March 6, 2012 | Dutch

Down in the Grammatical Ditches with Dutch

Language challenges, ameliorated by a friendly neighborhood tutor.

Yesterday was my second volunteer shift at an Official NYC Information Center. This gig is turning out to be one of the best ideas I’ve had in a long time. 

Unlike last week, where I got to work only on my French (well, English, too), this time I got to use Spanish and German as well. I even squeezed in a few words of Dutch with a tall Dutch family that had absolutely no need of my rudimentary Dutch skills.

I seriously, seriously love jumping from one language to another. Doing that hits some pleasure center in my brain. I’m not sure where it is exactly, but I know it is in there somewhere.

Vera and I, in the 2009 Bad Boy Cross-Country Race in Van Cortlandt Park

Vera and I, in the 2009 Bad Boy Cross-Country Race in Van Cortlandt Park

To get to the information center, I took the subway. By coincidence, as I was about to board the 1 train, I ran into my friend Vera Kuipers, a Dutch woman on my running team who happens to live in my neighborhood. We don’t randomly bump into each other much, but this was, bizarrely, the second day in a row I had run into her with my Dutch books in tow…fortunate timing, because both times I got free high-quality tutoring.

I am telling you, New York is a great place for a project like this! On a crowded 1 train full of commuters, I managed to squeeze in several key grammar and pronunciation questions before I got off at 50th Street. Thanks, Vera!

Vera and I met back in 2009, by the way, en route to a cross-country race called the “Bad Boy” (!) in Van Cortlandt Park. The park is named after the merchant Jacobus Van Cortlandt, who was born in New York’s colonial predecessor, New Amsterdam, and who later became an early 18th-century mayor of this city.

Dutch antecedents all around us in this town.

How I Pictured Peter (See Item 7 Below)

How I Pictured Peter (See Item 7 Below)

Okay, it is now time for Dutch grammar and pronunciation miscellany. A list of challenges, problems, conundrums, observations, etc., since I haven’t yet written much about the language itself.

  1. In Jenneke A. Oosterhoff’s Basic Dutch: A Grammar and Workbook, I read, “To ask a stranger who looks older than 18 for directions, you might say: ‘Pardon, mag ik u iets vragen? Weet u waar het station is?’” This is the kind of thing I have trouble with. Who has time to (1) scrutinize someone’s face, (2) estimate age, and (3) cough up the correct grammar? I really have such an aversion to age-based grammar.
  2. I have been taught by the same book that “to the movies” is naar de bioscoop. How funny! It’s often hard to know whether the things you are told in a grammar book are still/actually what people say in real life (is there an alternative in Dutch?), but in any case, the obviously related “bioscope” in English is not a term one hears every day. I am familiar with the bioscope (barely; had to doublecheck, in fact) as an early movie projector, and Wikipedia describes it as “a fairground attraction consisting of a travelling cinema.” I don’t think many people here would know the word. There is, however, a Johannesburg website for the Bioscope Independent Cinema.
  3. Sometimes Dutch words don’t look at all familiar to me when I first see them, but then when I sound them out, I recognize them because they are so similar auditorily to English or German. I had no idea what huisdieren was when I came across it on the page—it looked like a verb, for one thing—but when I said it aloud, I could hear that it was like the noun Haustier (pet) in German. It’s almost like a magic trick the way pronouncing certain Dutch words exposes meaning.
  4. I liked Oosterhoff’s comment, “In English, when we start counting up from 20, we think ‘twenty plus one’ —> twenty-one. In Dutch we think ‘one plus twenty,’ and so 21 = eenentwintig. This is how it is in German, too, but I hadn’t thought of it lately. The 20 seems so much more important than the 1, so it is funny to begin with the ones digit rather than the tens. I mean seriously, if I owe you $21, do you care more about the $20 bill or the single?! And, to translate something like 145 into Dutch, I have to slow down and think, because it is honderdvijfenveertig (right?), or the equivalent of “one hundred five-and-forty.” So you go in the “right” order initially (the hundreds column), then skip to the ones, then jump back to the tens. Odd! Who thought of that?
  5. Big, written-out numbers always look scary in other languages. Here’s 3,220,322 as an example: drie miljoen tweehonderdtwintigduizend driehonderdtweeëntwintig. (Right? I am temporarily blinded by the sight of that.)
  6. Okay, now this is confusing: in Dutch, I learned from this same book, a pond is 500 grams and an ons is 100 grams…so metric units, right? Those Dutch words appear to have the same etymological origins as “pound” and “ounce,” respectively, but our pound is actually 453.59 grams, and our ounce is only 28.35 grams. In one of Oosterhoff’s examples, “De baby weegt 9 pond 32 gram” is translated as “The baby weighs 9 pounds and 32 grams,” but I am pretty sure this should not be translated with the word “pounds,” and that the baby is 418 grams heavier in Dutch than it is in English. Can any Dutch-speaking, metrically astute people out there please confirm that the baby is losing weight between languages?
  7. The way you talk about height—or at least one way you talk about height—in Dutch amused me. Oosterhoff gives as an example, “Peter is nu 1,86 m lang.” Meaning, Peter is now 1.86 meters tall. (The Dutch use commas where we use periods in numbers.) But lang simply does not sound like vertical height to me—inspiring the marginalia shown above.
  8. Oosterhoff warns, “Do not confuse avond with nacht. Everything before midnight is avond.” That made me picture people at a bar looking down at their watches and saying, “Oh, avond is now over. Nacht time!” And then all hell breaking loose.
  9. The double a’s and u’s of Dutch are scary when you’re not used to them. Like Dutch, English contains plenty of ee’s and oo’s  (although with different corresponding pronunciations), but aa and uu words are hard to come by around here. Speaking of double a’s, our “aardvark” has Dutch origins by way of Afrikaans. According to Wikipedia, the word “comes from earlier Afrikaans, and means ‘earth pig’ or ‘ground pig’ (aarde earth/ground, varken pig), because of its burrowing habits.” This description seems not entirely flattering to the aardvark.
  10. My early attempts at pronouncing kunt (a conjugation of the verb kunnen, or “can”) proved to be embarrassing. Fortunately, the situation has since improved.

