The signs at the airport should be reassuring. Welcome to the Netherlands! What could be easier to figure out? Dutch has been rightly described as between German and English, which means that while all three are closely related west Germanic languages, Dutch is closer to English. (Frisian, spoken in a coastal region spaninng the Dutch-German border, is even closer.)
Pick up a Dutch newspaper, and your first impression will be reinforced. The local freesheet tells me that “een nieuwe komedie” is appearing starring Charlize Theron. This new comedy is called “Een Miljoen Domme Manieren om Dood te Gaan”, and if you squint (and happen to know the English title) you can easily see “a million dumb manners for dead to go”, or “a million dumb ways to die”. (In English the film is called “A Million Ways to Die in the West”.) The movie is “van de maker van Ted”, “from the maker of Ted” (another comedy). And so on. If you have a bit of German, even the words that don’t look like English are usually clear. (Reports of an “ongeluk” are clearly about an “accident”, just like the German Unglück.)
So if you speak German and English you can learn Dutch in about 15 minutes, right? Wrong. Not, at least, if you want to go beyond the newspaper and speak to anyone. A German room-mate once described Dutch as “sounding like a throat illness”. The English-speaking native can be forgiven a raised eyebrow upon hearing this from a German.
Dutch consonants are mostly familiar. But those that aren’t are forbidding. The sound in the Scottish loch and German words like Bach shows up everywhere. Those who have learned to use it at the ends of words must learn to use it at the beginning—all the time. Dutch has no native g sound, as in the English go, and usually replaces it instead with this throat-clearing. Other familiar letters are put to unfamiliar uses, like oe, which is pronounced like the vowel in food. And then consonants “devoice” at the end of words, so that d sounds like t and b like p and so on. So if you were reassured that goed is the English good, you must remember that it sounds like khoot.
Then the Dutch like to join their consonants together. English does this too, so that poor souls used to simple consonant-vowel alternation (as in Japanese) struggle mightily with words like strengths. But one of the strengths of the Dutch lies in their ability to string words into ungainly compounds, like their German and Scandinavian counterparts. If the first element of the compound ends in a tricky cluster and the second element also starts with another, you might get a monster like slechtstschrijvend, with nine consecutive consonants, representing seven consonant sounds. Admittedly, this is the kind of barely-a-word mostly used to flummox foreigners (it means "the worst writing"). But as such, it is best-in-class. The legendary Danish shibboleth rødgrød med fløde may beat it for unpronounceability, but at least a foreigner can look at it and give it a try. Looking at slechtstschrijvend it’s tough even to see where the syllables are. It looks more like someone has fallen asleep on the keyboard.
Of course Dutch has vowels, but these too can trip the unwary, especially when they join forces. The last bit of Rembrandt van Rijn, for example, has a diphthong that is a bit like eh-ee at its core. Not so bad, if you practise. But the common dipththong in words like uit (out) requires a quick glide from something like a British person’s er to the u sound in French words like tu, with the lips rounded and the tongue high and far forward. Got that, now?
It is tempting to give up. As you flail around in their language, the Dutch will inevitably quickly switch to flawless English. And on the rare occasion when they don’t know a word, the kinship to English can, in the end, sometimes save the day. Johnson asked a waitress what the thinly shaved red thing wrapped around some white cheese was. She frowned apologetically. “I’m sorry. I don’t know... We call it a biet.” I was relieved to tell her, “So do we.”
Posted: June 26, 2014, 5:50 pm
Thijssen Translations is een toonaangevend vertaalbureau, tekstbureau en tolkbureau, gevestigd in Tilburg. Wij leveren hoogwaardige vertalingen, teksten en localisatie-oplossingen.Thijssen...