Do I speak Dutch?

Glen Newey

How many languages do you speak? Last week Jakub Marian, ‘a Czech mathematician, linguist, and musician currently living in Germany’, blogged his guesstimate of the figure for the typical person in each European country. Expectedly, the British are near the bottom of the heap; only the Hungarians do worse. It’s debatable whether this is cause or effect of the anglosphere’s hegemony (well, perhaps not that debatable, though it’s hard not to like the theory that puts its triumph down to Britons’ refusal to learn anyone else’s lingo). The Brits bounce back, though, if the question is what percentage of a given country’s population speaks English, at around 95 per cent.

It’s a good question at what point one can claim to speak a language. When you can order a beer in it? Translate Virgil into rhyming hexameters? Marian reckons what counts is ability to hold a conversation, though again human-to-human yack stretches from the sesquipedalian to the sub-Tellytubby. At any rate, Marian’s survey has Beneluxers topping out. The average Luxembourgeois, for instance, can converse in 3.6 languages, as against just 1.6 for the Brits and Irish. (The Hungarians, with 1.5, have the excuse of speaking a Finno-Ugric language unrelated to anything outside Estonia and Finland.) If one uses the median rather than the average, Hiberno-Brits go down to 1 (though it isn't clear why, given that language mastery is scalar, Marian insists on using mostly integral values for the median).

Like everyone else’s, my effective vocabulary, English and other, smudges on in a specious present between getting and forgetting. Work means I now have to learn Dutch, having put in two years learning French in Brussels. Not that I mind. Words are for me what shoes were for Imelda Marcos. It’s not enough for them to be out there somewhere – in a dictionary, say – as, I imagine, it didn’t do it for Imelda to know that there were slingbacks and mules, pumps and brothel-creepers, espadrilles and clogs, laid up in a Dolcis warehouse. They have to be owned, tried on, worn in as part of a wider ensemble. And so it goes with Dutch. I dig it that every dozenth word or so looks like a cuss, that U kunt is actually polite Dutch, and balzak the medically correct word for ‘scrotum’. More generally, the language looks to a native English speaker like the output of a surrealists’ synod. 'U kunt op de krappe trap opgaan om de dikhuidige paardenfokker in de slaapkamer te zien' is a possible, if improbable, sentence (‘You can go up the narrow staircase to see the thick-skinned horse-breeder in the bedroom’).

But then what is language, if not a running commentary on the improbable? The primers I used when learning Russian did well on this. ‘Моя тетя поет, но мой дядя под столом’ means ‘My aunt is singing, but my uncle is under the table’: a nicely dysfunctional domestic vignette, the climax perhaps of a night with the Red Army choir on the radiogram and a rehoboam of Stolichnaya. The BBC Russian course declared that ‘Солженицын более значительный писатель, чем Энид Блайтон,’ or ‘Solzhenitsyn is a more significant writer than Enid Blyton’ – perhaps cooked up as an opening gambit for Literaturnaya Gazeta cocktail parties – which manages to sound platitudinous while quite possibly being false. And the Collins course included the borderline-deranged ‘I am not talking about blood. I am talking about a man that is lying in blood,’ doubtless aimed at would-be spooks, whom Collins clearly imagined as a cross between J.L Austin and Philip Marlowe. Let me know if you need the Russian version.

Such flatpack sentences are clearly useless, in that any possible world they might fit lies at a preposterous remove from our own. But it was a red-letter moment when another learner’s boilerplate sentence, ‘Это мой чемодан!’ (‘It’s my suitcase!’), actually came up by the luggage carousel at Domodedovo airport as I was retrieving my bag from the clutches of some FSB operative. I was primed to follow up with aperçus about my aunt’s bel canto and Noddy’s adventures in the gulag, but he strode off.


  • 14 October 2014 at 7:08pm
    streetsj says:
    Travelling in Turkey in 1982 - very few of the locals spoke any English but we read that some spoke German so we tried the occasional sprechen sie Deutsch? Fortunately no one did as, being British, we didn't either.
    We had a Turkish phrase book but the limitations of that became embarrassingly obvious when I tried out on a girl I met on the beach, "I'm going to the disco tonight, what are you doing?" She seemed to understand but among the giggles there wasn't a single word I recognised. It probably didn't help that there was unlikely to be a disco within 50 miles.

  • 14 October 2014 at 8:19pm
    UncleShoutingSmut says:
    When I was in school in the UK in the mid-eighties, the standard-issue vocab book - probably from the seventies or before - was thematically arranged and each chapter ended with some "Useful phrases". Two such phrases I found so outlandish that I actually memorized them. Under the "Travel" rubric was "Être à la merci d'un chauffeur de taxi malhonnête" ("To be at the mercy of some dishonest taxi driver"); it was more difficult to account for "À grand renfort d'engrais" - the crucial "With lashings of fertiliser", of course - which rounded off the "Home and Garden" chapter.
    I was sure the book was called Elementary French Vocabulary for Schools, but I haven't been able to track anything of that name down. Any help appreciated.

