glance it is attractive. The children is the result of a union of two individuals, so their last name is the union of two last names. But what about the second generation? You would need four last names hyphenated together. Then eight last names hyphenated together in the third generation, and then it really spirals out of control.

And, of course, this "elegant" solution is a disaster when it comes to Dutch names. Consider the author of this paper: Marieke H.J. van den Beuken-van Everdingen. Try fitting that on an immigration card at the airport.


Stupid language defaults

Life in Belgium is grand, but there are a few irritations. One of my pet peeves is the language default override that a lot of major IT companies seem to have. Go to Adobe to download Acrobat, and it recognises your IP as Belgian and automatically redirects you to French page. Force it to go to the English version and download, and the download is imbedded in Dutch for some reason. Or iTunes - already one of the most irritating pieces of software ever invented - will download the installation software in French. One of the first choices is which language you want to use, but this selection is ignored for the installation process and only corrects in final software package. Oddly enough, Google is my pet hate. Fantastic that they have so many language options, but if I am logged in and have selected English as my language, don't revert to Dutch if I search in the tool bar instead of the search bar, or if I go to Blogger or Maps*. In a multi-lingual country like Belgium, I wonder how much thought they put into the default language? Why does Facebook redirect my IP address to French and Bing to Dutch?

On a related note I would be amiss if I didn't take this opportunity to vent on our own website, the University of Leuven. The website is, of course, in Dutch, but they have a helpful link on the top of every page to the English version. For all but the simplest pages you need to navigate in the Dutch version, because critical intermediate pages don't exist in English. Then you get to the page you want in Dutch and click "English version". Sometimes there is an English version and the buttons links you to it, sometimes there is an English version and the button takes you back to the homepage instead of showing it to you, and sometimes there is no English version and you get taken back to the homepage. Oh, and do you think you can use the handy Google Language Tools for 1-click translation, sorry but the University has somehow disabled this option.


* Actually, Google Maps is now fixed, a vast improvement from when Maps would override your language preference to show you directions in the local language, making one of the best tools for travellers rather irritating. Now if only they could fix the ever-shrinking text - I zoom in and in to try and read the microscopic writing, only to find them taunting me by shrinking it further and further - but that, dear reader, is a peeve for another day.


Grand ain't grand

It is interesting to see how subtle changes in meaning of a word can result in odd translations. To me, the word "grand" in English usually implies a sense of relative importance or dignity, rather than a measurement of size: grandparent is not a synonym for large parent and grandpiano is not a synonym for large piano.

I am probably wrong, but the Dutch word "grote" seems to be used much more frequently to do with size (although they do use grootvader for grandfather and grootmoeder for grandmother), certainly Van Dale gives size as the dominant meaning. In English you would never call the population at large the "Grand Public", while the Dutch use "Grote Publiek".

So the translation of "Grand Opening" into "Grote Opening" sounds rather funny to me. In my mind, a literal translation of the meaning of "Grand Opening" would be more like "Prachtig Opening" ("Splendid Opening") than "Grote Opening" ("Large Opening"). When I saw this sign, my first thought was that it was a bad translation from the French, who use the word "Grand" in a manner closer to how the Dutch use "Grote" than how we use "Grand". Of course I was wrong, "Grote Opening" gets many hits on Dutch websites (although far less than "Feestelijke Opening", or "Festive Opening").

I guess all three languages share the same double meaning for Grand/Groot/Grand, and the size meaning has just fallen out of use somewhat in modern English.


Hummingbird smugglers?

In Australia we often call speedos "budgie smugglers", based on the *ahem* general similarity in size and shape of the enclosed package with that of a budgie (or parakeet, for Americans not familiar with Australian slang).

So what do you make of the smuggler who tried to smuggle humingbirds, the miniture relative of the humble budge, in his underwear?



The Vlaamse Rand

Last week we went to a debate about the use of Dutch, French and English in greater Brussels. This is, not to put a fine point on it, a big issue in Belgium, with multiple governments being toppled over the language spoken in an area spanning 0.5% of the country.

