When words get in the way…

When words get in the way…

Dutch governmental organisations have decided to get rid of the words ‘autochtoon’ and ‘allochtoon’ – widely used to define native and non-native inhabitants – because they were stigmatising and confusing. But do we know what they really mean?

In the Netherlands until recently the terms ‘autochtoon’ and ‘allochtoon’ were widely used to distinguish between native and non-native inhabitants. They were first suggested in 1971 by the sociologist Hilda Verwey-Jonker, and from 1989 on they were used widely in reports of governmental organisations. At the beginning of November this year, however, it was announced in Dutch media that two of these organisations – the Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid (the Scientific Council for Government Policy, WRR) and the Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek (the Central Bureau for Statistics, CBS) – have decided to stop using them, because their meaning was no longer clear and they were stigmatising people. From now on they will only be speaking about ‘inhabitants with a Dutch or a migration background’.

Defining non-natives

An ‘allochthonous’ (non-native) inhabitant of the Netherlands was defined by the WRR in 1989 as someone of whom at least one of the parents had been born abroad. This rule might not have had the status of law, but it has had a big impact all the same. And the trouble started with this definition. To qualify inhabitants who have one foreign parent as non-natives doesn’t make much sense. It has unnecessarily created a large group of non-natives, who themselves probably feel very Dutch – including for instance my own daughter, who has an Irish mother. The terms ‘autochtoon’ and ‘allochtoon’ became even more problematic, when ‘white’ inhabitants of Dutch descent started using them primarily to distinguish themselves from and feel superior to the ‘coloured’ inhabitants with foreign roots.

A new and very limited meaning

Now that the words seemed to have increasingly got in the way, perhaps it is quite understandable that people in governmental organisations decided to radically end this continuing confusion. But we should realise that at least the concept of ‘autochthony’ is not new. Although it was not widely used, it did already exist – and with a meaning that makes much more sense to me, and also feels closer to its real meaning, than the new and very limited meaning given to it by the WRR.

Belonging to a place

The historian of religion and mythologist Mircea Eliade has said some interesting things about the meaning of ‘autochthony’. In his book Myths, Dreams and Mysteries he explains that ‘autochthony’ expresses ’the profound feeling of having come from the soil, of having been born of the Earth in the same way that the Earth, with her inexhaustible fecundity, gives birth to the rocks, rivers, trees and flowers. It is in this sense that autochthony should be understood: men feel that they are people of the place, and this is a feeling of cosmic relatedness deeper than that of familial or ancestral solidarity.’ In another book, The Sacred and the Profane, he expresses it in a slightly different way and links autochthony to ‘the feeling (…) of belonging to a place.
In other words, autochthony has nothing to do with rules, reason and objectivity, and everything to do with the personal, subjective realm of feeling and more specifically with the feeling of belonging to a place.

The realm of the chthonic

The second part of the concept, ‘chthony’, is interesting as well. It is related to the word ‘chthonic’, which refers to what is underneath the earthly surface, to the subterranean world, to (in Eliade’s words) the inexhaustible fecundity of earth, which gives birth to rocks, rivers, trees and flowers – and of course also to humans. In this sense autochthonous people consider themselves first and foremost earth beings, and are very much aware of the sacred quality of the ground beneath their feet. This earthly connection is so essential to human life that the people who have lost it cannot stop longing and searching for it– which explains the fact that people sometimes return to their place of birth to find it. (In this respect, see my previous blog on the sacred landscape.)

Beyond familial or ancestral solidarity

When Eliade says that autochthony goes ‘deeper than familial or ancestral solidarity’, he means that it is related to our sense of embeddedness in the natural environment. This sense expresses itself on the one hand locally in a connection to the natural environment, but on the other hand in a ‘cosmic relatedness’ which reaches beyond man-made borders between national states (inspired by ancestral solidarity). Autochthony is all about our relationship with the earth, with Mother Earth, and not with an abstract conception of a nation or a state. Historically we may have shifted our focus primarily to our human activities, but we should not forget that without our embeddedness in nature, our life is bound to lose its deeper meaning.

To get down to earth

I like the idea that autochthony, the way it is described above, is something which some people do not automatically possess as a birthright and might even lose along the way. It implies that we actually have to do something – to get down to earth – to stay in touch with it. It could inspire us to take another good look at the place we have been living all our lives, and perhaps even to discover things in it that have somehow always escaped our attention. And when we really feel that we belong to a place, I am sure we welcome ‘inhabitants with a migration background’ in it as well.

So the overall moral of the story is: before we get rid of certain confusing words, we would do well to first get to know what they actually mean.


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