March 9, 2012 | Dutch

More Fun with My Dutch Tutor

With the assistance of my friend Vera, I do battle with Dutch vowels.

I have decided that foreign-language grammar books have properties similar to cleavage. Wednesday at my favorite local café, I had my Dutch books laid out in a pile in front of me while I redid some Pimsleur lessons on my iPhone and hydrated my brain with latte.

The New Butt Cleavage?

The New Butt Cleavage?

As people walked by, their eyes were drawn irresistibly down to the books. They couldn’t help themselves. It reminded me of what happens when certain men talk to certain women when they have on blouses that are at a certain lowish level. 

I am sort of kidding, but it really was similar in its nature. A downward quick dip of the eyeballs that said something like, I don’t want you to know I am looking at your…stuff, but I am going to sneak a peek surreptitiously, because I just can’t help myself.

I don’t know if this is true everywhere in the U.S., but at least in this city, having language books in front of you can act as invitation to overture.

So, people, forget the cute-dog-as-social-lubricant idea. Buy a foreign-language grammar book instead.

A big advantage of grammar books is that they don’t poop!

Considering how many people in the U.S. do not actually like learning languages, I find the pervasive curiosity about it pretty amazing. 

On this particular day there was a man maybe in his late sixties or early seventies sitting across from me reading the paper. He didn’t talk to me while I was working, but when I got up to leave, he said (and this was not flirtatious at all, by the way), “So are you fluent yet?”

On a New York City Bus. This Company Sells a Nail Polish Called Vampsterdam!

On a New York City Bus. This Company Sells a Nail Polish Called Vampsterdam!

So much pressure. I said no. I said I had been studying a few weeks.

Next he asked, “When are you going?” (Meaning to Holland.)

I said I wasn’t. I’m sure I will go again, but it’s unlikely in the immediate future.

We talked briefly about language as I packed up. He said he spoke a second language. The way he said it—normally people would just say what the language was—made me suspect it wasn’t a common one. I asked.

It wasn’t. Ladino! It’s a Romance language based on I guess 14th- and 15th-century Spanish—quite old Spanish in any case—and heavily influenced by Hebrew as well as other languages. He grew up speaking it because of his parents. 

I asked how many people speak it. “Not many,” he said. “And my cousin died on Monday.”

I offered my condolences.

When people die, languages die, too. Some of them. I haven’t ever spoken a dying language and can’t imagine what that would be like. As an English speaker, one sometimes can’t help feeling poised on the verge of global linguistic domination. It is easy to become complacent about one’s words and forget they are not universal. 

They are not.

Vera Helped Me with My Dutch Vowels

Vera Helped Me with My Dutch Vowels

My Dutch friend Vera met me in the evening to tutor me in Dutch. Isn’t that nice of her?

We went through a list of words I had pronunciation questions about, including things like pizza and sojaburger. Yes, food. I get curious about language imports because they often don’t follow the rules. I thought pizza might be pee-zah (following my understanding of the Dutch z) rather than the peet-zah it is in English.

Nope: it is more or less the same “pizza” pronunciation uttered maybe millions of times a day all over the United States.

To my ear, the word fax as pronounced by Vera in Dutch does not sound at all like the word “fax” in English, but it does strongly resemble a certain other word in English beginning with an f and ending with an x sound. Also, Vera told me there is a hotel called Dick Kok in Holland. That name is nothing out of the ordinary in Dutch, but it makes English speakers snicker.

English speakers are very juvenile, are they not?

One thing in Dutch that sounds funny to me is the way sports are turned into verbs. You can say we tennissen, (we play tennis) we voetballen (we play socker), we hockeyen (we play hockey), we basketballen (we play basketball), and so on.

The English equivalent sounds so silly. Imagine telling someone, “Yes, she is hockeying tonight.” Or, “So sorry, he is busy tennissing at the moment with Sally. Could he call you back after they have tennissed?”

Comments (7)

Jimbob • Posted on Sat, March 17, 2012 - 12:09 am EST

How useful were the pimsleur Dutch reading lessons in learning to pronounce Dutch? I like the appearance of written Dutch but the pronunciation certainly isn’t intuitive.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, March 17, 2012 - 5:11 pm EST

They were definitely helpful, although there are unfortunately only 30 lessons available for Dutch. Also, the Dutch-speaking people who have been helping me happen to pronounce certain things differently than the people in the Pimsleur lessons do…nonetheless, I did a lot better WITH the Pimsleur than I would have done without it.

I definitely need more work, though! :(

Diane • Posted on Fri, April 06, 2012 - 8:54 am EST

Along the lines of ‘tennis-ing’—in Welsh,  ‘I need to exercise’ = ‘I need to do body practicing’ (mae eisiau i fi wneud ymarfer corff).

erik van poucke • Posted on Fri, April 13, 2012 - 10:15 am EST

it may not seem to be intuitive for someone who speaks English, but it’s more consistent than English (try ough in this one: A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.
For me (Dutch native speaker) this is hard…

Corrie • Posted on Fri, April 13, 2012 - 10:58 am EST

Ik had het me niet gerealiseerd maar inderdaad, als ik Russisch leer in de bus of de trein, spreken mensen me soms aan.
Zelfs een paar keer in het Russisch.

For non-dutch speakers: I had not realised but indeed, when I am learning russian in the bus or in the train, sometimes people start talking to me. Sometimes even in russian.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, April 13, 2012 - 3:22 pm EST

Erik, I feel I should apologize about English. :)

The variation in “ough” pronunciation IS especially crazy. I always think these look-alikes must be a real pain for non-native speakers to learn:


Alan • Posted on Tue, April 08, 2014 - 6:06 am EST

My maternal grandfather was a native speaker of Ladino. He was a Bulgarian who spent nearly all his life in France, and he never spoke either Ladino or Bulgarian to his children. That’s how languages die.

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