Brabantish dialects are becoming less distinct and getting stronger

Case

Brabantish dialects are becoming less distinct and getting stronger

Nowadays, in Brabantish dialects, people sometimes refer to a cow as masculine: “unnen koe” instead of the feminine “un koe”. This is not a sign of language degradation, but instead pride in your roots. Linguist Kristel Doreleijers discovered that during her PhD research at Tilburg University and the Meertens Institute.

Kristel DoreleijersKristel Doreleijers

Brabantish dialects are richer than Standard Dutch with respect to denoting the gender of words. In Dutch, the article “de” is used for masculine and feminine words and the article “het” for neuter words. In Brabantish dialects, there is a special suffix “-e(n)” for masculine gender marking. For example, you can attach this to articles or adjectives. Therefore the articles “de(n)” and “unne(n)” denote masculine words. The so-called linking-n at the end of the suffix precedes particular sounds: vowels or the letters h, b, d or t. An example is “den hond” (the dog) and “unnen hond” (a dog). In Standard Dutch, the difference in denoting masculine and feminine words has been lost.

Something very different is happening

Linguist Kristel Doreleijers used written questionnaires and recordings of the spoken language to discover how gender markings are developing in Brabantish dialects. Are they developing in the same way as in Standard Dutch, i.e. is the difference in denoting masculine and feminine words disappearing?

Tile from Omroep Brabant with text: 'Ik zit vandaog als unne koning in munne woning!'

Something very different is happening, she says in a podcast on brabantserfgoed.nl. ‘In Standard Dutch, the word cow is feminine, and so in Brabantish dialects, you would expect to hear “un koe” (“a cow”) with the feminine gender marking. In my initial data, however, I saw that sometimes the masculine gender marking “unnen koe” or even “unnene koe” occurred even if people definitely know that the gender of the word cow is feminine. Also a neuter word such as “koekje” (biscuit) is sometimes “unne kuukske” (masculine gender marking) in Brabantish instead of “un kuukske” (neuter gender marking) as the rules of grammar prescribe. We call such usages hyperdialectism.’

Tiles and vlogs

Doreleijers, who comes from the North-Brabant city of Eindhoven, studied questionnaires in which people of different ages had to translate sentences from Dutch to their Brabantish dialect. She also made recordings of the language use of young people. Social media is also an important source in her research: on Instagram, there are virtual tiles with texts in Brabantish dialects and vlogs in the Brabantish dialects. She concluded that the masculine gender marking of words, which is different from Standard Dutch, for example in “unne(n)”, was used more often in the vlogs and on the tiles. In other words, it was also used where there was no precedent for that.

It is often thought that dialects will have disappeared one hundred years from now, and that then only general regional characteristics will remain. However, my initial data reveals that things are not that clear-cut
- Kristel Doreleijers

That was a striking find because the trend is that dialects are becoming more similar to Standard Dutch. ‘It is often thought that dialects will have disappeared one hundred years from now, and that then only general regional characteristics will remain. An example in Dutch is the deletion of the “t” in “wat” (what) resulting in “wà” and “niet” (not) resulting in “nie”. However, my initial data reveals that things are not that clear-cut.’

Show them you come from Brabant

In all honesty, there is no such thing as a single Brabantish dialect, says Doreleijers. ‘Brabantish is a collection of various local dialects. Through contact with the standard language and other dialects, local dialect characteristics give way to more regional language characteristics. This levelling has arisen because, for centuries, closed communities have become increasingly open and local dialects have more easily come into contact with other languages. Conversely, we see that people are using some typical dialect characteristics, such as gender marking, emphatically more often. This accentuates a deviation from Standard Dutch, and that is apparently what people want.’ Doreleijers thinks that in some contexts, for example in identity marking genres such as social media, people want to show that they come from Brabant and so they use the distinguishing gender marking more often.

Wannabe Brabantish or credible?

Previous linguistic research has revealed that this hyperdialectism can have two causes, says Doreleijers. ‘On the one hand, it can be a symptom of resistance towards dialect loss. By deliberately overgeneralising the typical Brabantish gender marking, speakers can show that they are aware of their regional identity or even proud of it. On the other hand, speakers who have not grown up with dialect, the younger generations for example, can also use hyperdialectism because they are less familiar with the specific dialect rules. As they do not really know how to apply the rules, they simply say something but want to make sure it sounds Brabantish.’

Did you know? Grammatical gender is a topical issue. The current generation of Dutch speakers mixes up various types of gender with striking frequency: for example, instead of the Standard Dutch “het meisje dat” (the girl that in neuter gender marking) they use the form “de meisje die” (the girl that in common gender marking). According to Doreleijers, that is not language decay but a natural process of change. As a result of globalisation and migration, languages and dialects are changing, and that is what keeps them alive.

Doreleijers continues: ‘If we ask speakers what they think about the use of hyperdialectism, then native Brabantish speakers sometimes refer to it as “wannabe Brabantish”. However, the majority of the mainly younger speakers seems to feel that hyperdialectism is credible. That is an interesting finding for subsequent research because the Brabantish dialect of the younger generation is the Brabantish dialect of the future!’

Standard Dutch has more prestige, but.

The use of dialect is in a certain sense domain bound, says Doreleijers. ‘You mainly observe dialect use in spoken language and informal settings. The standard language has more prestige, and people think they must speak it to be taken seriously. On the other hand, a new genre is developing on social media because there you particularly want to reveal something about yourself. And dialect use is especially attractive during the construction of a social identity. With your use of language, you show where you come from and that you feel connected with the region. If you are aiming for an international public, then you would choose English, for example; if you are oriented towards your own region, then you opt for dialect.’

Dialect is not disappearing

Doreleijers is not worried that dialect will disappear and she wants to reassure people who fear that. ‘People love their dialect and want to keep it. Traditional dialect speakers regard changes as language mistakes, but change can also be positive. So changes should be seen as the further development of a language. We have become more mobile and digital, and that does something with language. On the one hand, globalisation is making dialects less distinct, but on the other hand, people are drawing from the entire regional repertoire to help shape their own identity. Changes should be embraced instead of resisted. It’s really interesting to see what is emerging and what the language of the future will look like.’

Text: Rianne Lindhout
Photo banner: Erfgoed Brabant

More information

Linguist Kristel Doreleijers is doing her PhD research on changes and variation in gender markings in Brabantish dialects (2019-2023) at Tilburg University and the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam. Her research is funded by the NWO programme PhDs in the Humanities. In a podcast on brabantserfgoed.nl, Robin Hoeks interviews her about her research. Last autumn, she wrote this article about gender marking in Brabantish dialects for the same website.