Spoken Dutch in Flanders. Perceptions and attitudes of a high-profile generation

Het gesproken Nederlands in Vlaanderen. Percepties en attitudes van een spraakmakende generatie
Begin - Einde 
2010 - 2014 (afgewerkt)
Vakgroep Taalkunde



In the past few years, a lot has been published on spoken Dutch in Flanders, and especially on the use of tussentaal, a mixture of dialect and Standard Dutch. Due to the enormous amount of publications on tussentaal, we would get the impression that we are dealing with a recent phenomenon, but that is definitely not the case. Willemyns (2005) rightly observes that tussentaal has also been spoken in former days (cf. De Caluwe 2012). However, there would be a change in the intention of the speakers.

Formerly, tussentaal should mainly have been spoken by dialect speakers who tried to speak the standard language but failed to do so. In that context, tussentaal has long been considered to be a temporary phase in a process in which a standard language was the goal (cf. 'interlanguage' in second language acquisition) (Beheydt 1993; Geeraerts 1999c; Jaspers 2001).

Nowadays, tussentaal is also spoken by people who do not attempt to speak Standard Dutch (but who are nonetheless sometimes able to). According to De Caluwe (2000: 11), for many people tussentaal is the language they speak at home and for those who have been raised in a dialect, it is the language they speak to people from other dialect regions.

In light of this evolution, tussentaal is increasingly considered to be a threat to Standard Dutch: tussentaal is problematized because its speakers have the wrong intentions, i.e. no intention of speaking Standard Dutch (cf. Jaspers 2001 for an outline of the debate on tussentaal).

Tussentaal has been intensively studied (Plevoets 2008; Van Gijsel e.a. 2008). Researchers tried to map which standard and dialectic ingredients Flemish language users incorporate in their tussentaal and in which situations tussentaal is often spoken. But, the focus in research on tussentaal has up until now been mainly on the study of language behaviour and less on the perceptions of the language users (De Caluwe 2009; Grondelaers & Van Hout 2011a; cf. ook de conclusies van Plevoets 2008: 179). Before we can state that there has been a change in the intentions of tussentaal speakers, we have to get an insight in how the regular Flemish language user perceives the Flemish language situation and whether or not this language user knows what tussentaal actually is (cf. Preston 2002: 'folk linguistics').

Research questions

By means of this study, we want to answer the following questions:

  1. How does the average, non-linguistically educated Fleming conceive/perceive linguistic variation in Flanders on a macro level? Does the ordinary language user apply a model with only dialect and Standard Dutch or does (s)he distinguish one or more intermediate language layers?
  2. Which knowledge does the average Fleming have of linguistic variation on a micro level?By means of which language characteristics do linguistic laypeople characterise language to be standard, dialect or something in between?
  3. How does the average Fleming judge about the appropriateness of a specific type of language use for particular situations?

Which values and characteristics does a language user associate with certain types of language (cf. Fairclough 2001; Milroy & Gordon 2003)?


For this study eighty informants with different sociolinguistic profiles were subjected to an interview of approximately 45 minutes in which seven audio recordings were submitted for evaluation. The informants were asked which language variety was spoken in the recordings and on which features they based their judgment about the language used. The informants had the opportunity to listen to the recordings twice, and during the second hearing they could take notes. To approximate a realistic situation, we chose to work with naturally spoken language. The recordings were taken from the Spoken Dutch Corpus and were spoken in tussentaal or in Standard Dutch.

The eighty interviewees varied in age, regional origin and sex: a group of informants were born between 1988 and 1991 (at the time of the interview between 19 and 23 years of age) and a group was born between 1961 and 1970 (at the time of the interview between 41 and 50 years of age); all the interviewees were born and raised in Flanders, equally distributed over the four main dialect areas (East-Flanders, West-Flanders, Brabant and Limburg); sex 50/50. The level of education was held constant: the highly educated Fleming was the topic of attention.


On the one hand, this study yielded insights in the global perception and categorisation of the Flemish language situation, results which were analysed qualitatively (cf. Lybaert 2012). On the other hand, we gained a view on which characteristics were salient to the informants and how many informants noticed certain characteristics. These data were analysed quantitatively (cf. Lybaert te verschijnen). Thus, this study generates two types of data:

1) Beliefs on the Flemish linguistic situation in general, and on tussentaal, Standard Dutch and dialect in specific.

