During carnival, it is tradition to ridicule the elite and their politics, on a local and global scale, with homemade artefacts and outfits. To exemplify globalization in local carnival, last year some participants dressed up as stereotypical Mexicans, whereas another participant, who was literally dressed as a red brick wall, stretched out her arms to hug the surprised public.
Living in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Den Bosch, or Oeteldonk, carnival semiotics seem to be everywhere. I went out to explore their meaning and found both inclusion and exclusion. This is interesting, because this festival is supposed to be about equality. The question that came to mind is: how is carnival to be read by analyzing the semiotics in the Oeteldonk parade? Is carnival playful and innocent or full of meaning and intertwined with actuality?
Carnival almost magically takes place between New Year and Easter each year. Its date is before the Lent (catholic fasting) and Easter, six weeks after the first full moon in the New Year, which means the festival is held on a different date every year. Paintings show that carnival has been a popular feast since the Middle Ages, when people celebrated spring had sprung and the fertility of land, animals, and man returned. The name Oeteldonk stems from Den Bosch' geological condition and history (donk = sandy hill; oetel is agreed to allude to frog): a sandy place found in a swampy area outside the town. In Oeteldonk, it all officially begins on a Sunday with a holy mass in St. Jan’s Cathedral, which is attended by many individuals, groups of friends, and music bands, in colorful outfits. After the blessings, people go out for breakfast or try and find a place in the streets where the parade of Prince Amadeiro, d’n Peer, and other officials of the Oeteldonk play pass by, some in traditional 19th century horse and carriage.
Members of the Oeteldonk diaspora return to their 'durp' every year for this festival
The parade consists of mostly male officials, local individuals and smaller groups, who parody and ridicule events on a local, global, or national scale, which is then translated into carnival fun. Carnival is an upside down festival with many old habits, starting with attire. Farmers (or people from outside Den Bosch) dress as citizens in black coats, whereas the citizens wear smocks, red neckerchiefs, all with long red, white and yellow scarves. The mayor of the town hands the keys of the city to the representative of the farmers. Other habits include transportation (horse and carriage, or for some a wooden hobby horse) to even medieval practices in food (pea soup with pumpernickel and bacon) and drinks (beer and brandy), dress (smock and black coat) and symbols (colors, emblems) to the language used. The vernacular language of Den Bosch is spoken, best understood if it's not written, but spoken out loud. Furthermore, this fancy and sophisticated town is referred to as durp or village since the official beginning of the play Oeteldonk in 1882.
For the imagined community of Oeteldonk, carnival is a relevant and popular festival, linked to church, medieval guilds, and geography, embedded in society with a steady local support through all strata. The aim is to celebrate equality and include all groups of people. Yet the Oeteldonkse Club, the organizing committee, has enforced rather strict rules on behavior and appearance recently, when attire requirements and rules concerning behaviour, called the 11 Geboden or Commandments were published. Is that an inclusive or exclusive measure? Members of the Oeteldonk diaspora return to their durp every year for this festival, drinking beer and brandy in their peasants’ smock covered with emblems of past years, while music bands entertain the public, including Hard en Gemeen or Loud and Mean, the all-women band in which I play.
Carnival as an upside down festival of equality is typically promoting deviant and rebellious behavior. It involves both outsiders- people dressed as clowns and the like - and insiders- the ones properly dressed in smocks or black coats and all the right colors. They are the public or clubkes, music bands or groups of friends who perform an act in the parade which is based on a present or past event. A lot of time and effort is put into this. Those who celebrate carnival seem to have an unorthodox way of living: they show fun, enthusiasm and creativity in their daily life. Rebels can be found in mini plays by people dressed in a specific way holding signs to explain. A sign is not addressing everyone in the same way, it is best understood by those who recognize the deeper meaning, who speak the same language so to say. So, the ones who made the sign for the parade in Oeteldonk were inspired by events in their regular daily lives, recognizing the meaning of that event for their sign, addressing other insiders who are amongst the public watching the parade. Sometimes, the more difficult to recognize the meaning of the sign, the better, for it takes some time to read aloud what is written.