Belgium has, quite frankly, some of the most obnoxious language laws you can imagine. Picture the type of legislation that the Tea Party would like to pass against Spanish speakers in Arizona and you are probably getting close to it. For example, Flanders is monolingual, so all interactions with the government must occur in Dutch. With the exception of a few regions with "facilities", if you talk to a government official, they must communicate to you in Dutch. Even if they speak perfectly good French or English, and you don't speak Dutch, it is against the law for them to talk to you in your native language. Private companies have a bit more leeway, but even in a private company based in Flanders all job interviews must be performed in Dutch, regardless of whether the position requires knowledge of Dutch. Even conversations between employees in private companies must be performed in Dutch if there is a power imbalance (ie, a boss has to talk to his employees in Dutch, but two equally ranked employees can talk to each other in whatever language they want). Brussels is even more absurd - it is often said that Brussels is officially bilingual, but a more accurate description would be to say that Brussels is officially dual monolingual. There are Dutch schools and French schools in Belgium, but they are legally prohibited from bilingual teaching. Even private companies are allowed to give out Dutch payslips or French payslips, but bilingual payslips are illegal. The only service that has to be performed in a bilingual manner is emergency hospital services, so perhaps Belgium is one small step above the Tea Party.

Fortunately, while the Belgian language laws are obnoxious, Belgians in general are not. When I interact with either French or Dutch speaking government officials, most are happy to talk to me in English if they are able to. My job interview was conducted entirely in English. No one has yet demanded that I talk to my (non-Dutch speaking) employees in Dutch. Everyone is actually quite reasonable and ignores the more absurd laws - I would dare say that many Belgians may not even know some of them exist. Of course, there are some obnoxious pests even in Belgium, and I bet that the wrong person in the wrong position could cause an enormous amount of fuss if they had an encyclopedic knowledge of Belgian law.

Anyway, the debate was essentially on language changes in and around Brussels. The second speaker, Philippe Van Parijs, made some really interesting points:

1. There is no need to fear a "Brussels oil spill" of French taking over Flanders. Dutch language competence in Flanders is over 99% for 18-24 year olds. The second greatest native language among this age group is Turkish (~2%) while the second greatest spoken language is English (~90%).

2. Brussels is changing, but through demographic shifts not language shifts. Whereas ~25% of the 65+ age bracket is native Dutch-speaking, less than 5% of the 18-24 age bracket is. Immigration is probably the single biggest factor, with Arabic and Turkish being the second and third largest native languages spoken in Brussels youths. In total, 1/3 of Brussels is non-Belgian, and are either English speakers or immigrants who elect to learn French rather than Dutch. Despite this decline in Dutch native speakers, Dutch as a second language is great than it ever has been before, both in absolute numbers and in the proportion of the population.

3. Language learning is not simply a matter of effort. People must have the motivation and opportunity, and this is not as simple as just providing free classes. One of the most interesting points he brought up was the "max-min" language choice, which is that a group of people will always talk in the language which is spoken the best by the person who speaks it the least. So when I hang out with my Dutch-speaking friends they all turn to English, because they speak better English than I speak Dutch. Likewise we know French-Dutch couples that talk to each other in English because each know it better than the do the other's native tongue.

Best of all, he had a practical and ethical solution to the "BHV" crisis:

1. Brussels should enlarge to include mixed language areas. Brussels is an economic powerhouse of Belgium, accounting for 20% of the economy (and only 10% of the population), and the reality is that Brussels is larger than the official border. 56% of jobs in Brussels are actually taken by commuters who live outside the official border, but who are economically and culturally within Brussels. To be politically palitable, equal areas of land from Flanders and Walloon should be added to Brussels, including both BHV and Walloon commuter towns such as Waterloo.

2. Brussels should become trilingual, rather than dual monolingual. Add English as an official language. Phase out Dutch schools and French schools and have bilingual schools, so that all children will be taught in both languages. Allow higher education in English as well as Dutch and French. Don't use "facilities" which encourage monolingualism to persist for generations, just embrace both cultures.

These are the most sensible proposals that I have yet heard on the language situation in Belgian. He doesn't stubbornly demand that land has a native language that is immutable ("otherwise we would all have to speak Welsh"), but also makes an effort to bridge the divide with Flemish nationalists - proposing that Walloon give up land equal to that of Flanders and that Dutch education be provided to all children within Brussels. I'd vote for Van Parijs for PM!



When we first came to Belgium we were surprised to find out that the Dutch and French words for pineapple are the same - ananas. We were ruminating about this with an Australian friend who commented that the Malay word is also the same. In fact, the same word, ananas, appears to be almost universally used, cropping up in everything from Russian, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Hindi, and all originates from the word for "tuffed excellent fruit" used by certain Amazonian tribes in Brazil. It was only the English who instead decided to call them after the completely inedible pine-cone.



