How Computers Are Changing Language

In the comments on our editorial about language purism and the Psystar case, it became quite clear that language is a subject almost everyone has an opinion on – not odd if you consider that language is at the very centre of what makes us “human”. Since this appears to be a popular subject, let’s talk about the influence computing has had on two very minor aspects of the Dutch language.

As we already established in the purism editorial, the fact that English is now thelanguage of commerce, science, and international relations has had a profound impact on Dutch – and I’m sure, on other minor languages too. It’s easy to point towards specific words such as “computer” or even a golden oldie like “okay“, of which there are quite a few.

However, those have more to do with the global importance of English in and of itself, but not about the influence the computer might have had on the Dutch language. I want to take a look at two distinct cases where the increasing reliance on computers has forced a change in how the Dutch language operates. One has to do with punctuation, the other with the shortened form of the genitive inflection of the Dutch definite article (breath, pause, continue).

Quotation marks

Let’s start with the case where the usage of computers has changed (or better put, is changing) Dutch punctuation. In Dutch, the correct, old-fashioned way to denote a direct quote is to open the quotation with a left low double curved quote, and close it with a right [high] double curved quote. Like this:

Jan zei: „Hallo.”

I’m assuming you can translate that on your own. Anyway, this is how I’ve been taught how to properly open and close direct quotes when I was in primary school. All my friends were taught the same rules, just like my parents and grandparents. Officially, the same notation is used for cases of irony or the use-mention distinction.

Fast forward to the age of ubiquitous personal computing, and everybody and their dog has a computer running Microsoft Word, or, if they’re cheeky, OpenOffice or WordPefect. Now, these programs come from the United States, and in the English language, quoting is done using different quotation marks. In English, the above would looks like this:

Jan said: “Hello.”

The difference is clear: English opens with a (here we go) left [high] double curved quote and closes with a right [high] double curved quote. This is the common English use of quotation marks to denote direct speech.

Now, because word processors like Word were designed and coded by and for English language users, Word isn’t particularly open to using the proper, Dutch form of quotation. If you open the character map in Windows, for instance, you’ll find the left low double curved quote somewhere at the bottom (treasure troves, those character maps).

It’s not all Word’s fault, though. The left low double curved quote cannot be found on keyboards either. For some reason, manufacturers have forced the US keyboard layouts upon the Dutch market, and our own Dutch keymap can no longer be found (at least, not easily). Then again, if my memory serves me right, not even the Dutch keymap had a key for the left low double curved quote.

Now that word processors are pretty much the norm all over the country – from homes to the office to schools – the proper Dutch quoting rules are slowly but surely being forgotten, pushed out of the collective consciousness. The English quoting rules are taking over.

This is a process that is currently under way. Maybe I’m too much of a language geek, but I get really excited about things like this – a clear-cut change in language use happening right in front of my eyes, in my lifetime. „How jolly exciting,” said Alice.

To me, the English way of quoting looks all wrong and ridiculously out of place in Dutch text, but in all honesty, I’m too lazy to do proper keymapping in Word to “fix” the situation. And if I, as a nerd, am already too lazy – I can’t really blame others for not doing so either. What you do sometimes see, however, is Dutch people constructing the left low double curved quote using two commas – like so:

Jan zei: ,,Hallo.”

Word will turn the closing marks into curly ones, but the commas will remain as they are. This looks hideous.

I’m not sure if the proper way of quoting is still being taught in primary schools, but seeing how computers have infested enriched that environment too, I’m pretty sure our children’s textbooks are being updated too. That’s what you get in a ridiculously rich welfare state – school materials get updated quickly.


A long, long time ago, when computers did not exist and man still got around on horseback, the Dutch language was much more closely related to German than it is now. Back then, declension was a core part of Dutch, much like it still is in German today. The definite and indefinite article were two of those things that once inflected according to the grammatical cases (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative).

Today, this is no longer the case. However, whereas in English this transition is complete, and you’ll barely find any remnants of case declension, the transition is not entirely complete in Dutch. You’ll find remnants of case declension all over the place – especially in fixed expressions and in more formal discourse. In general, however, case declension is gone, and you’ll mostly only deal with the nominative.


Whereas the dative and accusative have been relegated entirely to the realm of fixed expressions, the genitive still lingers around, and gets used even beyond mere fixed expressions – especially the genitive of the definite article. One of my mannerisms is to say “dat is niet des ” (“that is not of “), which is something I say whenever someone does something which he normally wouldn’t do.

In order to gain a better understanding of what’s going on here, let’s look at the case declension of the Dutch definite article (I’ll omit the plural, and focus on the singular):

Inflection table Dutch definite article singular.

Now, look at the two marked inflections – the genetive masculine and genetive neuter des. In Dutch discourse, the genetive inflection des often gets shortened to just s. Now, in order to indicate that it has been shortened, and that it is not just a random ‘s’ who got lost on his way to Mi_sissippi, we use an apostrophe, much like English does when you write down contractions like “can’t”.

Now, we’re going to get extremely pedantic. This is probably as pedantic as I’ll ever be, so let me apologise, and assure you that it won’t happen again. With that out of the way, let the pedanticness commence.

A proper apostrophe in Dutch (and I’m sure, in English too) looks like a comma floating in the air – a small dot with a tail curling to the left. However, many computer programs and websites can’t handle the apostrophe in the correct way, and end up using a straight single quote. Like this:

Under the influence of computing, the second type has become much more prevalent in Dutch, even though it’s technically incorrect. At school, we were taught the proper, fancy apostrophe, but computer programs tend to prefer the straight one. Luckily, though, Word has gotten smarter over the years, and in Word 2007, it properly recognises the Dutch apostrophe, and uses the fancy one. So, with a but of luck, we’ll see the proper method push back the incorrect one in the coming years.

As a side note, did you know that the straight single quote is not only forced to perform the job of the apostrophe, but also of the prime? Yes, the prime, used to denote all sorts of units of measurement, is actually a typography in its own right. The differences:

The prime: yet another innocent victim of the computer. Sad.

This is not purism

Now, as you may have noticed, I have made no qualitative statements about these developments. That’s because in all honesty – this is just the way language works. Language evolves under the pressure of all sorts of external (and internal) influences, and the computer is just one of them.

Still, the reason I wrote this article is to show you how the advent and popularisation of the computer is changing language right before our very eyes. If you look hard enough, you’ll find all sorts of changes going on right now that are caused – or at least sped up – by our reliance on computers.

In any case, please – every now and then, take a few moments to think about the poor straight single quote on your keyboard, who carries the burden of not just being the straight single quote – since the advent of the computer, the poor little guy has to perform the role of his relatives the apostrophe and the prime as well.

Poor little guy.


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