Language phenomena as bedtime stories

Date of news: 30 September 2021

A lot of exciting things happen in the Dutch language and the research on it. In the new book What happens in the Dutch language!? sixty linguists discuss the most diverse linguistic phenomena in Dutch and the role of frequency in it in short, accessible chapters. ‘You can read a chapter before going to sleep, so to speak, and then you quickly have a good idea of ​​what is happening in many different areas.’


Reading the table of contents of Wat gebeurt er in het Nederlands?! (What's happening in the Dutch language?!) is a party in itself. Those who are even slightly curious about the Dutch language can indulge themselves in titles such as ‘Venlo, je regent en je bussen rijden niet’ ('Venlo, you rain and your buses are not running'), ‘De /n/ van Aboutaleb’ ('The /n/ of Aboutaleb'), ‘Thierry doet een Trumpje’ ('Thierry does a Trumpie ) and ‘‘Luste gij un quukske jong?’ en andere Brabantse memes’ (‘'Do you like a cookie boy?’ and other memes from Brabant'). For her farewell book from Radboud University, professor of historical linguistics of Dutch Nicoline van der Sijs brought together sixty linguists who discuss the most diverse linguistic phenomena in Dutch. Van der Sijs: 'Language is a thousand-headed phenomenon, with some heads being even more interesting than others.'


In the book, researchers from all over the Netherlands, Flanders and Suriname write about their research into language change, grammar, pronunciation, words and names, language regulations and language advice, idioms and language acquisition and variation in and around the Netherlands. The overarching theme is frequency. ‘How often does a word or a language phenomenon occur? And what does that mean for our idea of ​​language and theories about language? We want to show how frequency and language interact in all kinds of areas’, explains Van der Sijs. ‘Frequency is fundamental in language change and language variation. On the one hand, certain developments do take place with infrequent words, but not with the most frequent words. On the other hand, there are developments that occur more when a word or sound occurs more often.'

Walk and hunt

As an example, Van der Sijs mentions the case of strong and weak verbs in Dutch. The vowels of strong verbs change in the past tense, such as lopen-liepen (walk-walked) and lezen-lazen (read-read). Weak verbs don't do that, such as fietsen-fietsten (cycle-cycled). ‘We used to think that the strong verbs would disappear, because most verbs in Dutch are weak. But children acquire strong verbs very early on, and some are very frequent, such as kijken-keken (look-looked). They don't disappear at all. On the other hand, there are also strong verbs that are used less often. And you see that weak form develops next to it, for example with the verb jagen (to hunt). The past tense is originally joeg ('hunted'), but you also hear jaagden ('hunted') now. Because that verb isn't very frequent in Dutch – there isn't that much hunting here – the weak form will probably win. Frequency is therefore not a black and white picture. Our aim was to make this scientific knowledge about the role of frequency in a large number of language phenomena accessible to a wide audience. We hope to show how fun and interesting it is that there are laws or patterns behind things that just seem to happen by chance. We don't know everything yet, but we are making progress. And frequency helps us to gain insight.’

Statistical research on language is still relatively new. In its most basic form, frequency simply means counting how often something occurs. But where previously counting had to be done by hand, there are now computers that can search through huge text files, from 12th-century texts to the present day, from newspapers and literature to Twitter and apps. 'At the same time, more and better computer programs are being developed to count language phenomena in those texts in a sensible way’, says Van der Sijs. ‘Partly because of this, linguistics has gained more and more insight in recent decades into how incredibly important frequency is.’

Methods and data collection

The chapters in the book are relatively short: about 1500 words. Van der Sijs: 'That way we get to the essence very quickly. You can read one before going to sleep, so to speak, and you will quickly have a good idea of ​​​​what is happening in many different areas'. Each chapter contains a section in which further explanation is given on the method or data and the data collection used in the research. ‘In science, the focus is often on results achieved’, explains Van der Sijs. ‘In recent years, the call has been getting louder to also pay attention to the how of science, to give people more insight into what goes on behind the scenes. With the sections about methods or data collection, we want to show how we conduct research and how we arrive at our conclusions. Science is not an opinion.' Each chapter also ends with a short paragraph 'Read more?' in which relevant background literature is listed. This way, people who want to know more can easily find their way to scientific publications.

With the book, Van der Sijs, who became professor emeritus on the first of August of this year, concludes her period at Radboud University. But she's not thinking about stopping yet. ‘I feel like I am far from being finished,’ says Van der Sijs with a laugh. ‘I'm still looking forward to doing research and I still have plenty of ideas."

On October 8, the book Wat gebeurt er in het Nederlands?!(editors Nicoline van der Sijs, Lauren Fonteyn and Marten van der Meulen) will be presented to the secretary of the Dutch Language Union, Kris van de Poel. The book will also be available in stores from that date.