Learning Nederlands

Nederlands has been constantly surprising me, always both easier and more difficult than I expect.

In grammar, some things make complete sense. In Nederlands things either stand, sit, lie or hang. It is all very difficult for French speakers to learn correctly, but the distinction is nearly identical to English, so it is natural to say that a chair stands while a carpet lies. The only exception is that everything written or printed "stands". Your signature stands on the page, music stands on a CD, three sitting children stand on the photo: "Er staan drie zitten kinderen op de photo".

Other grammatical constructs are just so counter intuitive to an English speaker. Consider the verb "introduce" (voorstellen). If I (ik) want to introduce you (u) I don't write "Ik voorstellen u". No, instead I have to split the verb up, put the back bit first and then put you in the middle - "Ik stel u voor". It makes literal translation almost impossible, the half verbs have separate meanings (eg "voor" means "for"), so you have to know which words to join in which order before you can piece together the meaning.

The vocabulary is also both easier and harder than I expected. Learning new words is simple, as the common roots of English and Nederlands make a whole host of words pretty much the same. But knowing the word is much less helpful than I expected, as the pronunciation is a major roadblock. The ability to hear novel phonemes drops after the age of five and is nearly dead by puberty. This means in practice that an adult hearing a new language will not be able to hear the difference between phonemes that don't exist in their language. And if you can't hear it, you can't say it. Think "r" and "l" with Japanese speakers learning English as an adult. For me a lot of the vowels are a problem - I struggle to hear the difference between Flemish "e", "i" and "ie". And then the Flemish "g" and "r"! I just have to use the brickwall phrase I hit too often in Belgium "it's impossible". I’ve had the staff at a frites stall look at me in confusion when I order frites – the only thing on the menu. It will be a long time before I will be able to say I saw eighty eight wonderful canals in Dutch (“achtentachtig prachtige grachten” is a tongue-twister for even native Dutch speakers).

The evocative vocabulary of Nederlands

Katniesziekte. One of the most commonly used Dutch words in our house is, ever since we read it on our kitten's vaccination card. We pronounce it like "catten-sneezey" as it is the Dutch word for “Cat Flu” and little Mint does get the sneezes.

Miepert. Someone who is making cute little complaints.

Snotneus. A congested nose. The aetiology seems rather obvious.

Het schaamstukje. Eating the last slice of cake is so taboo in Flemish culture that the final piece is called "het schaamstukje". This literally translates to "the pubic piece", but more accurately refers to "the shameful piece".

Toetje. The Dutch word for dessert is less commonly used than the French “dessert”, but "toetje" might better reflect the Flemish attitude to serving sizes, as the literal translation is something like "a small close (to the meal)".

Plaatsvervangende schaamte. Everyone who has ever watched "The Office" knows the feeling well, but unlike the English the Flemish have named it. "Plaatsvervangende schaamte" is the embarrassment you feel when watching someone else do something really embarrassing. It literally translates to something like "place-substitution shame".

Alstublieft. The most commonly used Flemish word, meaning both "please" and "there you go" (a contraction of "als het u blieft" which literally means "if it pleases you"). As the French also use a single phrase for these two meanings, "s'il vous plaît", the most common English mistake in Belgium is waiters saying "please" when they give you something.

Knuffel. The name for stuffed toys and cuddles. As an aside, the Flemish always pronounce the "k" at the front, so "knie" (knee) is pronounced like it looks like it should be in English - keh-nee.

Blauw kater. A male cat is a kater, while a female cat is a kat. “Kattertje” is the name for both a kitten and a small hang-over, while “blauw kater” (blue cat) is the name for a really bad hang-over.


Flemish sayings

Er hangt regen in de lucht. "The rain hangs in the sky", meaning an overcast day

Ik doe water in de wij. "I put water in the wine", meaning to compromise or give in

Korsten geven nieuwe borsten. "Crusts will give you new breasts", analogous to the English "eat your crusts, it'll put hair on your chest".


Sister languages

One of the fascinating parts of learning Nederlands is just how similar the language is to English. English and Nederlands can really be considered to be sister languages, with Nederlands retaining more of its Teutonic origin and English having developed through Celtic and French influences. One of my favourite examples is the word child (or "kind" in Nederlands). In English we pluralise with an "s" while in Dutch they pluralise with an "en". But "child" is an exception in both languages, we don't say "childs" and they don't say "kinden". Instead, both languages have kept the same exception to the rule in pluralising the word "child", to "children" in English and "kinderen" in Dutch.

Counting is another excellent example. While my Flemish and Dutch friends all strongly protest, to my ear the numbers between one and ten all sound like English numbers spoken with a German accent: een, twee, drie, vier, vijf, zes, zeven, acht, negen, tien. The numbers between eleven and twenty are the same, and use a common rule by calling them "teens": elf, twaalf, dertien, veertien, vijftien, zestien, zeventien, achttien, negentien, twintig. Look at "twaalf" in Nederlands, it even shares the the very strange English exception, which says "twelve" not "two-teen"! The only substantial difference between Nederlands and English in counting is after twenty, where they will say the units before the tens, so twenty four is vierentwintig ("four and twenty"). This difference also has historical roots in English, such as the line "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" from "Sing a song of sixpence", dating back to at least 1744. Even the non-metric numbers are shared between English and Nederlands. In English we'll call twelve a "dozen", a dozen dozen (144) a "gross" and a dozen dozen dozen (1728) a "great gross". In Nederlands they have, respectively, a "dozijn", a "gros" and a "groot gros".