  • 15 October 2014 at 7:38pm
    Alex Drace-Francis says:
    Far from being unrelated to anything outside Finland and Estonia, Hungarian is part of the Uralic language group, and as such has numerous kin-languages in the Urals. Finno-Ugric (a category which many linguists today reject) is a sub-family of Uralic.
    At the same time, Hungarian has more Slavic and Germanic vocabulary than it does Uralic. So a Hungarian trying to learn the Dutch word for scrotum can be reassured not only that the morphology of 'balzak' is the same as that of Hungarian 'herezacskó', but also that both parts ('here' = testicle, 'zacskó' = bag) are Germanic, even if the latter has incorporated a Slavic diminutive suffix. A zacskó in Budapest is recognizably the same as a zak in Antwerp.

  • 16 October 2014 at 6:53am
    Alex K. says:
    Since my comment seems stuck in moderation for good, I'm reposting it without links.

    ‘My aunt is singing, but my uncle is under the table’ is slightly reminiscent of Alexander Lipson’s Russian course. Not only do some of Lipson's Russian texts read like little masterpieces, but he was apparently a brilliant, innovative teacher. Here's one of his exercises, in English:

    ‘The Abnormal Woman.

    I'm an abnormal woman. My dear husband loves his wife. If he knew, what would he say?! My dear children love their mommy. If they knew, what would they think?!

    Do you know where I was today? And do you know what I did? In the city there is a chic restaurant. I was there the whole day. Other women were there as well. They drank tea and, in general, behaved well. I drank vodka and, in general, behaved very badly. They listened to classical music while I sat under the table and smoked big black cigars. While they spoke about culture and life, I stole all their shoes. And while I stole their shoes, I cried.

    My God, Dr. Schultz! Why? Why?’

  • 16 October 2014 at 8:10pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    When I was young and ignorant, I wound up in the US Army, and was sent to a long (47-week) course in the Vietnamese language. You can guess where we were all posted at the end of the course. As part of our daily classroom exercises we would have a so-called "structured dialogue", which we were supposed to memorize the night befor as part of our homework (maybe that should be re-named "barrackswork"). The following day two of us at a time would go and stand next to a sort of cartoon-story board, and do the two parts (questions and answers) that illustrated the subject of the dialogue. The subjects were topical (e.g., "at the market", "on the bus", etc.). One day we had this strange little story about a man who had left his Saigon home to go on vacation for a week, and when he returned he found that his home had been robbed. The dialogue was between him and a policeman. While on vacation he had left his dog home, but apparently it didn't bark to alert the neighbors.

    The concluding line to this -- which all of us found hilarious and attempted to use in ridiculous situations in Vietnam was:

    "Chac-chan, con cho cua ong diec-do!" (This version has none of the vowel markers or diacritical signs indicating accent and stress. The "cho" and the "do" would have the rising tone sound and be barked out and rhymed as "chaw" and "daw".)

    The meaning: "Certainly your dog is deaf!" If I ever go back to Vietnam I'll be sure to try it out at least once a day.

  • 17 October 2014 at 7:26pm
    kooijman says:
    Unfortunately "U kunt op de krappe trap opgaan om de dikhuidige paardenfokker in de slaapkamer te zien" is not only ridiculous, content-wise, but also grammatically incorrect. It should be "U kunt de krappe trap opgaan om de dikhuidige paardenfokker in de slaapkamer te zien" The first "op" should be dropped. De verb is "opgaan", which however sometimes may be split, as in "gaat u de trap maar op". Maybe that is the source of the misunderstanding? As a native Dutch speaker it always amazes me that native English speakers have so much difficulty with the Dutch language. I can understand why Dutch pronunciation is difficult, in view of the fact that Dutch has so many sounds that are alien to a native English speaker, but Dutch grammar is not much more irregular than English grammar.

  • 18 October 2014 at 4:25pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    As a Dutch resident for 27 years and speaker of the language in one form or another for 35 years, having learned the language in Belgium, Glen Newey's remarks on the earthiness of the Dutch language struck a note with me. What's not to like about a language where the term for vacuum cleaner is 'stofzuiger' (lit: 'dust-sucker') and the word 'kut' (cunt) is uttered by teenagers and grandmothers alike without a blush (although catholic grandmothers will balk at " God verdomme" (God damn) as blasphemy).

    In their book "The Undutchables: An Observation of the Netherlands, Its Culture And Its Inhabitants" (by Colin White, Laurie Boucke, Rusty Haller and Gerald Fried), the authors tell the story of a young British woman chatting to her boss at a works party. At one point she makes a remark which is met with a stony silence. Thinking she had in some way offended him she uses an earthy Dutch idiom in order to apologise: "Sorry, heb ik op je pik getrapt?" (Sorry, did I step on your dick?), except that, half-way through she realises this isn't exactly polite language and changes the offending word to the diminutive "pikkie" (i.e. "little dick") to soften the blow.

    At which point, as the authors point out, she almost certainly had offended him...

    One of my colleagues tells a story about Ed, a Dutchman in his department, who kept a fishtank in his office (yes, really) where he attempted to breed tropical fish. One morning, as the assembled department were partaking of the rite of coffee in the departmental coffee room, he bounced happily in to announce: "Hey, guys, I've just fucked some fish!"

    Ed had unfortunately come across a 'false friend': the Dutch verb 'to breed' is 'fokken' (whence the aircraft name Fokker). Which just goes to show that a little learning can be a dangerous thing: henceforth he was known to all as 'Ed the fish-fucker'.

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