Language Crossing, Fluid Identities, and Spatial Mobility: Representing Language, Identity, and Place in an Amsterdam-Based Movie

  • Nesrin El AyadiEmail author
  • Virginie Mamadouh
Living reference work entry


This chapter examines the relationships between language, identity, and place through an analysis of representations used in the Amsterdam urban movie Alleen maar nette mensen (Only Decent People). Stereotypes in movies are useful vistas into the ways language, identity, and place are perceived in Amsterdam, a Western European city characterized by increasing ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity and increasing spatial socioeconomic segregation. The chapter deals more specifically with the flexibility in language use envisioned by sociolinguists in their conceptualization of linguistic crossing, which stresses individual agency in the creative use of linguistic repertoires. The chosen movie has been critiqued for its stereotypical representations of race and gender, but it also provides clues about the use of language as a resource to navigate through the city and to use for group belonging. The analysis shows that some individuals (including the main character) are represented to be better able at conforming or disaffiliating themselves from certain social environments, stereotypically situated in specific neighborhoods, by making use of languages, while others are less successful to do so. The capability of being flexible and to have control over one’s language use and identity and to use them strategically in different settings is, however, not so much tied to questions of race and ethnicity which are stereotypically imagined but more related to the socioeconomic status, the educational background of the characters, and the ability to cross socio-spatial boundaries in the city.


Linguistic diversity Language crossing Stereotypes Movie analysis Amsterdam 


In light of the growing linguistic diversity in multicultural cities, the ways in which individuals use language throughout their daily lives give way to many social clues that are important for the social relations in the city. Individual language use may, for instance, hint at where people are from and whom they identify themselves with. It is, therefore, an important marker for social similarity as well as difference. Additionally, among other features of identification, people make use of their linguistic skills to opt in or out of place as they move across the city. They may consciously or by accident use a specific language variety to conform or challenge the linguistic codes and norms at place. For instance, urban youngsters may use slang and nonstandard forms of the dominant language among peers in the urban periphery, but they will think twice to make use of this during a job interview in the city center if they want to be successful in acquiring the position they are applying. At the same time, they may use slang to challenge the status quo in the classroom or at home.

Consequently, language use is not an individual property or a stable competence that should be studied as such but is rooted in everyday spaces of interaction and is produced in and through different social environments of the city (Blommaert et al. 2005; Valentine et al. 2008). Many cities have experienced internal and international migration flows, altering the urban linguistic makeup with more languages coexisting and influencing one another in the same space. Individual linguistic skills have also become more complex and can no longer be tied to traditional speech communities. Examples of language crossing, referring to “the use of language varieties associated with social or ethnic groups that the speaker does not normally ‘belong to’ (Rampton 1995, p. 14)”, have become more widespread, and social categories such as ethnicity as well as the language linked to them cannot be regarded as discrete and homogenous. It is against the backdrop of the city and its wide variety of social spaces that language is being formed and adjusted and where individual linguistic skills and tools are picked up and (re)negotiated. The city provides its residents linguistic tools to be picked up in life which form the basis of everyday interaction with others. At the same time specific places in the city have certain taken-for-granted rules and norms as to which language varieties are legitimized and which ones are not and, therefore, have a significant effect on individual language use in these places.

In this chapter we look deeper into questions of language, identity, and place by analyzing language use in an Amsterdam-based movie Alleen maar nette mensen (Only Decent People, hereafter AMNM) produced in 2012 and based on a semi-autobiographic novel published in 2008 by Robert Vuijsje (Crijns 2012). In the movie the main character deploys linguistic strategies to navigate through different neighborhoods in the city. Attention will be paid to the way in which stereotypical representations of both groups and places serve as basis of linguistic practices. Movies are a useful resource to decipher dominant representations of groups, places, and languages. The analysis of these representations in this movie enables us to discuss language ideologies about the normative conventions of specific urban encounters. Van Gent and Jaffe (2016) have recently analyzed this same movie to criticize the way in which spatial imaginaries are used to normalize urban inequalities, with a specific focus on racial and postcolonial dichotomies. This chapter focuses instead on the stereotypical imaginaries of linguistic practices in multilingual Amsterdam. The daily use of language has often been neglected in the study of social diversity, while it remains an important feature of difference. Our main objective is, therefore, to shed light on the way individuals are portrayed deploying linguistic strategies to navigate the city. It is not our purpose to analyze the movie as (socio)linguists would traditionally do, that is, focusing on the lexical, grammatical, or pragmatic aspects of speech encounters. Instead, we are looking at the way language use is shown to affect social and spatial relationships in the city and how language use is portrayed as enabling or impeding feelings of belonging in different social environments within the city.