Looking at the Oeteldonk signs, it seems that globalization is as much a part of a local society as Oeteldonk, or a local language. Society responds to things that happen and one could say globalization has become so self-evident that it's included in most people's take on the world. To contrast this, the written signs contain in Oeteldonk contain the vernacular language of Den Bosch and/or Brabandish, pointing to the time of the event, regardless of the place where that event took or takes place. This emphasizes both the local nature of the event and the fact that that is actually irrelevant in light of our global way of living nowadays.
I found the meaning of the most catchy symbol, namely the combination of the colors red, white and yellow, present in flags, emblems, banners, and attire, meant to represent catholicism, as the Church appropriated medieval carnival. While red and white refer to the checkered flag of the province of Noord-Brabant, yellow and white allude to the Pope. Moreover, red represents fire, love and blood and yellow (or gold) represents richness and purity; white (or silver) then stands for wisdom. The first time these colors are found in a carnival setting, is in Pieter Brueghel’s the Elder's 16th century painting: ‘The battle between carnival and Lent’. This is proof that carnival in Den Bosch is celebrated for over 550 years.
Symbols in the parade
In the 2017 carnival in Oeteldonk, which took place on Sunday, February 26th, there were participants in the various music bands, groups of friends, individually, or as public, watching the arrival of officials. Some people in the parade were wearing a mask of the face and hairdo of Donald Trump. This was an easy costume; it was obvious what it was about, and therefore not funny enough. I was looking for homemade signs, when a group of people dressed up as Mexicans showed up playing a trumpet with a sign attached to it which read: Trumpet. They were wearing colorful ponchos, stick-on drooping moustaches and large hats (picture 1), with fingerless Oeteldonk red, white and yellow gloves, holding an inflatable cactus. Suddenly D’n Oeteldonkse Knuffelmuur (Oeteldonkse Cuddly Wall; picture 2) stretched out her arms to hug people in the public, while another group carried a big sign saying Mexicanen vergimmes welkom (Mexicans very welcome; picture 3) that was a frame in which people could stick their heads to have their photo taken against a backdrop of stereotypical Mexican silhouettes, and the colors red white and yellow.
These groups of people passed by in a rather high pace and I only managed to take these three pictures. Although I searched for them later on to ask about their ideas when making the costumes, I could not find them in the enormous crowds, so I have to describe, analyze and interpret on my own, without their help to explain. Whilst writing this article, one year after the event, the subjects these people commented on are still in the news.
Linguistic landscaping isn't just about describing semiotic signs. Blommaert & Maly (2016) see it as a combination of analyzing and interpretating these signs in three ways: roughly pointing backwards to the ones who produced the sign; forward to the addressees; and sideways at the specific emplacement of the sign among the others.
In the case of the Trumpet sign, the sign consists of one word, which is handwritten with a capital T at the beginning. The sign is attached to a small children’s trumpet, which doesn't make a lot of music and the sign is twice as big as the trumpet. Due to the way it is written with the capital T, it points to the name of the president of the United States: Donald Trump. It then becomes a very cleverly constructed pun in English. The sign has several meanings. When looking backwards, it refers to carnival groups who conceptualize and produce artefacts for a parade in which they make fun of the elite by stating the obvious: a trumpet. Secondly, it refers to Trump’s promise to his voters to build a wall between Mexico and the US to prevent illegal mobility between the two countries. Playing a fake trumpet indicates that Trump may be fooled by these very Mexicans, as they make the fake music (or illegal actions) he responds to (which may be fake news). The sign is directing forward to the public gathered along the streets to watch the parade, to illustrate what stereotypically Mexican people could look like: people seeking attention for their case. The sideways directing arrow adds to the theme of the 2017 carnival ‘Oeteldonk, daor zit meziek in’ or ‘Oeteldonk, there’s music in it’, as if this group were a Mexican mariachi band, in which the trumpet plays an important role, as this instrument also does in carnival.
Knuffelmuur or cuddly wall
What immediately stands out about this costume is that the sign D’n Oeteldonkse Knuffelmuur is handwritten in upper cast and attached to the participant’s outfit of red cloth, which is decorated as if it were made of bricks. It is probably attached to a firm frame inside to maintain its rectangular shape. A smiling face and two arms stick out, ready to hug someone from the public. It is written in Brabandish language, in which D’n translates to The. The backward arrow points to a wall between two countries that hinders migrants in entering a country, in particular Mexicans entering the US. A knuffelmuur or cuddly wall is a wall filled with hot water tubes to make it warm and comfortable to sit or lie against, sometimes used in health care. The forward arrow points to a group of people who mean to show that a wall between countries might as well be a cuddly wall, one that warmly welcomes immigrants. Moreover, a cuddly wall is opposite to a pay wall (as used on the internet) meaning it is not just about the money, it is also about empathy for those who live in less prosperous circumstances. The sideways arrow directs to the general excitement and fun that the fact that one can hug this wall elicits. Interestingly, this costume is connected to the other figures; together they are an ensemble of meanings.