We have been in Valletta enjoying our first exposure to Malta. One of the messages that Malta has really driven home to me is that there is a continuum between Mediterranean and Maghreb culture, whether you move down from Spain into Morocco or from Italy down to Tunisia. When we first heard Maltese we thought it was Arabic with an Italian accent. Maltese. Maltese is a Semitic language, descended from Arabic, but heavily modified by exposure to Italian and English. In writing, Maltese certainly looks unlike any other European language, the only Semitic language transliterated into Latin characters:

Ilna fil-Belt Valletta għal jumejn issa, li jgawdu l-ewwel espożizzjoni tagħna lejn Malta. Wieħed mill-messaġġi liMalta tkun verament misjuqa dar lili hija li hemm tkomplija bejn Mediterran u l-kultura tal-Maghreb, kemm jekk intitimxi 'l isfel minn Spanja fis-Marokk jew mill-Italja isfel lejn it-Tuneżija. Meta aħna ewwel smigħ Malti ħsibna li kienGħarbi b'enfasi Taljan. Malti. Malti hija lingwa Semitika, imnissel mill-Għarbi, iżda modifikati ħafna minn espożizzjoni għall-Taljan u Ingliż.

The architecture, too, has more than a hint of North Africa, with dense sand-coloured stone buildings, slowly decaying. The people also look quite Arabic, and have a strong outdoors culture. If you replaced the Basicilias with Minarets, there is no obvious sign to pointing out of Africa.


Flemish pronunciation worthy of commendation

On the train home from Leuven tonight I had a train conductor that prounced her Nederlands with such a crystal clear prounciation that it was possible for me to understand. The words were discrete and crisp, not slurring into one-another, and for one of the first times I understood every word rather than catching the important words as they rained down in a cascade.

So I got up and walked along the train to try and thank her for enounciating clearly. I couldn't find her, but I found an elderly gentleman conductor lounging in first class and asked him if he spoke English. When he said yes ("a little", the usual European disclaimer), I said that I really appreciated the excellent Nederlands pronunciation of the conductor. He said "yes, I rather though she did a good job herself. She is French-Belgian, and new to the job, but she only made one mistake. Where did you hop on? Did you hear it when she accidently said 'Bruges' instead of 'Brugge'? But those type of mistakes happen." He promised to pass on my praise, but it was a little disheartening to learn that it was a native French speaker who was the easiest for me to understand in Flemish.

We had a small conversation how as a beginner I found her careful and deliberate use of Flemish easier than the natural Flemish of native speakers, he asked me where I came from and when I said "Australia" he said (rising up as the train came to Centraal), "and of course to an Australian the most famous Flemish person is...?". We both said together, as he hopped off the train, "Kim Cljisters".


The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Yesterday we visited the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, to see their "Destination Mars" exhibit. Actually, it was a bit of a flop, with some inane interactive computer quizzes and some pictures of "Martians" (without even a notice to tell children that they are fictional). The "highlight" was some replicas of various Mars exploration robots that looked like high school science fair prize winners, made from aluminium foil and toilet rolls.

Fortunately, the Museum of Natural Sciences has some actual highlights, including the stunning hall of Iguanodons. The Iguanodon was the second dinosaur to be discovered (after the Megalosaurus), and the Brussels museum contains the best exhibit of Iguanodons in the world (indeed, one of the best dinosaur finds in the world). The fossils were found in 1878 in a coal mine in Bernissart, and include 38 nearly complete adult Iguanodon individuals, dating back 125 million years (Early Cretaceous). Initially, the dinosaurs were reconstructed in a bipedal posture, as if they were giant kangaroos, but later they were found to be more likely to live in a quadrupedal posture. The main hallway still has the bipedal design, since the fossils are extremely fragile after mistreatment (when pyrite started to oxidise into iron sulphate, the museum oddly thought the fossils had an infection, and treated it with alcohol and arsenic).

One of the interesting things about a museum in Brussels is that all the signs are in four languages (French, Dutch, English and German). Very helpful, and I appreciate it immensely, but I still find it amusing when all of these fossils are labelled "original / originaal / original / original". If they had just written "original / originaal", how would the French, German and English speakers have known who was being insulted by being left out?


Wikipedia use in Belgium

This interesting graph comes via Ziko's blog:

The stats from Belgium are quite interesting, with around a third of Wikipedia usage going to each of the Dutch, French and English versions of Wikipedia.