The theoretical part of this chapter starts with the role of stereotypes in movies and how these may be useful indicators in studying social and linguistic diversity. As Kennedy and Lukinbeal (1997) have powerfully put out, “the cinematic is imbedded in our lifeworld – our day-to-day experiences of existence”– and, therefore, should be seen as a powerful tool of understanding the world and how stereotypes come about. In this section we also give a brief account on the discussion that AMNM has sparked in the Netherlands and questions it has raised in relation to the stereotypes used in movies. What follows is a section on individual language use and the concept of linguistic crossing that challenges traditional notions of language crossing. The theoretical section ends with a discussion at the intersection of geography and language, focusing on language ideologies and the experience of being in place and out of place through the use of language. The analysis focuses on the ways in which stereotypical imaginaries of language, identity, and place are pictured in the movie AMNM. The final section concludes with a discussion about the use of stereotypes in movies in geographical research more broadly and in the study of linguistic crossing specifically. We will also set out how the ability of being flexible and to have control over one’s language use and identity are important and how to use them strategically is, however, not so much tied to questions of race and ethnicity. Rather, they appear to be more related to socioeconomic status and educational background and the personal ability to cross socio-spatial boundaries in the city.

Movies as Vistas, Stereotypes as Indicators

Movies have been used in political and cultural geographies to research identities and worldviews (Aitken and Dixon 2006; Dalby 2008; Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2006; Madsen 2014; Shapiro 2009; Woodward 2016). They are useful resources to decipher dominant stereotypes and representations of groups, places, and languages and the analysis of these representations and also those tied to the use of language strategies in this movie. These enable us to discuss language ideologies about normative conventions of specific urban encounters. Stereotypes in movies are useful vistas into the ways language identity and place are practiced and how ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, as well as segregation and encounters between different groups, are represented. As Reijnders (2010) has argued in relation to TV series: “By placing the story in a perspective that is recognizable to most spectators, the credibility of the series is raised across the board. The plots may be fictional, but the events could also actually have occurred – they could literally have taken place” (2010, p. 42). Like a TV series, moviemakers are also concerned by the credibility of their production; thus, they provide useful insights into the daily life in the city.

The creation and maintenance of stereotyping happens throughout many situations, in, for example, “cognitive overload, group conflict, power differences, or a desire to justify the status quo” (Park et al. 2006). In popular culture, through media in fictional movies, stereotyping is used to quickly provide the audience with information about the characters and their expected behavior (Casey 2008; Park et al. 2006). Moviemakers use stereotypes to give the audience easily understandable clues of what is going on and what they can expect from the characters in a given situations. In comedies, stereotyping is typically used to make the public laugh (Bowes 1990; King 2002).

However, it is difficult to decipher how these are received by the audience. Stereotypes can be seen as a result of existing social relations, but they may also be actively used to change social relations or create new ones (King 2002; Park et al. 2006). King (2002), for instance, mentions that racial stereotyping in comedy might reinforce these stereotypes but might also work as a parody and as such be an effective way to mock and question stereotyping itself and give members of the audience the possibility to criticize and reject specific stereotypes and stereotyping habits. On the contrary, members of the audience might, however, see their prejudice confirmed, even if the intention of the makers is to demonstrate how ridicule stereotypes are. In his account on the politics of humor, Ridanpää (2014) mentions that although there is a shared belief that humor directed at minorities is essentially insulting, it is also seen to ridicule the processes of “othering.” “Humor possesses a shared social purpose for fostering group cohesion and social bonding, as well as the creation and preservation of group identity” (Ridanpää 2014, p. 713). When stereotypes are used in comedy, it remains, therefore, difficult to estimate what effect they have on the audience: do they laugh at them or with them? (Bowes 1990).

Even if some people laugh at the stereotypes being used, many laugh with them – even if some members of the audience reject the portrayed stereotypes and see them through. Others will hold the stereotypes as the truth, and their visibility reinforces what they think about social relations and about environments and about specific groups and specific places. Moreover, there is an additional tricky side associated with the use of stereotyping in comedy. Some members of the audience may feel offended or uncomfortable as they might feel that they are the center of mockery. By using comedy as a specific genre, moviemakers and members of the general public would argue that these are unjustified feelings and that those who felt mocked or hurt have missed the point of the movie. In this light, comedy has an alibi to use stereotypes. In the words of Park et al. (2006, p. 160):

The nature of the genre and the comedic performance dictate that audiences should not take stereotypes seriously because they are intentionally humorous and that taking offense to stereotypic representations simply signals misreading of the filmmaker’s intent.