Mexicanen vergimmes welkom or Mexicans very welcome
Mexicanen vergimmes welkom is a sign that indicates that Mexicans are vergimmes ( very) welcome. It is hand painted and the letters aren't all the same size. The sign is mixing Dutch and Brabandish in a style as if it were a local newspaper’s headline. The huge sign is carried around by two people and is meant to be a an interactive carnival attribute, allowing people to stick their heads in the openings and have their picture taken as Mexicans, as there are two silhouettes painted beneath the two holes, of a man and woman. The sign points backwards to medieval times, when people would be publicly punished during fairs and put in a pillory, where their heads and hands were locked, and the public could scold or spit upon them. The arrow is pointing forward to Mexican (illegal) immigrants who are a target for scolding by president Trump. Finally, the sideways arrow is an open invitation to the public to come forward and be part of the Oeteldonk parade by participating in a fun moment. However, this moment also has the serious undertone of vulnerability, as sticking your head in a hole like this can make you very exposed to possible danger indeed.
What stands out about these three signs is that in all three cases language is used correcty, in English and Dutch as well as in Brabandish and the even more local vernacular of Den Bosch.. The languages are applied according to their language norms, or at least how they are perceived during Oeteldonks carnival when they are the most important languages. This is also reflected in the writing and speech of the Oeteldonkse Club, who use the same vocabulary to present themselves of their website, Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Other semiotic signs are the colors red, white and yellow, which are used on emblems, thatg can be found on fingerless gloves.
Fun and innocent or full of meaning and relevant
The tradition of mocking the elite and past or future events is still recognizable today, and makes carnival a meaningful and relevant festival. In the case of Oeteldonk, the local, geographical world becomes more and more connected to the global world. Due to education and mobility they have become interconnected. The way Mexican culture is shown (large hats, colorful ponchos, long dresses and black drooping moustaches) shows mobility and also indicates the legitimacy of the owner(s) of this attire, for these accessories may be obtained in Mexico. The makers of these costumes also indicates a knowledge of stereotyping and cultural appropriation of Mexicans and Mexican culture. By presenting, or framing, Mexican identity this way they show that Mexicans are people as well. There are only some differences between us and them, yet they are being scolded by a powerful outsider, i.e. Trump. This provides another twisted, upside down perspective to the public, which is typical for carnival.
These costumes also point to the idea that globalization is put forward as a threat in an exaggerated way. Following from this, one can say that exclusion doesn't just happen in the US, although due to the large scale in which it happens there it is very visible, it also happens on a smaller scale in Europe, The Netherlands and in Den Bosch too. Exclusion is experienced when carnival insiders scold the outsiders, as seen by true Oeteldonkers who are HGGT (Born Here No Tourist, or Hier Geboren Ginne Toerist) or wear ‘true’ Brabandish red and white checkered emblems. This has been happening ever since the Oeteldonk carnival has been discovered by tourists, who are dressed as clowns, strawberries, cows and what not, and are said to even drink differently. Rules of conduct, the 11 Geboden or Commandments set out by the Oeteldonkse Club may be compared to rules found in public buildings, public transportation, schools, sports centers, work places, and are meant as a measure to make it easier for outsiders to fit in: when you know the rules, it is easier to be part of the action. In Den Bosch society, people who celebrate carnival can participate in all kind of events organized beginning November 11th (the lunatic date). It is a common sight to see old and young people walk in groups to attend a Boerenbal, a dance or Oetelkonzert, the concert where the audience is situated on stage and the professional classical orchestra in the hall. So, if you are still interested in carnival after this, do come to Oeteldonk and discover the festival yourself. You are vergimmes welkom!
Blommaert, J. and Maly, I. (2016). Ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis and social change: A case study. In Arnaut, K., Blommaert, J., Rampton, B. and Spotti, M. Language and Superdiversity. New York: Routledge.