Polyglot Dutch Worry That European Unity Will Doom Language

THE multilingual Dutch are worried that the expansion of the European Union (EU) could sound the death knell for their mother tongue.

No longer content to sit back and watch while English, French, and German conquer the Netherlands, they have gone on the offensive to fight for the rights of their native language.

Part of the problem is the Dutch ability to master foreign languages and their constant exposure to them.

Films and television programs from abroad are usually shown in their original languages. Foreign books and newspapers are widely read in a country where all children start to learn English at the age of 10.

American-born writer Ethel Portnoy, who made the Netherlands her home 25 years ago, has frequently attacked what she calls a ``humble attitude toward everything that is not Dutch.''

``People here think that by doing away with Dutch they will penetrate the marketplaces of the world more quickly ... but I don't see why one should deliberately set out to cut the throat of a language that way,'' Ms. Portnoy says.

Dutch is the mother tongue of 21 million people in the Netherlands and Belgium, making it the sixth most spoken language in the EU, ahead of Portuguese, Greek, and Danish. A linguistic cousin of German and English, it is also spoken in the Dutch Antilles and Suriname - a legacy of the Dutch colonial empire.

Support for the language has come from the highest quarters.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has described Dutch as ``the bearer of our identity, which we want to uphold and protect in a unifying Europe.''

Belgian professor Ludo Beheydt says that maintaining the lesser-used European languages ``is an absolute necessity if the democratic bankruptcy of Europe is to be avoided.

``A democratic Europe ... means a society where every linguistic community has a valuable position,'' he wrote in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad.

The Dutch are aware that their receptivity to foreign languages could backfire on their own native tongue. ``Dutch is as open as a pub and as leaky as a sieve,'' wrote Charles Crombach in ``A language which cannot die,'' his prizewinning essay in a 1989 competition run by a foundation that promotes Dutch.

The suggestion by Dutch Education Minister Jo Ritzen three years ago that at least a quarter of university teaching should be conducted in English caused domestic uproar. Many foreign newspapers reported that English was to become the official language of the Netherlands.

``The Netherlands has decided to sacrifice its national language on the altar of Brussels,'' the Italian daily La Stampa commented.

Parliament finally passed largely superfluous laws enshrining Dutch as the official language of higher education.

Tempers flared again in the Netherlands and among the Dutch-speaking Flemish population of Belgium last December. Shortly after the EU agreed to accord the languages of all member countries equal official status, it was decided that the new Spanish-based European trademarks office would handle requests in only five languages: English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

``If the Union really is multilingual, why should Dutch be shunted to one side?'' asks sociologist Abram de Swaan of Amsterdam University.

Professor Beheydt warns: ``Favoring some Union languages within the official European context would be fatal for Dutch.''

Belgium's Flemings have long pursued a more aggressive cultural policy than their Dutch neighbors.

Last November Brussels threatened to boycott an embryonic European defense force unless Dutch was accepted as an official language, along with French and German.

`I WANT Dutch to be treated with respect. Why don't they drop French?'' said Belgium's Dutch-speaking De-fense Minister Leo Delcroix, defying warnings by senior military officers that an extra language could damage the efficiency of the Eurocorps.

But not everyone is pessimistic about the future of Dutch.

The Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, set up by the European Community in 1982 to help minority tongues survive the onslaught of a unified Europe and an English-dominated mass media, says Dutch does not fall within its definition of a minority language. It concerns itself with the fate of regional tongues like Frisian, the second official language of the Netherlands, which is spoken in the northern province of Friesland.

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