Globalization and its impact on languages can be studied from many angles. This article will focus on the intra-lingual change of Dutch vocabulary that is brought on by inter-cultural contact as a result of globalization. In the Netherlands, the improvement of the social status of many migrant groups over time has increased their impact in the public debate, and some of these groups have raised awareness for the racist histories of certain words that are commonly used in the Dutch language. In this article, we will discuss why words matter for social cohesion within a country.
The Netherlands is, much due to its colonial history and the import of cheap migrant workers, characterized by superdiversity - a concept coined by Vertovec (2007). In this term, “super” suggests new layers of diversity that are stacked on top of the first layer of ethnic diversity within a country. Stable migration flows have come to collapse since the 1990s and the migrant population in the Netherlands has become far more complex and layered. In combination with modern globalization infrastructure like the internet and digital communication technologies, all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life have been influenced by superdiversity. Nowadays, all the different ethnic groups with their different statuses in society play a key role in defining the social structure of the Netherlands. One of the effects of superdiversity on Dutch culture can be found in the changes that have occurred in its language.
The “negerzoen” - A guilty pastry
The first example is that of the “negerzoen”, a chocolate-coated marshmallow treat. The name of the pastry is a compound word in which “neger” refers to the derogatory term “nigger” or “negro”, and “zoen” directly translates to “kiss”. In 2005, the social acceptance of using the word “neger” was already decreasing, when the commitment of a particular group of inhabitants with a migrant background succeeded in accelerating this process. The Foundation of Honor and Recovery Payment of Victims of Slavery in Surinam (FHR), an organization that defends the rights for Dutch people with an African-Surinam descent within Dutch society, reached out to the company that produced the pastry, Van der Breggen, arguing that the name of the “negerzoen” has to be changed. They used the following argument:
"The word “neger” , invented and used by the Dutch people on the African human, is regarded as a swear word and considered as insulting in the 14th edition of the Van Dale dictionary of Dutch; many African-Dutch citizens experience the term “negerzoen” as harmful and insulting due to the fact that their ancestors who have been imported from Africa to the Americas to be made a slave and forced into labor are reminded of this highly disgraceful period that lasted for nearly 400 years. This kind of racist and discriminatory treatment is not helpful for the cohesion of the multicultural Dutch society in which racism and discrimination are still lawfully forbidden." (FHR foundation)
The company promptly changed the name to “Buys Zoenen” with a statement mentioning that "we came to the conclusion that we want to be here for everyone. […] The world is changing, and therefore also our product is changing." However, it was later found that the company changed its name primarily due to commercial motives. Changing the pastry’s name would come in handy for producing more thematic variations of the pastry, like the “World Championship Zoen”. The fact that people feel less insulted was regarded as just a very convenient coincidence. No matter what the exact reason may have been, the name of the pastry was changed, and the question arose whether the old term “negerzoen” would prevail in everyday vocabulary or not. Still, the name change has caused controversy among some Dutch people, who were used to the word and think that changing it is an exaggeration.
Three years prior to the “Buys Zoenen” incident, the FHR foundation had sent a letter to the editors of the Van Dale Dutch dictionary. They asked for the removal of the word “neger” from the dictionary as they claimed that the word was deliberately invented to distinguish between races and to deny, ignore and offend African people. They thereby meant that using the word is equal to discriminating against people of African descent. According to the foundation, the editors of the dictionary should not wait for “language actuality” to change but should take on the responsibility and remove the word from the dictionary themselves.
If the word “neger” were erased from the vocabulary, would it be possible to think about the distinction between human races that the word implies?
This issue was handled by the College of Human Rights. In the trial, the dictionary editors claimed that the dictionary does not "invent" language but rather only registers words and meanings in the way they are used by Dutch language speakers. It is how people use language that decides how offensive, appreciative, positive or negative language is experienced as, and the speaker is the only party responsible for this. Therefore, the college judged that describing words in the dictionary cannot be viewed as a discriminatory act. Still, after this verdict, the dictionary added the disclaimer “perceived by some as an insult” to the word's description.
This disclaimer was cited three years later in the letter the FHR foundation sent to the producer of the Buys Zoenen, as seen in the quote above. Here we see an example of a superdiverse group, the FHR, influencing the product of an institutional organization (the national dictionary) and using the information from that same product that they have contributed to themselves (the added disclaimer) as an argument to promote further change (by writing to the Buys Zoenen producer), thus changing language actuality further.
Racist words and cultural aphasia
Why did this name-changing initiative demand so much effort from the people who feel discriminated against? Isn’t it clear that this word is linked to colonial history, and it therefore has strong racist connotations? The public debate around “Zwarte Piet” in the Netherlands sheds some light on this. Since the beginning of the 2010s, the character of Zwarte Piet has become a subject of controversy. In the context of the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet is the companion of Sinterklaas, who according to the tradition, visits the Netherlands every year to celebrate his birthday on the 6th of December by giving presents to all the children in the country.
Does the elimination of a word contribute to defeating discrimination and racism?
Travelling over rooftops, Sinterklaas delivers his gifts through chimneys with the help of Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet has black skin as he is a Moor from Spain, but it is also claimed that his blackness derives from his traveling through the aforementioned chimneys. When white skinned inhabitants of the Netherlands portray the character they paint their face black, wear curly wigs and paint their lips bright red to make them look fuller. The past decade, at the end of nearly every year the Dutch have fiercely discussed whether or not Zwarte Piet portrays a racist history. Protesters from both sides, pro- and contra Zwarte Piet, have been trying to get their point across.
At first glance, it might seem curious that so many indigenous inhabitants of the Netherlands get so sensitive about a celebration meant for children. However, this debate represents a more significant issue in Dutch society. Protesters who are pro-Zwarte Piet disagree with the accusation that the celebration is an act of racism and that by defending the character they would be discriminating against people of colour. They even praise people of colour who do not oppose Zwarte Piet in its current form.
The Dutch blind spot for racism
The fact that many indigenous inhabitants of the Netherlands do not consider the tradition of Zwarte Piet and pastries like the “negerzoen” discriminatory is, according to Helsloot (2012), an example of cultural aphasia. Cultural aphasia is defined as the inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them—in these cases, things related to the colonial past of the Netherlands. In fact, the colonial past of the Netherlands is a part of history which many Dutch indigenous residents embrace. The Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age) is an era many seem to be proud of, and it is part of the national canon that fills up history books and is widely taught across the school curriculum.
Then again, the fact that during that "golden" period the Netherlands was responsible for slave trading too is preferably ignored. This is part of the reason why these vocabulary- and tradition-changing initiatives have raised much controversy among Dutch people who do not see controversial words as discriminaory but instead see the discussion around them as belittling Dutch traditions.
The topics under discusion here might seem a bit outdated. However, these kinds of discussions keep occurring. The most recent example comes from February 2020, and it's that of the “moorkop”, also a chocolate-covered pastry the name of which refers to African Muslims who lived in Spain during the Middle Ages. Later on, the term “Moor” was commonly used for people from North-Africa and dark-skinned people in general. Similarly to the “negerzoen” story, producers and sellers of the pastry are starting to change the name because "it does not fit our time". Similarly to the Zwarte Piet story, people have been complaining a lot.
Another recent example of steps taken to eliminate offensive vocabulary is the publication of the guide Words matter. An incomplete guide for word choices in the cultural sector by the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam. This guide features words commonly used in museums and exhibitions, the connotations of which have historically become increasingly discriminatory. The guide explains the reasons behind the negative connotations, provides alternatives for those words and includes essays on the topic.
One of the authors, Wayne Modest, argues that there are many different points of view from which to weigh this topic. You could say that this formal change of language is just a shallow political act that does not solve the real problem, or that it is just a way of rewriting the bad parts of Dutch history. Another author, Esther Peeren, discusses what the effect of changing these words could be because this is a never-ending struggle. She names Bakhtin, who wrote that words are never neutral descriptors but always entail an ideological stance that is based on their historical use. Does it even make sense to try to “clean up” a vocabulary, if the ideological worldview behind offensive words is not erased through that action? In other words, does the elimination of a word contribute to defeating discrimination and racism?
This idea of "word elimination" resembles the concept of “Newspeak” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. This concept is based on increasingly limiting the vocabulary of the official language by continually re-writing the dictionary to erase the words' accompanying concepts. It is initiated by the nation state with the aim to limit the citizens’ freedom of thought. Because, if there wouldn’t be a word for “freedom”, would it even be possible to think about it? And therefore, would freedom even exist?
The words that are stirring up discussion nowadays might be completely forgotten in twenty years; by then, there will be a whole new range of contested words to argue about.
The aforementioned examples rely on the same principle. If the word “neger” were erased from the vocabulary, would it be possible to think about the distinction between human races that the word implies? And further, if there were no words to distinguish between human races like that, would racism even exist?
The difference between the imagined world of 1984 and the reality of the Netherlands in 2020 is that the dictionary does not make up the guidelines for the way Dutch people should speak. So, to eliminate racist words with their accompanying ideological worldview, individual speakers should take the responsibility not to use words with a racist connotation. The organizations mentioned in this article have shown that they take this seriously because they have chosen to limit their vocabulary in order not to insult others.
This conduct seems to be effective. Because, to improve the social cohesion within a country, a valuable thing to do would be to listen to the people who feel discriminated against and accept their proposals for improvement. In these cases, that entails eliminating certain words from one's vocabulary, which have been brought to life as a product of racist and discriminatory discourse.
This necessitates taking into account that the connotation of a word and the way it is used is not fixed in time: it is subject to change due to social, political and cultural, often globalization-related developments. Therefore, the words that are stirring up discussion nowadays might be completely forgotten in twenty years; by then, there will be a whole new range of contested words to argue about. Nevertheless, raising awareness for such words shows word-users their everyday casual racism which might be obscured by their cultural aphasia. The effort that is put into solving this issue by companies, institutions and individuals who may or may not belong to settled communities whose history is rooted in the Dutch colonial past, shows that words matter and that the vocabulary used normatively in a language contributes to a country's social cohesion.
Helsloot, John. “Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands.” Quotidian: Journal for the Study of Everyday Life. Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-20.
Modest, Wayne. “Het belang van woorden.” Woorden doen ertoe. Een Incomplete Gids voor woordkeuze binnen de culturele sector. Tropen Museum Amsterdam.
Peeren, Esther. “Taal valt niet ‘op te ruimen.” Woorden doen ertoe. Een Incomplete Gids voor woordkeuze binnen de culturele sector. Tropen Museum Amsterdam.
Vertovec , Steven. “Super-diversity and its implications”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 30, no. 6, 2007, pp. 1024-1054. DOI: 10.1080/01419870701599465
Orwell, George. 1984. Secker and Warburg, 1949.