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Word of the day: dictee (dictation)

An average of forty mistakes in its eight sentences is normal in The Great Dictation of the Dutch Language, Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal. The Flemish winner had 13 mistakes! Ridiculous. Are Dutch and Flemish speakers such bad spellers?

Wednesday night, 18th December 2013, was the night of Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal. This year was the 24th edition of this popular event.

This year’s DICTEE was not only a test of how well you can spell, but also a test of your knowledge of grammar.

Each year a well-known Dutch author is asked to write the story of the dictation. Usually the stories are absurd because the author has to cram as many difficult words into the sentences as possible. In the past there were sentences like:

‘In prestigieuze etablissementen, feeëriek geïllumineerd en bloemrijk getooid met hyacint of chrysant, vinden zakendineetjes plaats, waar weinig tirannieke obers bij de foeragering soms ware Sisyfusarbeid moeten verrichten.’

(In prestigious establishments, enchantedly illuminated and flowerily adorned with hyacinth and chrysanthemum, small business diners take place where at the foraging few tyrannical waiters sometimes have to perform a true Sisyphean task.)

A what? Yes, a true Sisyphean task. As you must have noticed, the intricate words are quaint words anyway. Words that a normal Dutchman would not say in normal conversations.

Students who took a course at Direct Dutch, know that Dutch spelling is not extremely difficult compared to other languages like English and French. Generally speaking, what you hear is what you write in Dutch. And what you see is what you say. Do I hear a long ‘oo’ then you write a long ‘oo’ as in ‘poot’ (leg). Is the vowel short like ‘o’ then you write ‘o’ as in ‘pot’ (pot). One vowel at the end of a syllable is usually long. So the ‘o’ in ‘po’ is long.

In English spelling does not really tell you how to pronounce a word. You need all kind of complex rules in order to know what a written word sounds like. Take a word like ‘women’ in which the ‘o’ is pronounced as ‘i’ and the ‘e’ also as ‘i’.

So try to do this DICTEE and you’ll see that your score won’t be that far off from the average Dutchie. Watch it on Uitzending gemist.

This year’s DICTEE was written by the comedian and author Kees van Kooten. Together with Wim de Bie they were the Dutch comedy duo Koot and Bie. Their weekly show was watched by the entire nation on VPRO television from 1972 till 2004. Kees van Kooten is also an established literary writer. He wrote this year’s book week gift.

When asked why spelling and grammar are so important, Van Kooten replied the other day that the success of a civilised society depends on the clarity of the speaker or writer. He proved this with an example taken from the headline of a proper newspaper. He said:

‘’”Van slavernij verdacht Brits echtpaar op borgtocht vrij” klopt niet: ‘Die mensen zijn al slaven. Ze zijn geketend. Ze hebben nooit iets verdiend. Ze mogen even eruit en dan moeten ze nog betalen ook.’

(The headline “British couple suspected of slavery released on bail’ is not correct. Those people have been slaves. They’re in chains. They’ve never earned anything and now they have to pay bail on top of that…)

So ‘slavernij’ should really be ‘slavendrijverij’ (slave-driving).

Tell us what you think of the Dutch DICTEE. In this video you see Kees van Kooten in a very funny sketch where he plays meneer Pamuk, an erudite ‘allochtoon’ (migrant).