The movie chosen for this analysis has sparked a large debate about the use of stereotypes as it touches upon popular representations and ideas of linguistic and ethnic diversity in the city. The movie is situated in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, which is, along with many other Western European cities, a city characterized by a strong and diverse migrant population. It is based on a semi-autobiographic novel by Robert Vuijsje which was first published in 2008 and won a prestigious award (“Gouden Uil”). Some have celebrated the book for its accurate description of Amsterdam’s multicultural landscape – “Robert Vuijsje knows all the names, places, and ‘niches’ of Amsterdam and describes them with speed and flair” (Ruyters 2008) and “[he] is able to step into environments that most readers only know from the outside” (Etty 2009) while “not being pretentiously politically correct about it” (Marbe 2009). Others have criticized AMNM for stimulating “colonial sexism” (Nzume 2009) and reaffirming persistent stereotypes about the neighborhood De Bijlmer and its inhabitants (Pronk 2009; Verdooren 2009). Robert Vuijsje himself stressed that the book shows that within a few kilometers one can find a totally different world where different cultures, lifestyles, and music preferences exist without the average Dutch person knowing of it, while at the same time he stated that the story is merely fictional and that everybody might find something in the book to feel upset about (Etty 2009). He further claims that the story centers around a confused character and points out that those who feel discriminated are equally confused (Modderkolk 2009). Since then Robert Vuijsje has published weekly interviews in de Volkskrant (one of the main national newspapers) from 2012 to 2018 on the role of ethnic origins and national background in Dutch society.

Of interest is that the discussion below also sparked debates about the very purpose of novels, literature, and movies. Often it was pointed out that individuals who felt offended by the novel forgot that it should not be taken too seriously – in line with Park et al. (2006). When the movie was released, Quinsy Gario, who is a well-known public figure in public debates around racism and racial stereotyping in the Netherlands, additionally pointed out the damaging effect of stereotypes used in movies. He stated the following:

While the book still gave an option for own critical reflection, the movie does not give you time to think about humiliating, violating and dehumanizing scenes that have been laced together. By placing this under the heading of humour, the audience does not get anything showed but so many violent instances on the humanness of black people, packed in light entertainment. (Gario 2012)

Gario points out that the movie, more than the novel, may have a stronger stereotyping effect as the story loses depth and reflection and the stereotypes become fueled with images and sounds. It also raises the question about the accountability of authors and moviemakers: to which extent can they make use of stereotypes when it is humorous, and when does it start openly hurting people’s feelings?

In their analysis of the movie, Van Gent and Jaffe (2016) expose various spatial imaginaries that are used in the movie to normalize urban inequalities, with a specific focus on racial, colonial, and gender dichotomies. They argue that “the film presents the city’s socio-economic disparities through a culturally essentialist lens that relies on raced and gendered clichés and references a spatial imaginary that reflects and reproduces the city’s hierarchies of place and value” (2016, p. 568). Although we reckon that many stereotypes are indeed used in the movie, we do argue that they are not as straightforward as they might appear. Leaving aside the open-ended question whether the audience laughs at the stereotypes or with them – which has not been considered by Van Gent and Jaffe (2016) – remains an important question, and we argue that the movie itself also provides images and clues that counteract the stereotypes it portrays. As we shall see, at the end of the movie, a third character seems to break with the stereotypical imaginaries that have been shown throughout the movie about the black community in general and the black woman specifically. However, before dealing with place and linguistic stereotypes portrayed in the movie, the next section provides a theoretical backdrop to individual language use and its relation to language ideologies at place.

Language Crossing and Linguistic Ideologies in the Multilingual City

Unlike other accounts of the movie, this analysis focuses on the way in which languages are being represented and how they are stereotypically used to signify crossings or intersections through different social environments. When referring to languages, we do not refer to the analysis of written text or scripts (e.g., Rogers 2010) or discourse and narratives on places (e.g., Daniels and Lorimer 2012; Davis 2004; Keighren and Withers 2012; Rickly 2017; Smith and Foote 2017). Rather this chapter focuses on linguistic diversity in the city and the use of individual linguistic strategies to accommodate for different social environments. Chriost and Thomas (2008, p. 2) argue that there needs to be more scholarly awareness on linguistic diversity in cities as:

language remains a potent marker of difference, with linguistic difference often elided with, or subsumed within, ethnic-racial differences. […] Currently, a heightened attention to cultural difference, of which linguistic diversity is a central feature, is re-shaping the social fabric of cities of all sizes and in all parts of the world.

