Working for science and scholarship

Antal van den Bosch (Meertens Institute)

This time in Working for Science and Scholarship, we talk to Antal van den Bosch and Sophie Elpers  (read her interview) at the Meertens Institute. Sophie is a postdoc at the institute, and Antal is its director. We asked both of them the same questions – questions about the institute, about their work and passions, and about scholarship.

The Meertens Institute studies and documents the Dutch language and Dutch culture, focusing mainly in the phenomena that shape everyday life in our society.

Antal van den Bosch

Antal van den Bosch
Director Meertens Institute
Born in Made in 1969

What did you want to be when you grew up?

‘I wanted to go into teaching. I had a couple of good teachers in secondary school who set an example for me. One was a Dutch teacher and the other a Latin teacher. Both of them were close to retirement but passionate about teaching, and somewhat rebellious too. Latin was my favourite subject, in fact. Like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But I was also in love with computers. When I was in my fifth year, our school purchased eight Commodore 64s. No one knew what to do with them, so I gave computer lessons during the breaks.’

How did you end up at the Meertens Institute?

‘I was a liberal arts major and specialised in computer linguistics. That allowed me to combine my love of languages and computers. I worked at various universities and was appointed professor at Tilburg University in 2008. I was a university career man until early 2017, when I became the director of the Meertens Institute. It’s a unique institute with an important and relevant mission. No other institute takes such a multidisciplinary approach to language and culture.’

What’s so fascinating about your research?

‘The arrival of the computer and the internet has enriched linguistics as a field of study. Before, it took a lot of effort to compile linguistic corpora large enough to be useful. Now, with all the language available on the internet, it’s like dipping a bucket into a river – the data just flows in by itself. Old questions, for example “How do people use their dialect?”, are easier to study now. We can analyse millions of tweets with our software and detect patterns in dialect use on Twitter, for example.’

Does that have any practical value?

 ‘We show where our culture has come from and how it is evolving. Language plays an important role in culture. The Meertens Institute manages the Dutch Folktales Database, which features both folktales and fairy tales. We’ve examined how one version of a fairy tale derives from another and made some remarkable discoveries. For example, people are inclined to tell versions of the fairy tale that circulated 25 years before. That’s logical, because that’s when they will have heard the fairy tale from their parents, and now they’re passing it on to their children. Shared narratives are important to our identity as a people. Examining how a narrative has changed teaches us more about how a culture has changed.’

What typifies the Dutch?

 ‘Difficult to say. I’ve lived in different places in the Netherlands, but always close to the national border. People in border regions have a different perspective on the Netherlands than people who live in the heart of the country. I live in Groesbeek now. Germany is just a short bike ride away. While the architecture may be a bit different there, the Germans in my area live closer to me than the Dutch in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The Netherlands is merely a construct in that sense. The quest for the Dutch identity is nothing new.’

Are there any trends in scholarship that you didn’t see coming?

‘My area, language technology, falls under the field of artificial intelligence or AI. It’s surprising to me how my old familiar field is suddenly in the public spotlight. The effect of that spotlight is that AI researchers are becoming more vocal about their responsibility. They don’t want AI to be used for undemocratic and unethical purposes. I truly admire activist researchers like Virginia Dignum at Delft University of Technology, who’s travelling up and down the country to promote ethically responsible AI.’

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around?

‘The NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. I’m fascinated by the Second World War and its impact on our society. My grandfather was an officer in the Dutch army. He was traumatised by his experiences for the rest of his life. My mother heard many of the stories as a child, and she, in turn, told me about it. That’s how the trauma of war is carried across generations.’

See also: Web page Antal van den Bosch 

Read the interview with Sophie Elpers, postdoc at Meertens Institute

Interview: Carel Jansen