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Exploring Europe at the British Library

29 December 2015

The Big Dictation: the Excitement of Spelling.

On Saturday 19 December, two teams of 30 Dutch and Flemish spelling aficionados went head to head in the 26th edition of Het Groot Dictee, or The Big Dictation. This spelling contest is broadcast live on television in the Netherlands and Belgium, from the chamber of the Dutch Senate in The Hague, no less. In its 26 years the Big Dictation has become an institution, with its own website, Twitter feed,  and a version for children. 

So, what is it about? Now you’re asking. Is it simply about spelling, or competition, or national identity, with a (friendly!) rivalry between the Dutch and the Flemish?

Who knows? It’s probably a bit of all three. One of the attractions is probably that everyone can participate, albeit unofficially, from their own living rooms. It probably also helps that  weeks before the contest the organizing newspapers, the Dutch De Volkskrant (The People’s Paper) and the Flemish De Morgen (The Morning) as well as language organizations offer practice exercises to get people in the mood. Schools participate, too, since children can do the children’s version. Isn’t this a fun way of learning how to spell? Words you’ve always struggled with will stick for ever in your mind, once it featured in the Groot Dictee.

Dutch spelling is formalised in the standard dictionary of the Dutch language: The ‘Dikke’ (Fat) Van Dale, a commercial title and in the Woordenlijst der Nederlandse Taal (Word list of the Dutch Language), or Het Groene Boekje (The Little Green Book) as it is better known. The latest edition of the Little Green Book was published in October this year, for the first time also by Van Dale.  It is compiled by De Taalunie the body that oversees policies in the area of the Dutch language, and there is a free online edition.  

 
Woordenlijst 1872
Second edition (1872) of Matthias de Vries and L.A. te Winkel Woordenlijst voor de spelling der Nederlandsche taal, the predecessor of today’s Groene Boekje  (British Library 1608/2709.)

This formalised approach to the Dutch language is similar to that of the French. It should therefore come as no surprise that the French were the first to come up with the idea for a Big Dictation.  There it is held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is where Philip Freriks, Paris correspondent for De Volkskrant in the 1980s and 90s, first saw it and subsequently brought it over to the Netherlands.

HGD640px-Philip_Freriks
Philip Freriks . Photo by Maurice Vink from Wikimedia Commons

Freriks has presented the Big Dictation for many years and other journalists have contributed by writing the text, such as this year’s author Lieve Joris, journalist and travel writer. Originally from Flanders, she now lives in Amsterdam, when she is not travelling the world. She is known for her award-winning travel writing about the Middle East, for example The Gates of Damascus (London, 1996; YC.1997.a.94)

HGDLieve_joris-1450104525
Lieve Joris at the 2015 Big Dictation. Photo by Ruud Hendrickx from wikiportret.nl
 

Although it was the Dutch team that won this year, overall the Flemish contestants made the least mistakes. 31 Dutch participants made 747 mistakes, against 620 by the 29 Flemish.
This year saw a few ‘firsts’:

  1. The contest was between the Dutch and the Flemish teams, whilst before the participants selected from the readers of De Volkskrant and De Morgen were pitted against the Dutch and Flemish celebrities. 
  2. There was a final. After writing the Dictation the best Dutch reader and celebrity and best Flemish reader and celebrity battled it out over ten very difficult words. 
  3. There was a Polish participant; a ‘wild card’ added to the Dutch team. 

Needless to say any use of electronic spellcheckers is strictly forbidden, although the words for these devices pop up in the Dictation; such as ‘spellingchecker’. Now there’s a fine example of how the Dutch incorporate English words into Dutch. That aside, it doesn’t look as if spelling checkers have taken the fun out of spelling, so it is to be hoped that ‘The Big Dictation’ will see many more episodes. It is a true celebration of the richness of the Dutch language.

Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections

Further reading
(This is a small selection of the many titles about Dutch spelling which can be found in the British Library catalogue.)

Henriëtte Houët, Grammatica Nederlands : woorden, zinnen, spelling. (Houten, 2011). YF.2012.a.14746.

F.J.A. Mostert, ‘Dutch Spelling Reform’,  Language International, vol. 8, no 2, 1996, pp. 18-20. 5155.709680

G.C. Molewijk & Vic de Donder, De citroen van de gynaecoloog : de sitroen van de ginekoloog : de nieuwe spelling: pro of contra (Amsterdam, 1994) YA.1995.a.7045.

G.C. Molewijk, Spellingverandering van zin naar onzin (1200-heden). (The Hague, 1992) YA.1993.b.9041.
 

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