Studying language use in this context is important as it has two social functions that at the same time both foster and impede social cohesion: “on the one hand, language is a means of communication that makes it possible to interact with others; on the other hand, it can be used to strengthen relationships within a group that shares the same language and thereby to intensify that group’s segregation from others” (Mamadouh and El Ayadi 2016, p. 62). Language serves both as a bridge and a wall and is important to account for both when studying social relationships in cities. There has been some work dedicated on social diversity in cities and language as discourses, but as Chriost and Thomas (2008, p. 4) have stated, “what is much less well understood is the specific impact of city life or, perhaps, ‘cityness’ on the range of language behaviours, practices and attitudes of speakers” and the ways in which the city produces and reproduces certain language practices and behaviors. By focusing on stereotypes of language use in relation to identity and places, we try to broaden the scope of research that has been dedicated to decipher how social diversity is played out in the multiethnic or super diverse city.

Language Crossing

Traditionally, sociolinguists have been preoccupied with investigating the language use of so-called speech communities. Through this lens, individual language use was seen to be attached to their communal background and determined by either socioeconomic class, ethnicity, gender, or other social categories (Labov 1966, 1972a, b). Despite its popularity, this framework has been challenged by recent scholarship in sociolinguistics, especially because in super diverse contexts in cities there are many instances where so-called language crossing can be observed. These language crossings challenge the notion that individuals are tied to their speech community when it comes to their language use. Language crossing occurs when one passes the normative boundaries of the speech community they have been socialized in and display linguistic use normally linked to “others” (Rampton 1995). For example, the diminishing use of grammatical genis thatder in Dutch is often accredited to immigrants and their descendants (Cornips 2008; Nortier and Dorleijn 2008), especially to youngsters with a Turkish and Moroccan background, who are seen to sometimes mistakenly, but often purposely, use the article “de” instead of “het” (marking the masculine or the feminine gender, respectively, the neutral gender in Dutch grammar). Also of note is that at times, this is also used by individuals who are not necessarily associated with these linguistic varieties, such as the “white autochthonous urban youths” who are usually associated with the standard form of the dominant language. In this case, an ethnolect – defined by Clyne as “varieties of a language that mark speakers as members of ethnic groups who originally used another language or a distinctive variety” (Clyne 2000, p. 86) (like immigrants) – is used to express a chosen lifestyle. It is also often associated with being tough, streetwise, and masculine (Cutler 2008). Conversely, when adolescents with a migrant background do not use the ethnolect they are expected to use, they are sometimes complimented on speaking the dominant language “without having an accent.” Clearly, individuals maintain stereotypical ideas about people and the languages they are supposed to use, which is often tied to broader social categories with which they are associated. Yet this example shows that individuals can surpass these images linked to their use of language and cross into linguistic behavior normally associated with others.

Linguistic varieties are not only often imagined to be tied to ethnicity and citizenship but also to social class. This was used in one of the first movies produced in and on Amsterdam at a time where ethnic and racial diversity was limited: Pygmalion. This Dutch translation of the famous play by G.B. Shaw depicted the life of a young working-class flower girl who gets transformed to a posh lady by extensively working on her linguistic skills. The movie portrays how social mobility is tied to learning different varieties while at the same time also learning the codes and conventions of other social environments. It shows that learning these codes and conventions is full of power issues as certain ways of speaking are considered less useful than others and that “getting rid” of certain ways of speaking even helps social mobility. It also shows that linguistic varieties can be learned, either through the means of standard education at school or, as the flower girl in Pygmalion, through a crucial social contact.

Some sociolinguists have now gone further in stressing the role of individual agency in linguistic use which sets the individual away from their communal background and focuses rather more strongly on the speaker. Wei (2011), for instance, stresses “creativity” and “criticality” as being important in the investigation of individual language use in the multilingual and multiethnic city which he specifically referred to as translanguaging. Creativity refers to “the ability to choose between following and flouting the rules and norms of behaviour, including the use of language” and criticality “to the ability to use available evidence appropriately, systematically and insightfully to inform considered views of cultural, social and linguistic phenomena, to question and problematize received wisdom, and to express views adequately through reasoned responses to situations” (Wei 2011, p. 1223). In general, this contrasts with the “routinized” way of speaking discussed above. It implies instead a greater awareness of languages and broad opportunities to engage critically with one’s own language use and to use languages strategically to achieve certain social effects. Consequently, this framework underlines individual agency in language use, transcends social categories, and detaches individuals from communal background, as it allows individuals to choose whom they want to be and what language to use to perform that identity. Wei (2011) builds his argument further by showing how the multiethnic and super diverse city in particular enhances criticality and creativity of its citizens as follows:

