How Dutch pronoun choices became sexist, and other Euro-linguistic tales

13 min readFeb 6, 2024


Dutch writer Gaston Dorren in a typically multilingual moment on vacation in Turkey. He is reading the German translation of book originally written in English: ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ by Marina Lewycka. (Photo: Marleen Becker)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: Hi, it’s Patrick Cox here and I have a question. Do you pronounce your name differently depending on where you are? Or who you’re talking to? Or maybe which language you may be speaking? I think I do that but only a little bit and only really in response to how other people may pronounce my name. My last name, in particular, comes out in all kinds of ways. Some of my friends find this very amusing. I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks. But I don’t live in the multilingual world that Gaston Dorren inhabits.

Gaston Dorren: Personally, I say [sounding slightly French] Gaston Dorren.

Patrick Cox: Gaston is Dutch.

Gaston Dorren: If I introduce myself in English I would say [English accent] Gaston Dorren. Any Dutch speakers would say [Dutch pronunciation] Gaston Dorren. And in Spanish, they will say [Spanish pronunciation] Gaston Dorren. I used to have a German grandmother in law who would say [German sounding] Gaston Dorren.

Patrick Cox: I don’t think I’ve ever come across anybody who’s got a name that could be pronounced in so many ways. When you said it at first the way that you pronounce it, you drop the ’n’ at the end, right? It sounded almost French.

Gaston Dorren: I made it nasal, that’s how the French pronounce it. And it is a French name. So that’s why I keep it that way.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. Today, a conversation with Gaston Dorren, speaker of six languages, learner of many more.

Patrick Cox: Okay, I’m calling him Gaston, English style. It’s like he’s already graciously given me permission to use the English pronunciation. Gaston himself feels completely at home switching languages back and forth, which fascinates me. I mean, I live in pretty much a monolingual world. I think that most of us native English speakers do. Well, Gaston, he grew up speaking one language at home, another at school and the third, fourth, fifth and sixth — they just followed, seemingly naturally. So, to the home language that’s perhaps the most obscure one: Limburgish. Time for another name check.

Gaston Dorren: [Limburgish pronuciation] Gaston Dorren. When I say it that way I can hear my mother speak. So I suppose yes, that would be Limburgish pronunciation.

Patrick Cox: And what is Limburgish? Who speaks it?

Gaston Dorren: Limburgish is the regional language spoken in much of the Dutch province of Limburg, and also the Belgian province of Limburg. It’s spoken by, I guess, about a million or so people.

Patrick Cox: A million people and I barely heard of it. The thing is Limburgish isn’t regulated like other languages are. No one’s gone on the record and said “This is Limburgish, and this isn’t.” It’s just a floating collection of dialects, which makes it fun. No one’s going to correct you.

Gaston Dorren: I spoke with every day up to my 18th birthday — I mean, until I left the region. I would speak it not in class — because there you would speak proper Dutch — but in the schoolyard and with friends, with most friends anyway, in shops. It was the language of daily communication.

Gaston singing a song in Limburgish

Patrick Cox: This is Limburgish. And yes, Gaston is singing, performing it for me in his living room in the Dutch city of Amersfoort.

Gaston continues singing

Patrick Cox: Geographically, Limburgish is hemmed in. Other languages are all around. There’s Dutch of course, that’s everywhere. And there’s German, spoken less than 20 miles from where Gaston grew up. And French, not much further. At school, though, Gaston learned in Dutch, which is why for a while Dutch had a kind of formality to it in Gaston’s mind. Limburgish was closer to his heart. But over time, that changed.

Gaston Dorren: I have never even had a relationship with a Limburgish woman, so all my intimate life has been either German, actually, or Dutch. But never Limburgish. I suppose that makes a difference too.

Patrick Cox: Limburgish is somewhere in between Dutch and German, not just the pronunciation and the vocab, but the grammar. It’s a mix. In that part of Europe, there’s a lot of mixing.

Gaston Dorren: When I was nearly 15, I fell in love with a German girl. And since I had some German, learnt at school, and she had no Dutch, we usually spoke German. And well, as we all know, relationship or love is the best way to learn a language.

Patrick Cox: German, Dutch, Limburgish: Gaston was effortlessly trilingual. It was just the linguistic facts on the ground. Spanish followed — there was time spent in Latin America. And English was always in the background.

Gaston Dorren: When I got my first job where I noticed that having Spanish is useful but having English is more useful, I set out to improve my English. I became very friendly with with a native English speaker. The idea was that I would teach her Dutch and she would teach me English, but first it never worked out.

Patrick Cox: So often the way. Non native English speakers learn English because it’s almost a necessity. Like, it gives them the keys to the house. The other way round, for us English speakers to learn another language, it’s not the same. We already have the keys to the house. Learning Dutch or any other language — that’s our basement conversion or garden shed. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll still have the house. Gaston, though, he made sure he had the key to the front door.