Comments (6)

Vera • Posted on Tue, March 06, 2012 - 11:11 pm EST

Love it!!! Yes that is one heavy baby in Dutch! Definitely wrong to just use same amount of Lbs in the translation.
The counting comparison is a good one. I’d rather start with 20s too ;-) when in a bar throughout the evening and staying until the wee hours, you are a ‘nachtbraker’ which is almost the same as hell breaking loose!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, March 06, 2012 - 11:24 pm EST

Seriously? Nachtbraker? Good to know.

I was so focused on the weight conversions that I never actually noticed the original baby weighed 10 pounds. You aren’t kidding: that IS one heavy baby!

Dank je wel, Vera.

Sr • Posted on Wed, March 07, 2012 - 4:02 am EST

You can say ‘jij’ to friends & family over 30, and kids under 14.  Use U otherwise to sound more polite.

Germany: 2 Pfunde = 1 Kilo (1000g) Read up on the history of the pound/pfund/pond and you’ll see a wide variation (372-560g) depending on country and even city.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, March 07, 2012 - 4:12 am EST

Dank u wel. Of dank je wel? ;)

I am going to start requesting IDs so I can check birthdays.

Very interesting about the pound. Wow.

Priscilla • Posted on Mon, March 19, 2012 - 10:59 pm EST

Grin I love the idiosyncrasies of language. Just heard about a new website ( that’s going to be a entertainment portal, but with translations into all languages. Good avenue for us to put our language skills to use!!!

Niels • Posted on Thu, July 05, 2012 - 10:04 am EST

1. It’s not really age-based. it’s a matter of politeness… To strangers of a certain age you would say ‘u’. In formal situations as well, until both parties are getting more comfortable.

I name my grandparents ‘u’ in respect of their age, but never my parents. My boss at work never, and about half of my teachers.

2. Bioscoop indeed is still in use in Dutch. One may say: Laten we vanavond naar de bioscoop gaan.
It’s interchangeble with ‘film’. Zullen we naar de film gaan?
In flanders they use the French: Cinéma.

3. But beware for fals friends… ;)

4. One more thing about numbers. From 1100 to 9900, the dutch prefer to think of in sums of hundreds.
So 1100 is not duizend honderd, but elfhonderd: eleven hundred.
7347 would be: drieënzeventighonderd zevenenveertig, instead of zevenduizend driehonderd en zevenenveertig.
The rounded thousands: 2000, 3000, etc are NOT twintighonderd or dertighonderd, but just as you know it: tweeduizend en drieduizend.

6. You’re correct about the difference, indeed.

7. 1,86 m is pronounced: één meter zesentachtig. Or just: één zesentachtig. No need to actually call the comma. (if one would do that, it’s sounds like their doing science… ;)

10. Keep in mind that Dutch unvoiced plosives (t, p, k) do NOT have aspiration, like in English.
In English all unvoiced plosives have aspiration (a short voiceless breath after the pronunciation of the plosive sound), EXCEPT when this plosive is after ‘s’ (compare: spit with pit). Dutch enver has aspiration, so kunt (Du.) en cunt (En. (pardon me)) do not sound the same. (even the vowels are slightly different.

Btw. You may meet Dutch people called Dick, which is indeed pronounced exactly like dick in English.

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