Whilst rapid globalization has made everyday life in late modernity look increasingly routinized, repetitive and monotonous […] the enhanced contacts between people of diverse backgrounds and traditions provide new opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity. Individuals are capable of responding to the historical and present conditions critically. They consciously construct and constantly modify their socio-cultural identities and values through social practices such as translanguaging. (Wei 2011, p. 1224)

In this chapter we will show that the ability for individuals to use language critically and creatively is not evenly distributed; some individuals are better aware of their linguistic capabilities and remain more successful in using language in a creative manner. Some people may learn different languages or varieties of languages through the educational system, while others may pick this up from contacts living in other social environments throughout the city. Our interest lies mostly in the latter, since we want to analyze how individual language use is also informed by the geographical composition of the city, specifically exacerbated by urban processes such as segregation and concentration. These themes are often neglected in research. The opposite is rather true in geographical research: language use is often undermined and undervalued, while this is crucial for understanding how social relations are played out in the city. As we will show in the next section, language use and language crossing in specific situations are always informed by the socio-spatial content: individuals do not use different languages or varieties whenever they want to and wherever they want to but are either motivated or discouraged by place-specific conditions.

Language Ideologies and Place

Other important issues that have to be addressed when dealing with freedom and control over individual linguistic practices are the ideological consequences and questions of power as they are related to language practices. With language there is always meaning involved. Coupland (2007) contends that “sociolinguistic resources are not just linguistic forms or varieties themselves, allied to competence in using them. They are forms or varieties imbued with potential for social meaning” (2007, p. 203). Despite the fact that people can challenge normative conventions, these are generalized associations to different varieties, such as “standard” and “nonstandard” forms of any given language, and some ways of speaking are socially valued more than others and, therefore, attributed more power than others.

In contrast to varieties associated with lower social classes, ethnic groups, and peripheral regions, standard forms of the dominant language are institutionally validated and seen as a proxy for education, culture instruction, and decency, while vernacular speech is often attributed to lower socioeconomic status, has less prestige, and, in certain situations, even entails social stigmatization (Coupland 2009). This implies that in order to get ahead in life, to be socially mobile, it might not be wise to be able to speak only vernacular varieties and have no ability in “standard” forms, as they are not useful for upward social mobility as it is those standard variety of the national or foreign language that enable success at school or in the labor markets. These ideological constraints should also be taken into account when dealing with questions about individual agency in individual linguistic practices, as these constraints determine what is considered normal and deviant behavior.

Place is an important variable when it comes to language ideologies. As Cresswell (1996, p. 11) has suggested, “the role of the geographic environment – the power of place – in cultural and social processes can provide another layer in the understanding and demystifying of the forces that effect and manipulate our everyday behavior.” Language ideologies are played out in places and people’s behavior follows from interpreting these places. Although people can interpret places differently, there are “favored, normal, accepted readings and discouraged, heretical, abnormal readings – dominant readings and subordinate readings” (Cresswell 1996, p. 13). In other words, some will feel more compelled than others to adapt their speech to the places they are in.

At times though, people will, either intentionally or not, show “abnormal” practices that challenge these taken-for-granted conventions. For instance, it is only when someone starts speaking a vernacular language that a job interviewer will be aware of the implicit language conventions of the company. It is exactly this “inappropriate” practice at this particular place at this particular moment, a practice which is “out of place,” that tells us a lot about the place and, conversely, about how the place helps to shape behavior. This means that even if individuals have wide linguistic resources at their disposal, language ideologies greatly shape the actual linguistic practices in situ.

Although it is doubtful that there is a straightforward relation between social categories and individual language use, the individual linguistic repertoire is made out of limited languages and varieties that have been picked up earlier in life. Moreover, there are powerful, space-specific language ideologies at work that determine language use. Although people may play with the languages they know and challenge normative conventions of what is proper in a specific place and what is not, they first have to be aware of these conventions. An important way of learning about these conventions is direct experience but also through media that produces and reproduces popular representations of what is expected and normal behavior in specific places and what is deviant. Therefore, popular culture is a useful resource to investigate these normative linguistic conventions and the ways in which individuals use their linguistic repertoire to challenge these conventions.

