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If I had a column in the Delft op Zondag

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Delft op Zondag


07 AUGUSTUS, 2016

Learning to speak about and look at things differently

DELFT - An American may think Dutch is an odd way of speaking English. For instance, a train station in Dutch is a 'trein station'. Easy so far, just a difference in pronunciation. But that is misleading.

A Dutch person will often say 'pronounciation', a seemingly logical variant of pronounce. Quite a few words sound alike even if the two languages are many centuries from a common root. A person starting out to learn Dutch needs to keep in mind it is not a quaint, older version of American. American is more like a quaint version of English and Norman French. However, kids in Holland learn Brit-Speak in school and American from movies and songs.


"We took a small vacation to Friesland, in the ancient northwest of the Netherlands, for me to meet more family. I spotted this boat in Sneek; yep, that is a Texas flag."

Beer leads to using the 'facilities' which are not like the ones in the U.S. Actually, Americans call the place with a toilet the 'bathroom'. In Holland, there are separate rooms for the 'toilet' and the 'badkamer' with a tub or shower. An American in a cafe asks a waiter 'where is the bathroom' and gets a quizzical look in return.

Talking about personal hygiene is uncomfortable for an American, like asking someone how much they earn - or their politics. Similarly, when a person showers, he takes a 'douche' (the Dutch word for shower). That is vulgar, regardless, to most Americans and never spoken in mixed company (an Americanism for men and women in the same conversation).

There are new mental pathways that need to be learned about speaking Dutch. I mean on top of grammar and having two words for one thing. In English, John hit the ball; in Dutch, John the ball hit. Subject, object and then verb: who, what, how.

Americans stick 'will' into sentences where the Dutch do not. I will go is simply I go. A novice tends to start from his own tongue and links literally to what he hopes is passable Dutch - remembering to keep the action at the end.

There is a small let down regards names of places: Zevenhuizen is exotic until you find out it means seven houses. Another problem for an American learning Dutch vocabulary is that some words sound amusing, even funny, or are plain peculiar.

My favorite such is the town of Sneek, spoken as 'snake', in Friesland. It is an old town with a long harbor. We were there during a weekend of partying so joined in. I recall beer and smoked eel from vendors at the festival, both delicious.

Each time using a Dutch toilet sets off many taboos for an average American like me. There is a shelf in the bowl and a brush next to it! You are supposed to check your health and then clean up. Americans can be prissy and only want to flush, not look.

G. Wiley / NLStrabo - © Copyright - All rights reserved -
In memory of Herb Caen