Gaston Dorren: Living in Holland, I read a lot of English — books and the internet. Nowadays, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks, and all that is in English. Since my book was translated into English, I have more direct contact with the English-speaking world.

Patrick Cox: Gaston’s book is called Lingo: Around Europe in 60 Languages. It’s a great read that makes you realize how languages grammar can be caught up in the culture of its speakers. He’s written a second book sense called Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages.

Patrick Cox: Back to the episode and a few moments after I tell you about the Subtitle newsletter. Yes, we have a fun little missive that’ll pop up in your inbox every two or three weeks. It’s a breezy five-minute read: some language-themed news, some previews of future episodes, and of course, some goofy lingo stuff. How do you get to read this charming and amusing and free newsletter? Just sign up!

Patrick Cox: Gaston’s first book on the languages of Europe mentions 60 languages. Now if you’re wondering about that number, well it’s nothing official. It’s just the number of languages he choose to write about. But if you’re interested– and you’re still listening to this episode so you may be! — the number of European languages still spoken today that originated in Europe — in other words, indigenous European languages — that number is somewhere between 225 and 275. That sounds like a lot but the majority of these languages are spoken by very few people — and dwindling every year, most of them.

At the other end of the scale is the number of official languages in the European Union, which covers most but not all of Europe. That number is 24. Then there are all the languages spoken by immigrants and their families, the top three being Arabic, Chinese and Hindi. I don’t know if there are Europe-wide estimates of this number — if you know, please let me know — but it probably runs at least into the hundreds.

Okay, so those 60 languages that Gaston’s first book focused on: some are home-grown, some imported. And his interest in the imported languages began when he lived in cosmopolitan Amsterdam.

Gaston Dorren: I would go to this Ethiopian restaurant once a month. I had a Moroccan neighbor who spoke Arabic and also Berber, if I remember correctly. So yes, I was aware that there was this linguistic diversity, these linguistic riches right at my doorstep. And I didn’t know the first thing about them. Well, I knew what that looked like. I mean, you would see the Arabic script. And there was this Turkish travel agent which would offer trips to Izmir and Istanbul. And, to my surprise, he would put a dot on top of the capital ‘I’ and I wondered, why is that? And the Ethiopian guy would write in their script, “Happy New Year” and “Merry Christmas” — well, vice versa. And it looked amazing. So yeah, I wanted to know more about that. That’s how it started.

Patrick Cox: And what did it teach you? Not just about the languages but about the people.

Gaston Dorren: About the people? Frankly, and this is a bit of an embarrassing statement, not all that much. But that is not to say anything about the languages. It is more saying something about myself. I’m really interested in the languages. And obviously, I’m interested in people, generally. But unlike much of the linguistic journalism that you do, which is very much about society and individuals and their history, which I admire and like listening to, I’m not very good at that. I’m more into the mechanics of language — the sounds and the grammars and the history. It’s really a different flavor of language writing.

Patrick Cox: So Gaston gets all obsessed about scripts and alphabets and diacritical signs, like those dots over some Turkish vowels. And he studied eight of these Amsterdam immigrant languages, which taught him what exactly?

Gaston Dorren: It taught me — well, we talked about Limburgish earlier on. And when I was in my teens, I began to compare the two linguistic systems, the two languages that I had in my head, the Limburgish and the Dutch systems. And I found all these differences and similarities. Now, I took that one step further when I did these eight languages, which I never spoke, right? I mean, I only read about them. And I saw that the small differences between Limburgish and Dutch would sort of translate into huge, but somehow similar, differences between Dutch or English and these languages from all over the world. Because in the end, all languages have to do the same thing. They are there to enable Person A to make something clear to person B. And to do that, they have to have recognizable sounds, and they have to say, “Look, this thing I’m talking about. This is the other thing I’m talking about. And here’s the relationship between those two things.” Therefore, they have grammar and phonology and vocabulary. And every language — even those languages like Turkish and Papiamento and Kurdish — have to find solutions to solve those problems. So in the end, there’s always a point of comparison. But in the meantime, you come across the most amazing differences.

Patrick Cox: Do you see certain things and you think, “Gosh, I wish Dutch had that.” The ability to do that, either in the writing system or in the grammar.

Gaston Dorren: There is one thing in English — actually, what I’m going to say will irritate some listeners, because I know that it’s a controversial thing — but I love the ability of English to verb nouns. I think most languages do that to a degree. But English is particularly flexible at that. And I love it.

Patrick Cox: And Dutch can’t do that?

Gaston Dorren: Well, there is one feature of Dutch that English doesn’t have, or no longer has, I should say, and that is to make a verb, we have to add a suffix. And to make a verb that sounds convincing or sounds natural, we often also have to add a prefix. So you end up with a longer word and it will not always work. Not all nouns will lend themselves to be involved. For instance, I find it there’s a word for holidays of vacation in Dutch, which is simply vakantie. And I find it hard to imagine turning that into a verb, it would sound horrible. And I’m not saying this hopefully, out of conservatism. I mean, I would love it to work, but I don’t think that would ever find acceptance.

