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The Hague: a city full of linguistic idiosyncrasies

The Hague is the archetypal multicultural city. With a different language spoken on every street corner, this makes it a paradise for linguists such as Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Her book Languages of The Hague is a collection of fascinating conversations with the city’s non-native speakers.

Why did you want to write this book?

‘I moved to The Hague in 2014, having lived in Leiden for 41 years, and it immediately struck me just how multicultural it is. There are Antillean hairdressers, Indonesian restaurants, African fabric shops, Moroccan butchers and so on. I found it fascinating. How many languages are spoken in the city? That’s what I wanted to find out.’

How did you go about doing this?

‘I spoke to lots of different people whom I met while going about my daily life: my Russian hairdresser, my optician with Moroccan roots, my chiropodist from Curaçao, a Kurdish seller at The Hague Market... I spoke to them all for a series of columns for the Den Haag Centraal newspaper. A collection of these has now been published as a book.

Which question did you ask these people?

‘I asked them for the most unique features of their native language. This resulted in a whole series of linguistic idiosyncrasies. A Polish woman explained about how you pronounce the second letter of złoty, the Polish currency, as a W. According to a Russsian saying, a man with a lot of female colleagues is sitting ‘in a raspberry bush.’ And I learnt from my Croatian daughter-in-law that her native language has different words for the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom, and that only the word for the mother of the groom – me therefore! – has negative connotations.

What do you hope to achieve with these interviews?

‘I hope that the people of The Hague will appreciate how unique it is to live in a city with so many languages. And that perhaps they will become more understanding of the position of these immigrants. All newcomers are proud of their native language, but at the same time, they struggle with the question of how to pass this language on to their children. Their children often learn and speak almost exclusively Dutch, and hardly need their parents’ native language at all in daily life. How do you teach your children your language despite this? That was a worry that cropped up frequently.’

Which encounter had the greatest impression on you?

‘As a child, I lived for a while on Biak, an island in what was then Netherlands New Guinea. My father was stationed there with the family because he was a marine pilot. New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse region in the world, and thus of great importance to linguists. I wondered whether there were people living in The Hague who spoke a Papuan language. And would you believe it, through a friend of a friend I found someone who speaks none other than Biaks. So this book has also turned a bit into the story of my own life.

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photo: Photocapy via Flickr.com
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