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The Dutch Language

Overview of 'Het Nederlands' - The Dutch Language

Aap Noot Mies

Dutch is spoken by over twenty million people in Holland and Belgium as well as in former overseas colonies...

Dutch is spoken by over twenty million people in Holland and Belgium as well as in former overseas colonies such as Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. The Dutch spoken in Belgium is often referred to as Flemish though in recent times a standardised version has been recognised by both countries (Dutch and Flemish are about as different as UK and American English). Dutch has also, from the very start, been one of the official languages of the European Union.

English cousin

Historically, Dutch is probably the closest ‘world’ language to English. They are both from the West Germanic branch of languages, which also includes Frisian, a language spoken in the north-east of Holland to this day. Indeed, English might now sound very similar to Dutch had the Normans not conquered England in 1066 and irreversibly influenced Old English with French words and grammar.

Afrikaans is a variant which originated in South Africa amongst Dutch colonists several centuries ago. Despite years of research, it is not yet known from which Dutch dialect or accent this sprang. Amongst its many idiosynchratic features, Afrikaans is the only other language in the world besides English to have only one gender.

Local colour

As many languages do, Dutch reflects its historical roots and traditions in its many expressions and sayings. Dairy farming has long been a pillar of the Dutch economy and has left its trace in many turns of phrase. Don’t drag old cows out of the ditch means approximately to let sleeping dogs lie, for example. The Dutch were also formidable seafarers and English borrowed many nautical words in past centuries, such as sloop, cruise and more recently, polder.

Dutch certainly has a rather unique approach to swearwords: sexually-based ones are less shocking, the worst being related to catching or having nasty diseases, a hangover from unhealthier mediaeval times. The worse the disease, the more insulting the curse, and the Dutch use a whole clutch of them: pleurisy, tuberculosis, the plague, smallpox, cancer… recently even Aids has been added to the list. To call someone an Aids sufferer, for instance, is a grave insult, so the system evolves continually. This can all be a bit unsettling for the unsuspecting newcomer.

Learning Dutch

Many people’s only brush with the Dutch language comes when they take a holiday in Holland. It begins at the airport where words of intimidating length, like vluchtleidingspersoneel and bestemmingsverkeer are common. However, the meanings of words like paspoort, parkeergarage and informatie are not hard to guess.

For those who stay longer, learning Dutch is a challenge and many foreigners simply give up and rely on the widespread knowledge of English in Holland. The difficult pronunciation is perhaps the biggest stumbling block and those who fail to master it will not be taken seriously by the locals.

The apparently harmless letter “g”, as pronounced in groot (great), begin (beginning) or deeg (dough) takes much of the blame. If the term uvular fricative does not inspire respect, the actual sound of this Dutch “g” certainly does: a gutteral rasp at the back of the mouth, usually likened to clearing the throat. The familiar, hard English “g” of girl simply does not exist in Dutch. Even worse, the throat-rasping Dutch version is always pronounced with the same gusto whether at the start, middle or end of a word. It just cannot be avoided or ignored.

Vowels can also be a problem as they are many and varied. There are rules for how to pronounce them but these are obscure and difficult to learn and exceptions are rife. There is also the enigma of the disappearing “n” at the end of any words ending in “–en”, an all too common occurrence. Only true Dutch pedants and unsuspecting foreigners betray themselves by actually pronouncing it.

Like modern French, Dutch has two genders. Not masculine and feminine, but common and neuter. This means instead of ‘le’ and ‘la’, there are ‘de’-words and ‘het’-words. Sometimes, even the Dutch seem to get these mixed up, especially the youngsters.

The future

As with other lesser known languages, Dutch is under constant assault from English. Many in the Dutch literary circles fear that their language will eventually collapse but in modern Holland, it is still a very distinct, strong tongue with its own controlling bodies which from time to time officially update the official spelling rules. This happened three times in the 20th century, each update generating decades of complaint and criticism amongst the common folk.

The youngsters today favour a ‘hip’, seemingly careless, idiom, incorporating influences from the sizable minorities from Morocco and Turkey. There are also many (American) English words and whole expressions. Although not as protectionist as the French with their language, there does seem to be a healthy native desire to hold onto Dutch and this should see the language survive in a recognisable form for many years to come.