Stereotypes in AMNM

The movie AMNM depicts the coming of age of David Samuels, a twenty-something young man from a prosperous Jewish family. It is situated in Amsterdam, a city characterized by a strong and diverse migrant population (Crul et al. 2013; Kloosterman 2014; Nijman 1999), as many other cities in Western Europe. The main character lives in Amsterdam Oud-Zuid which one is of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city (Fig. 1). As the son of an editor-in-chief of an intellectual news show, he is regularly surrounded with his father’s bourgeois friends, white middle-age men, who discuss political and academic issues over glasses of wine. The first scenes of the movie show the rising tension between David and his family, girlfriend, and friends. Since David has decided not to enroll at university – in his circle the only logical step after finishing secondary school – he increasingly feels misunderstood and even excluded. This “out-of-placeness” is exacerbated by the fact that due to his physical appearance, he is often taken for a “Moroccan,” i.e., the descendant of Moroccan immigrants, and, therefore, “not really Dutch.” Indeed, his musing about identity and his uneasiness with his Dutchness is more related to his “Moroccan” looks than to his Jewish origins. He breaks up with his (Jewish) high school sweetheart to search of his true self. For that journey, he goes on a quest for another love – a quest for a black, Surinamese woman from, for him, unknown and racialized territory of an Amsterdam peripheral district known for its modernist high-rise “De Bijlmer” (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Neighborhoods Oud-Zuid and De Bijlmer situated in Amsterdam

Place Stereotypes: Amsterdam Oud-Zuid and De Bijlmer

In order to understand language crossing in this movie, we need to begin with an analysis of the social environments and place-specific conditions where events take place. The movie portrays a clear division between the lifeworlds of David and Rowanda, and throughout the movie it shows that integrating the two worlds can be a difficult and tricky task. David is raised in a peaceful and orderly neighborhood. The movie opens with views of the public space in Oud-Zuid, marked by playing children, wanderers, and attractive apartments. Oud-Zuid is a late nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century extension, built south of the main urban park for the higher class in the city. Despite the rapid gentrification of the inner city and surrounding working-class neighborhoods, it remains one of the poshest neighborhoods. The scene in the movie immediately sets out what kind of people to expect in this place, namely, white middle-to-upper-class “Amsterdammers.” This is also stressed by David in a voice-over when an image of Oud-Zuid is shown:

There are no so-called allochthones people living in Amsterdam Oud-Zuid. There are no blacks, no Turks and surely no Moroccans. As my mother always says: There are only decent people in Amsterdam Oud-Zuid.

In Dutch formal and informal classification, “allochthones” is the label used to talk about migration. Technically allochthones are people born abroad or with one parent born abroad. The statistics generally distinguish Western from non-Western allochthones. Recently, the Dutch Scientific Advisory Council announced that they would no longer make use of this term, because “the dichotomy of ‘allochthonous’ versus ‘autochthonous’ and ‘Western’ versus ‘non-Western’ is not appropriate for contemporary issues regarding immigration and integration”. Now, they argue, it is more appropriate to use categories such as “citizens with a Dutch background” versus “citizens with a migration background,” which, for some, is still not a sufficient enough of a category to use to address certain groups of the population. The voice-over consequently directs the viewer to consider the link between race, ethnicity, and decency: black individuals and individuals from migrant backgrounds cannot be “decent” and are intrinsically different from the people from Oud-Zuid. It produces a sharp divide between “us in this neighborhood” and “them in their neighborhood.”

De Bijlmer is portrayed as a racialized place, a place where people from Surinamese background live in large high-modernist high-rise apartment blocks. This neighborhood was built in the 1970s in the polder Bijlmermeer that became an exclave of the municipality of Amsterdam. It is part of the city’s high-modernist high-rise extension plan to build high-quality housing in a green environment to replace the poor-quality dwellings in the old city. Initially, these large-scale apartment blocks were built by housing associations targeting both the working class and the middle class. But due to the independence of Suriname in 1975 and the migration of Surinamese choosing to remain Dutch, Surinamese households moved in great numbers into this area where dwellings were available when they arrived in the European part of the Netherlands. Up until recently the neighborhood had been stigmatized for diverse social problems: high vacancy rates, poverty, dysfunctional families, crime, and drugs in the early 1980s. This image is still associated with the neighborhood. The neighborhoods in the movie, Oud-Zuid and De Bijlmer, are thus not only each other’s opposite in terms of sociocultural status but their physical makeup differs greatly too.