Patrick Cox: So you would have to add a verb like “I’m going on vacation.”

Gaston Dorren: Exactly, yeah. Actually, there is an English word of got holidaying. I didn’t realize it when I gave the example but holidaying is an existing word in English.

Patrick Cox: Or vacationing.

Gaston Dorren: Or vacationing, even I didn’t know that. Yes, it’s a good example then, of what English can so, and what Dutch — what to my mind anyway, other people may disagree — would have trouble accepting that word.

Patrick Cox: The more languages you know, or know how they work, the more you see these things: patterns and possibilities in other languages that you may not be able to reciprocate in your mother tongue. Gaston is really good at this. Of course, how he thinks about languages depends on his relationship to each of them. He’s more analytical about languages he learned at school and college, but for his mother tongue, or tongues Limburgish and Dutch, well, the words they just come out, he’s not analytical about them. Which means he’s much less aware of what he’s saying, like with pronouns. Dutch is one of those languages, when nouns and pronouns have genders masculine, feminine or neuter. But a linguist, Jenny Audring, recently found evidence that a gender shift is taking place. in Dutch. And most Dutch speakers, including Gaston, weren’t aware of it. What Dutch speakers believe they say is when they use pronouns — he, she and it — they use them in agreement with the genders of the nouns in question. Here’s an example. The Dutch word for glass. Its gender is neuter. So if you’re following the grammatical rules for gender agreement, you’d refer to that glass as it. Likewise, the word for cup is masculine. So you’d say he. Feminine nouns become she.

Gaston Dorren: This is the theory. This is the system on paper. This is what we think we do. But what Jenny Audring discovered in her research is that we use the equivalent of she only for females: women, girls, etc., and some animals that are very obviously female because we know them personally, like your cat — or if you’re a farmer, your cow. You know the cow is a female.

Patrick Cox: That’s kind of it for the she pronouns nowadays. The Dutch just don’t use she for other words, even when the gender of the noun in question is feminine. And guess which pronoun is taking over? Yep, he. Draw whatever conclusion you will from that. He is used for pretty much all things and objects, whatever their gender — the Dutch call all of them he, or as they say in Dutch, hij. He has become the Dutch it. Except that Dutch already has an it, the neutral gender. And these days, just like the feminine gender, it’s not being used very much. This gender shift — and it’s only happening in speech, not in writing — it’s unconscious. More than that: the Dutch are in denial.

Gaston Dorren: People get caught out referring to a glass of water with he instead of it. And when you point that out to them, they will say, “Oh, Sorry, my mistake. I normally don’t do that.” Actually, they do that all the time.

Patrick Cox: And so does Gaston, as the linguist pointed out to him.

Gaston Dorren: She would occasionally say, “Heard what you just said?” “Ah, yes. Right.” And at first I too, said “I don’t normally do that.” And then after the fourth time or so, I could not pretend that was true. She was absolutely right. It was very embarrassing at first.

Patrick Cox: This all makes it a bit difficult, Gaston says, to write naturally. If you write according to the way that people have started to speak, some people will complain that you’re violating Dutch grammar. But if you write the quote “proper” way, your prose may soon seem antiquated. Or maybe it won’t. We may need a few decades, maybe a few centuries, to find out which way prevails.

Patrick Cox: I recorded this conversation with Gaston in 2016, though I’ve added some updates along the way. Here are some more.

In addition to Babel, that second book of his that appeared in English, Gaston has also written a couple of books just in Dutch. The first has a fabulous title: De Dutchionary. It’s about English expressions containing the word Dutch. The second is called — I won’t attempt this in Dutch — Seven Languages in Seven Days. It teaches Dutch people how to decipher the texts of some other European languages: Frisian — which we did an episode on — Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

And I don’t think it will come as a surprise when I tell you that Gaston is learning some new languages. He mentioned Vietnamese and Polish to me. Well, learning Vietnamese was a three-year experiment that he gave up on. Polish is still ongoing, it’s been four years, and it’s going well, give or take some X-rated faux pas, just you say something and it turns out to be some body part, or sexual act or something.

Moving on, Gaston also wrote this song. It’s called Mother Tongue.

Gaston sings ‘Mother Tongue’

Patrick Cox: Many thanks to Gaston, who is a tremendously supportive person. He just has this endless fascination with languages and how they work, and he’s generous and humble with his knowledge.

Thanks also to Allison Shao who manages Subtitle’s social media and writes the newsletter. Thanks also to everyone at The World public radio program.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of independently-minded podcasters, who — well, I think most of us start thinking about an episode with a bunch of questions. If we want to know more about something, be it science, tech, arty, or about language — if we want to know, we figure you do too. So let’s hear it for some of them: Out There, Rumble Strip, The Lonely Palette, Ministry of Ideas. Check them out.

That’s it for today. Thanks for listening. See you in a couple of weeks.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod