For many, the term indigenous languages conjures up images of postcolonial societies such as Australia and the United States, and the ancient languages from those lands. In the Netherlands, however, we don’t need to look abroad to find indigenous languages.
2019 has already been an important year for language in the Netherlands. The Dutch government has officially recognised Limburgish – indigenous to Limburg province – as a regional language. This is important for linguists and the public alike. Once considered by many to simply be a dialect, Limburgish is now politically empowered as a language in its own right.
Of course, this is not new in the Netherlands. Linguists have long considered Frisian a distinct language, and in 2013 the Dutch government passed laws to reflect Friesland’s linguistic and cultural uniqueness. Since then, Frisian has been the country’s second official language. In 2018, Low Saxon was also declared an official regional language in the north east of the Netherlands.
These are steps in the right direction for safeguarding linguistic diversity. This, like cultural diversity, is part of the collective human experience. Maintaining linguistic diversity in times of globalisation and neoliberalism is no mean feat. Smaller languages rub shoulders with larger languages of socioeconomic utility, creating a tension between preserving local culture and participating in larger economic life. We see this already in the Netherlands where Dutch competes with English in business and education. So, what future can indigenous languages have?
This, I believe, is to be answered by indigenous people themselves. Linguists have theorised how indigenous languages should be maintained and revitalised, and how to raise their status in society. Their theories are benevolent. But, in the spirit of self-determination, the future of indigenous languages should be determined by indigenous people.
This raises important political questions for indigenous communities around the world. In New Zealand, for example, indigenous Māori communities encourage non-Māori to learn their indigenous language, and the Anglo-majority have responded favourably. Māori vocabulary is part of the New Zealand landscape, of daily interactions, and of the country’s bicultural identity.
However, is this reconciliation, or is this cultural appropriation? Some native Americans, for example, would argue the latter.
Another question is what this should achieve. Perhaps to the chagrin of language enthusiasts, my research suggests that Māori youth may be content with all New Zealanders learning Māori as a second language to only a basic level. They may also be satisfied with using the language only for ceremonial purposes only, not as a fully-fledged partner of English. However, my research also suggests that Anglo youths value the language because it defines New Zealand as a proud, non-British nation.
So what about the Netherlands? Should the mainstream population play a larger role in learning and maintaining Limburgish, or Frisian, and Low Saxon? Would they want to, would that be welcome, and what would be the end goal? In the international year of indigenous languages, it is timely to reflect on the status of indigenous languages hold and above all what future is envisaged for them.
Nathan Albury is a socio-linguist and a Marie Curie Research Fellow at Leiden University. He is currently on secondment to the Netherlands Commission for Unesco.