A quirky language called Dutch

Why on earth would somebody spend countless hours on a language hardly anybody speaks outside this small country – except in other small countries as well? On my way to De Vrije Universiteit where I started following Dutch classes, I repeat phrases and – frankly – sometimes ridiculous words on my bicycle trying not to get hit after a long workday.

In between moving and settling in The Netherlands, I stopped taking lessons but I tried to keep up by going to meet-ups with expats to practice some Dutch together, read magazines, follow the news, listen to the radio and to popular Dutch songs, and watch TV – mostly “De Wereld Draait Door”, a play on words meaning both ‘the world keeps on turning’ and ‘the world is spinning out of control’. My Dutch has improved to the extent that I now confuse it with Spanish, which I learned in my early twenties at university.

Although most people speak English here, and you can certainly spend your entire life not learning the local language, I figured that if I don’t, I will never really get to know the country or feel at home. So I embarked on a long discovery of one of the quirkiest languages I’ve ever studied (I speak three fluently and have taken classes in several others, like German, Spanish and Japanese). Being a linguist and a translator, I couldn’t help but try to find similarities and differences between Dutch and Arabic, my mother tongue. One of the very few things the two languages have in common is: the letter “kh” or “خ” (the hard, guttural ‘g’, as written in Dutch). That’s just about where the resemblance stops. Arabic is more sophisticated, way less direct, very poetic and musical – although this may seem hard to believe when most Arab men and women you see in Homeland are angrily shouting all the time. But really, we can sing too.

If I compare Dutch to French or Spanish, “beautiful” is perhaps not the first (or second) adjective I would use to describe it. With time though, I actually got to love the language, including the sound of it. To my advantage, the Dutch have borrowed many French words as they were once occupied by France – a historical fact that no one likes to talk about. Words like: abonnement, argumenteren, bizar, champignon, formulier, hypotheek, illegaal, paraplu, pauze, plafond, situatie, among others come from French. This is great news for me as it expands my Dutch vocabulary with little to no effort.

Sadly, learning this new language is not just for fun. Since I arrived to The Netherlands a year ago, I have been receiving a letter every couple of months urging me to learn more Dutch by mid 2019 (Three letters so far!). No directions as to where to do it, really, just a letter in Dutch saying I have to learn the language and threatening consequences if I don’t. More on that in another blog post.

When I was little, my father used to tell me that learning multiple languages is like having several personalities. It opens up your horizons and allows you to learn about different cultures. As a Lebanese, I grew up speaking two languages, Arabic and French and was taught English at a later stage in school. Speaking several languages was a natural thing for me (and many other Lebanese) to do.

I find the Dutch language fascinating because it tells you so much about the people. It is so clear, logical and direct, which makes it totally different from Arabic, where words rarely carry a simple straightforward meaning. There are wonderful, tell-it-like-it-is words the Dutch have invented for various touchy subjects that reflect the character of this country most. For example:

– “Coffin” means “Tabout” or “تابوت” in Arabic which comes from the verb “Tab” or “تاب” meaning “to repent”. Quite a deep religious connotation right? In Dutch, “coffin” becomes simply “doodskist” which translates into “death-chest”. You see what I mean;

– “Dakloos” means literally “without a roof” or roofless and has the Arabic equivalent of “Mousharrad” “مشرّد”. The latter carries a deeper meaning which reflects the image of someone who lost his home or his land;

– Ambulance becomes “ziekenauto” or “a car for the sick” in Dutch. While in Arabic it turns into “sayyarat es’aaf” or “سيارة إسعاف” which means literally “a car for relief”;

– Earrings mean “oorbellen” in Dutch which translates into “ear bells” (for humans, not cows);

– Gloves become “handschoenen” or “hand shoes”;

– Pedestrian crossing means “zebrapad” or “zebra path”;

– Toilet seat means “WC bril” in Dutch which implies that the seat looks like one side of a pair of glasses;

– Dictionary is “woordenboek” or “book of words”. In Arabic, the word is “qamous” which refers to a great sea (of words, in this case).

I can go on. And just when I thought I found an equivalent in Lebanese Arabic to “gezellig” – the Dutch elaborate description of coziness, warmth and friends in one word – it turned out the word I found did not capture the entire meaning. I thought of “Moukankan” or “مكنكن” which is a very cute word implying feeling warm and comfortable in a small place, always with a bottle of red wine. Just joking on that last part. In fact, the word gezellig reminds me of “Toqborneh” or “تقبرني” which, in the same way, has no real equivalent in any language other than Arabic. It is said to a loved one and it means you wish to die before them, thus them burying you so you never have to live a day without them. Gezellig hè? I don’t think any word in any other language can beat that.

So there you have it, a language mixing various influences and cutting out any overly tedious attempts at softening or dressing up the meaning of things. Kind of like the Dutch. It can be a breath of fresh air, this bluntness. But sometimes, I long for the promise of something mundane carrying the potential meaning of vast and dreamy; a great sea yet to be discovered. Even if it’s only a book of words.


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