Research interests: Limburgish

Limburgish, a regional language in the triangle Venlo-Aachen-Tienen, is the language I grew up in (alongside my country’s official Dutch); but it interests me for other reasons as well. What is a “language”, what is “a” language? At what point, if any, do variations within a language shade into differences between languages? Linguists assert that such a point is moot. Since there is no objective cut-off point where variations between “dialects” end and differences between “languages” begin (witness the fluid demarcations between Serbian and Croatian, or the emergence of Afrikaans or Luxemburgish), it is misleading to distinguish between “dialects” and “languages”. But in social practice and in legislation the distinction is nonetheless a real fact of life. Even those linguists who assert “Limburgish should not be called a language” implicitly distinguish between something that can be called a language and something that can’t.

Pragmatically (i.e. in real-life situations) people experience something as a “language” if it is used, not only in private or localized face-to-face communication, but also in the public sphere and in mediated (written, printed, broadcast) form, for communicating topics of non-private, public importance, and in artistic production. For people to experience language as such, it needs to be distinctive enough in its linguistic features (lexicon, grammar, syntax, phonesis) to present the possibility of a deliberate choice for using it rather than something else (in this case, Dutch).

These pragmatic choices are intuitive and based on an informal, almost instinctive language familiarity; but they are nonetheless social and political choices with an important impact on the perception of regional and national cultural identitities.

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