The first time that David travels to this neighborhood by metro, he wonders – again in voice-over:

The metro connects the inner-city with De Bijlmer, a neighbourhood which has been built the furthest away from the inner-city. Why do all these black Amsterdammers live here?

This question is not answered; instead the movie follows David’s exploration of what makes this environment exotic, or at least different, and, maybe more importantly, his attempts to discover the spirit of the place and his quest for a social context in which he feels at home.

Two Lifeworlds in Two Neighborhoods: Male Sociolinguistic Adjustment and Female Inflexibility

There is not only a great contrast between the two social environments that David and Rowanda inhabit; they are quite different persons to begin with. Many stereotypes in the story are based on the distinction between the white bourgeois male and the black lower-class woman (see Van Gent and Jaffe 2016). It is the male who goes into the racialized territory to find himself a clearly defined woman – black, big, and hypersexual. This sets out the differences between the two: David, the “white” bourgeois man, who travels to the margins of the city, with a clear objective in mind, and the female counterpart who falls for him without hesitation. Rowanda chooses to date David because she hopes to avoid dating promiscuous black men in her surroundings. Eventually, she breaks up with him when he becomes too integrated and becomes similarly promiscuous himself.

These differences between the two main characters are further strengthened when the linguistic differences between them are taken into account. David is depicted as a young man who is capable of navigating between different worlds and adjusting his identity and his language use to the context he finds himself in. He can speak both the appropriate urban slang (highly influenced by Sranan Tongo – the language of Suriname – and other immigrant languages) and standard Dutch. He is therefore able to communicate in different social environments. By learning/knowing/practicing different varieties of the Dutch language, he is shown as being able to connect and disconnect from different social environments as he wishes and, especially in the context of his family surroundings, to play with his linguistic repertoire to challenge established practices. In De Bijlmer – where everybody seems to speak exclusively urban slang – he uses many nonstandard features. Despite some funny unintended linguistic mistakes when he first enters De Bijlmer, indicating some kind of socialization, he is able to gradually pick up “the language of the street”: he starts using the same words but also the same postures and the same stories (e.g., objectifying women and boosting about cheating them). By contrast, in Oud-Zuid – where everybody seems to speak standard Dutch and many of David’s peers understand urban slang, but never use it – he rebels by first dating someone his parents do not necessarily accept and then also by crossing into another linguistic variety. He does so to show that he has gained access to community life in De Bijlmer and feels at home there. He also does this to demonstrate both street-wisdom and masculinity. For instance, to show how he has become an expert on the racialized urban outskirt and on black females specifically, he speaks to his friends in a mix of standard Dutch and features of urban slang. David seems able to cross into another linguistic variety whenever he wants to and to be consciously making use of this code, which is in line with what Wei (2011) has termed “creativity” and “criticality.”

David’s ability to be adaptive and at time to challenge normative conventions is in stark contrast to Rowanda’s predicament. She seems inflexible and therefore confined within the boundaries of her social environment – unable to use a different language variety than the urban slang she usually speaks, even when she might wish to do so. While David is switching between varieties, she seems unable to do so and is, therefore, unable to cross sociocultural boundaries and seems “locked” in De Bijlmer. In the movie, she only leaves her neighborhood once, to attend the birthday party of David’s mother. This results in Rowanda feeling out of place, not being able to decipher the social codes of this social environment (i.e., that of a white bourgeois birthday). The reverse happens when David’s parents visit Rowanda’s mother and have an awkward dinner in front of the television, something they deem improper. The conversations between them stall as they do not find a common ground or a common topic of interest and ask each other inappropriate questions. The only consensus among their parents is that they find them to form an odd and unlikely couple. This underlines that their lifeworlds are difficult to connect, let alone merge into a common universe. Their relationship seems predestined to fail; it is not only language use itself that makes it a tricky situation, but language use highlights the difference between the two worlds even more.

A Symmetrical Crossover After All?