  • We constructed a typology of how the informants prototypically defined Standard Dutch and dialect.
  • We gave an overview of the ways in which tussentaal was labelled (including the label tussentaal itself) and how the concept tussentaal was filled in by the informants.
  • We gave an overview of the appropriateness of Standard Dutch, dialect and tussentaal for several situations and of the values that were often associated with these varieties by the informants.

This study had shown that the informants not only distinguish between Standard Dutch and dialect, they also recognise an intermediate zone. This intermediate zone is named and characterised in diverse ways; some informants know and use the term tussentaal. The intermediate zone is perceived by the informants to be variable – in its linguistic distance from Standard Dutch, in its intention (spontaneous tussentaal or attempted Standard Dutch) and in its regional ingredients – and is not (yet?) perceived to be a variety (contrary to dialect and Standard Dutch).

Concerning the position of dialect, Standard Dutch and tussentaal in the Flemish language repertoire, we observed that dialect is found suitable for informal situations, while Standard Dutch is found suitable for (very) formal situations. Tussentaal takes up a middle position: some informants believe tussentaal is only appropriate for formal situations and some believe it is only appropriate for informal situations; some informants consider tussentaal to be appropriate for every situation and some consider it to be appropriate for every situation, except for very formal situations. The appropriateness of dialect, Standard Dutch and tussentaal depends, among others, on the degree to which a person talks the way (s)he is used to (as with dialect or 'spontaneous' tussentaal) or makes an effort to speak more standardlike than (s)he is used to (as with Standard Dutch or intended Standard Dutch). There are only a few situations in which Standard Dutch is considered to be the only appropriate variety: only in the most formal and public situations Standard Dutch must be spoken according to the informants; in all the other formal situations intended Standard Dutch suffices.

The reported beliefs of the informants do not seem to coincide with the heavily discussed standard language ideology (Milroy & Milroy 1985), an ideology in which the standard language is considered to be the ideal and to be a variety which is ideally used in every situation. Instead, with most of the informants, we observed an ideology of situational diaglossia within which the effort to speak Standard Dutch is appreciated in formal and public situations and within which talking like one is used to is appreciated in informal and private situations. In this situation specific ideology there is also room for the standard language ideal, but only in a few situations Standard Dutch is considered the only appropriate variety.

2) Data on the recognition of the micro variation:

  • For each type of feature – lexical, phonological or morphosyntactic – we calculated by which informants they were mentioned.
  • For each informant we calculated which types of features (s)he mentioned.

The results were compared to existing perception- and saliencestudies (e.g. Auer e.a. 1998; Hinskens 1986; Kerswill & Williams 2002; Rys & Taeldeman 2007; Taeldeman 2006b, 2008) and the relativity of salience was discussed and problematized.Research has clearly shown that there are differences in the salience of the language domains (lexicon, phonology, morphosyntaxis) and that there are regional, age and gender differences in the perception of linguistic variation. Especially the results on the regional origin of the informants were interesting. We concluded that there are regional differences in perception and that we can distinguish several categories of salient features. With most of the features that were mentioned by the informants, we saw no effect of the regional origin of the speaker. Those features were labelled disalient (i.e. they were noticed by informants who grew up in a region in which these features are often used and by informants with whom this was not the case). When we did observe regional differences in perception, they could mostly not be linked to the endogeneity or exogeneity of those features. Only a minority of the features appeared to be autosalient (i.e. mostly noticed by informants who grew up in a region in which these features were often used) or heterosalient (i.e. mostly noticed by informants who did not grow up in a region in which these features were often used). It is clearly not the case that features the informants do not use are mostly more salient than features they do use (in contradiction to what Preston 2010c; Sibata 1971; Van Bree 2000 claim). We can conclude that the regional origin of the informants influences the perception and salience of linguistic features, but this origin does not influence each feature and when it does, it does not always happen in the same way. Thus, we have to distinguish different types of salient features.

Due to a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches, we have gained insight into the perceptions of linguistic laypeople on a macro level (i.e. beliefs about the Flemish language situation and about language variation in Flanders in general) and on a micro level (i.e. beliefs about the salience of specific linguistic features). Ideologically speaking, we have shown that the standard languages ideology is not as dominant as is often claimed; instead Flemings adhere to a situation specific ideology, in which importance is also attached to Standard Dutch, but only in a few situations Standard Dutch is considered to be absolutely necessary.