The Meertens Institute studies the diversity in language and culture in the Netherlands. Within this broad empirical domain, four research fields are being distinguished: oral culture, traditions and rituals, syntactic variation and phonological variation. The research area referred to as oral culture investigates the oral tradition of songs and folk tales in the Netherlands. Traditions and rituals are primarily considered as forms of (public) action in which a person or group experiences and propagates his, her or its identity. Syntactic variation focuses on linguistic variation within sentences, whereas phonological variation focuses on linguistic variation within sounds. These four domains have a long history in the Meertens Institute: they are supported by large constructed corpora, and the Institute’s researchers belong to the international top of their fields.

The four research fields employ a synchronic and a diachronic perspective while focusing on the understanding of the present situation. They study how present-day phenomena came about and how they spread an develop.

Theoretical approaches

Given the variability and complexity of the data, the research fields are studied by four theoretical approaches. First of all, we have the structuralist approach which approaches the empirical object by investigating the observable properties and trying to find empirical generalizations that may give rise to an explanatory theory. In linguistics, the generative theory is important at the Meertens Institute. In ethnology, there are various approaches that are reminiscent of the structuralist approach, especially in the study of oral culture. A second option is the interpretive approach, which at this point is an important perspective in ethnology, focusing on the meanings and symbols people employ in human interaction and emphasizing agency and performance over structure. The interpretive approach is part of modern sociolinguistics as well, and as such connects to the main perspective in ethnology. Another way to gain insight into the phenomena is a quantitative approach making use of statistical techniques. In sociolinguistics, for instance, structuralist approaches are quite naturally connected to quantitative approaches. A quantitative orientation is relevant in some domains in the cultural sciences as well. Finally, we have the rather new and daring cognitive science approach to variation in language and culture. Obiously, the selected research domains have a cognitive significance, for instance with regard to the mental organization of the linguistic system or the way music is organized in the brain.