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Ingrid Tieken spellbound by languages of The Hague

Linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade retired in July, but is pressing on regardless with her languages in The Hague project. An online tour of her Hague Proverbs launched recently and Tieken also has academic publications in the pipeline.

Ingrid Tieken, Emeritus Professor of Sociohistoric Linguistics of English, is interested in anything language related. In 2014, she returned to The Hague, the city where she was born and lived from the age of 16 to 19. She moved to the edge of the Schilderswijk neighbourhood and couldn’t believe her eyes: 90% of the residents are first- or second-generation immigrants. For the whole city this is 53%.

Languages of The Hague Ingrid Tieken
Tieken collects images of multilingualism in The Hague. Here a children’s puzzle with Arabic letters, found at The Hague market.

How many languages?

Tiekens began to wonder how many languages were spoken in The Hague. This marked the start of her Languages of The Hague project. She was unable to find an answer until she came across a publication by Tilburg Professor of Minorities and their Languages, Guus Extra, who, in a survey at the end of the 1990s, had asked schoolchildren in The Hague which language they spoke at home. His verdict: 89 languages were spoken in The Hague. This is as precise as it gets because no one keeps track of numbers. Tieken started taking photos of posters, adverts, signs and other expressions of multilingualism in The Hague.


Tieken asked the Den Haag Centraal weekly paper if they would be interested in a column on multilingualism in the city. They were, so she began with an interview with her Russian hairdresser and produced 35 pieces in all, 31 of which were interviews with people who speak languages other than Dutch. Then the Municipality of The Hague ran a competition calling for ideas for redeveloping the access route to the city centre, Loper Oude Centrum. Tieken suggested adorning the kerbs with proverbs in languages that are spoken in The Hague. She won, and the kerbs on both sides of the street leading from Hollands Spoor train station to Chinatown now have 33 proverbs carved into them – with a translation in Dutch. Tieken found four linguistics students from Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL) who were willing to help.

Eighty-nine languages, thirty-three proverbs: how did you go about choosing?

‘We thought all the continents should be represented but then not in a perfectly even distribution. Many languages were a no-brainer, for instance those of our neighbouring countries and Indonesian, Surinamese, Moroccan (Berber) and Turkish. When it came to the proverbs themselves, we came up with the theme of ‘journey or standstill’, which could refer to migration or to walking the route. The proverbs also had to rhyme and contain a contrast. Then it was time to start networking.

با رفیقان موافق سفر دور خوش است  (Farsi) In good company, a long journey is pleasant.

I began by asking people I already knew from the interviews. For Icelandic, for instance, because I really wanted to have an Icelandic proverb. The entire population of Iceland is only half the population of The Hague, but there’s an Icelander living in The Hague nonetheless. The students also had plenty of contacts that we could call on in the hunt for appealing proverbs.

‘We ended up with 34 proverbs. A department at the Municipality of The Hague gave a civil servant from Friesland a Frisian proverb as a leaving gift when Frisian wasn’t even on our list because it isn’t mentioned in Guus Extra’s research. That was a nice surprise. What you won’t find is Chinese because there are already three Chinese proverbs on pavements in Chinatown and our route leads directly there.’

Ingrid Tieken by the kerb with the Icelandic proverb carved into it.
Ingrid Tieken by the kerb with the Icelandic proverb carved into it.

And there is a website that serves as a tour guide…

‘Yes. A chance meeting with Minke Holleman, the project leader of the University’s 444th anniversary celebrations in 2019, culminated in the tour guide* becoming a 444 project. The site was designed and developed by Marcel Villerius and Daniël Scheen from SCM, the University’s central communication and marketing department, together with Elise Alberts as student assistant. You can therefore follow the route online too, on your mobile phone. All the proverbs are also read aloud by native speakers, so you can hear what they sound like.’

* The tour guide is meant for mobile phones. To view the website on a desktop, you first have to give it permission to use your own location as the starting point. It doesn’t always work in Citrix.

You use lots of different communication channels: columns, a website, Facebook, books, Instagram…

‘It’s true; I do. The 31 interviews with non-Dutch speakers in The Hague for my Den Haag Centraal column have now been collected in a book, Haagse Talen, which I have also translated into English (Languages of The Hague). The Facebook page, with over 200 followers, has been of enormous use for collecting information. And Instagram is best suited to images and reaching young people.’

What is the academic output of the project?

‘I’m working on that as we speak. I’ve written an article about Chinatown together with two students. It will be published anytime now in JMMD, the Journal for Multilingual and Multicultural Development. I’m also working on an academic book with the title Multilingual The Hague, as an analogy to a similar book about multilingualism in Antwerp, and I’m writing an article together with my British colleague Amanda Cole about Haagse Harry and the British phenomenon of chavs. Amanda will receive her PhD soon. She herself is a chav – and a proper academic too.

Gdje čeljad nije bijesna, kuća nije tijesna (Croatian) A house where friendly people live is never full.

‘I also supervised the thesis of Anne-Mieke Thieme, a student on the Research Master’s in Linguistics. She studied the language policy of the Municipality of The Hague, which is still rather monolingualism-centric. It was an outstanding thesis, earning an impressive 9.5.’

You have strong ideas about language use, and think, for instance, that municipalities such as The Hague should use other languages too.

‘I think you should address people more in their own language. Just recently there was an article in the NRC newspaper about the huge problems with waste disposal in certain neighbourhoods in The Hague. You’ll always have refuseniks, but there’s also a group that doesn’t even know that there are specific disposal channels because they don’t speak Dutch. Then it’s better to speak to them in their own language.

Vits er þörf þeim er víða ratar (Icelandic) He who travels far needs to have his wits about him.

‘I discussed this with the Municipality once. Whether they will heed my advice is another matter. It’s just more effective.

‘And although English is my field in linguistics, I think it is a shame that Dutch is being so readily sacrificed, also in the academic world. Dutch is our culture bearer. According to sociolinguistics a language has four important functions: in education, literature, politics and academia. If all the teaching at the University is in English, which is a bit of a trend at the moment, that will lead to the further loss of the functions of Dutch. And that’s not a good development at all.’

Languages of The Hague / Proverbs of The Hague



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Text: Corine Hendriks
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