Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal

Imagine if instead of a football game, the OU-TX rivalry centered around a spelling bee. That would be awesome, and I would totally watch it. Similarly, a rivalry between Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium is embodied in Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal, an annual dictation-slash-spelling bee hosted by two major newspapers. The participants are not children either; they are journalists, writers, politicians, rappers, athletes, and comic-strip artists. To top it all off, the Groot Dictee (pronounced khrote dic-tay) is hosted in the Dutch equivalent of the Senate, the Eerste Kamer.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching and playing along. I did quite a bit worse than the average, and far worse than the best. The participants were divided into teams and the errors of each were averaged: Dutch celebrities (25 errors), readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (15), Flemish celebrities (21), and readers of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen (12). Overall, the Flemish outperformed the Dutch, and the newspaper readers bested the celebrities. However, the Dutch author Gustaaf Peck had the lowest individual celebrity score (12) and Volkskrant reader Roberto LaRocca had the lowest score of all (6). Depending on how you count multiple errors in a word, I had around 31 errors. But I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the words I did know. In fact, being Anglophone meant that some of the harder words for the participants were cognates I could spell.

After the general round, the person from each group with the lowest score was chosen for a final round, which more closely resembled American spelling bees. A word was read out, and the first team to misspell a word lost. The Flemish reader, Marco Sanders, won with balalaikaspeelster, which means balalaikaplayer and which I happened to get right as well. However, he said in an interview that he did not consider himself the winner, since he had one more error in the dictee.

Overall, I found this to be a very exciting display of language mastery. The text itself, written by Adrianus van der Heijden, concerned the flood of English loanwords in Dutch. His disapproval fell less on individual words, some of which he used in the dictee itself, than on the mixing of English and Dutch: Dunglish. He described this linguistic situation as a continuation of British colonialism, a sort of belated battle in the Anglo-Dutch wars that undermines the national style. You can find the full text here. I look forward to next year’s Groot Dictee.

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