During one of his unhappy visits to his parents, David meets a young black Surinamese woman who attends a gathering of David’s father. Rita is an intern of David’s father, and she is studying for a degree in sociology with a minor in media and culture studies. She is perfectly able to voice and defend her opinions on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics among David’s father’s intellectual friends. This triggers a reaction from David in which he accuses her to be a “bounty” (Dutch urban slang which literally refers to being like the chocolate and coconut candy bar, black on the outside but white on the inside, and figuratively to take over white traits). In that context, he clearly uses a feature of another linguistic variety to show Rita that he understands her background and to tell her how she should behave. It generally takes being part of the group to accuse someone of being a race traitor. Of course, Rita does not accept his critique from him. Instead of having a white youngster telling her how she should behave, she challenges him on what she sees as his turf: a debate on the state of Israel. This double stereotype (discussing Israeli politics as intellectual pastime par excellence and a dividing topic between different communities in the cities Dutch Jews siding stereotypically with Israel and Dutch Muslims with the Palestinians) contrasts with an earlier encounter between David and Rowanda. At that earlier occasion, David was explaining his family’s tragedy in Auschwitz, but Rowanda did not seem interested; she did not respond to this issue and instead talked about needing to pay a visit to her hair dresser. On the contrary Rita is shown to be knowledgeable and perfectly able to discuss this tragedy on a higher political level. Rita shows that educational background is also important in being able to use language strategically and that language can be learned through education but at the same time needs to be complemented by spatial mobility.

It is only at the end of the movie that the two meet each other again, once David has failed: he has been kicked out of his parents’ house and he has been kicked out by Rowanda too, for being no more faithful than other men in her surroundings (i.e., not behaving as the reliable white man she was welcoming into her life). He works in a fast-food restaurant in the inner city – a precarious job stereotypically associated with lower-class migrant youngsters catering stereotypically lower-class customers. David recognizes Rita, although she is dressed entirely differently than during their first encounter at his parents’ house, and enters the restaurant shouting in urban slang and in Sranan Tongo to a group of men. She now looks much more like Rowanda, dressed in a short miniskirt showing off her lower back tattoo and wearing conspicuous golden necklaces. This all makes her more attractive to him, as a possible replacement for Rowanda. Moreover, she also introduces herself under her real name, Sherida. She explains him that she used the name Rita (which has, unlike her real name, a more universal connotation) to get the internship at his father’s newspaper company. It amazes David that, just like himself, Sherida is able to be flexible and adjust to different social environments and that she is also attracted by both worlds and is able to navigate between these different contexts. Like him she has a fluid identity. This shared adjustability and their flexibility allow for a fruitful relationship, and the movie has a happy ending, with both of them paying a visit to David’s family, where Sherida is warmly welcomed, suggesting that culture is the issue, not skin color. And in that endeavor, language and the ability to behave appropriately linguistically are key to social mobility and intercultural engagement.


Fiction movies are useful resources to decipher popular stereotypes and representations of groups, places, and languages. Kennedy and Lukinbeal (1997, p. 315) have argued that “the cinematic is imbedded in our lifeworld – our day-to-day experiences of existence” and therefore movies provide powerful tools to understand the world and popular stereotypes and representations. Stereotypes in movies are useful vistas into the ways language identity and place are practiced and how ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, as well as segregation and encounters between different groups, are represented.

The urban movie Alleen maar nette mensen has inspired many debates in the Netherlands about the stereotypes and the representations it deployed in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, but language has, as with most urban movies, not been considered in the analysis, even though it provides important tools for understanding how social diversity works in the multiethnic and multilingual city. Especially in the urban context where a heighted mobility has taken place, the linguistic makeup of the city has become more complex with more languages and varieties coexisting in the same place and influencing each other. Individual language use has also become more complex and can no longer – if ever – be tied to traditional speech communities but focuses rather more strongly on the speaker, with speakers being more aware of their linguistic skills and more creative. Examples of language crossing have become more widespread that surpass linguistic boundaries linked to social categories such as ethnicity.

By focusing on cinematic representations of language use in the movie AMNM, we have shed light on the interplay of language, identity, and place. Its stereotypical representations of linguistic diversity are insightful. They show how the characters’ use of language is embedded in a specific context and how individual agency is not equally shared. Additionally, but important for geographers, learning different language varieties and different social codes and crossing them are linked to crossing spatial boundaries. Linguistic crossing, creativity, and flexibility in language use are linked to physical mobility through different places and in different social environments. It is in these specific environments where people learn to detect language ideologies and enhance their awareness of normative conventions that they may then chose to endorse or to challenge. This critical awareness of language (as just one of the many tools for identification) is not equally shared and seems limited for those who do not regularly cross spatial and social boundaries and be exposed to other groups. Lastly, urban movies raise interesting questions for further research, especially regarding the differential perception of the geographical imaginaries associated with different language varieties in different locations in culturally and linguistically diverse cities as Amsterdam.



This research received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under grant agreement No. 613344 (Project MIME).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human Geography, Planning and International DevelopmentUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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