My Dutch Father-In-Law is extremely enthusiastic about speaking English. He’ll dive into an English sentence with the kind of fearless confidence I wish I had when speaking Dutch. It’s the kind of fearlessness where sentence structure, past/presence tense and pronunciation do not matter. They are minor details of little importance. The important thing is to just say the thing you are trying to say in the way ‘you’ think it should be said and let someone else work it out. This has resulted in a lot of unintentionally hilarious language mistakes and conversations (so many that this might have to become a new series) that often leave us more than a little confused.
A good example of this was earlier this year while we were helping to put away my parents-in-law’s Christmas decorations. My Father-In-Law had set up a model train track around the base of the Christmas tree, complete with a set of scenery.
As he packed away the individual pieces into their boxes he proudly showed off each one; a miniature snowy tree, a small phone box, a tiny bridge. They were all pieces he was planning to use later when building his real train set (once we move out and he got his spare room back).
More model houses and scenery were lovingly packed away. Suddenly, while holding up a tiny street lamp (itself decorated with a Christmas bow), he unexpectedly announced, “You can only get these when shopping with Christ.”
“Hu?” my wife and mother-in-law exclaimed in unison. Had my father-in-law just confessed to having a religious shopping experience? Could he have been on a shopping trip with the savoir of the Christian faith?
Luckily I am usually able to puzzle together the true meanings of my father-in-law’s sentences pretty quickly (probably because of years of playing around with the language myself). I’m sure Jesus would make an excellent personal shopper but I know that was not what he was implying.
“You can only buy them at Christmas time.” I translated for my confused wife and mother-in-law.
My father-in-law smiled. Who says you need to be able to speak a language correctly to be understood. Besides, language mistakes are sometimes more fun.
A few days ago I was sitting on the sofa with my (almost) three year old daughter Sophie as we watched one of her favourite children’s shows. It’s called ‘Chuggington – Medaille Race’ and features talking trains who try to do good deeds every day to earn badges. I’m not quite sure if it’s teaching her how to be a well adjusted adult or a train but time will tell.
As the theme song started she became very excited. She was suddenly on her feet, dancing on the sofa and singing along with all the words she could manage.
“Medaille Race,” she cheered with her arms in the air as the song reached its end.
“Medaille Race,” I cheered, also throwing my arms up in the air as I got caught up in all the excitement.
But then something I had not expected happened. Sophie suddenly lost all interest in the screen and turned her attention on to me. Something in my pronunciation had not satisfied her.
“Nee Papa. Medaille Race,” she corrected.
“Medaille Race,” I cheered again, thinking that was the end of it.
“Nee Papa,” she said with a little shake of her head. It seemed she was not going to let me off so easy. Making mistakes in the rest of the Dutch language might be forgivable but messing up the name of her favourite children’s show seemed to be a step too far. The line had to be drawn somewhere. “Medaille Race,” she insisted.
“Medaille Race,” I repeated, not quite sure what I was getting wrong.
“MEDdaille Race,” she tried again, emphasizing the word ‘medaille’ with a small head bob and hand wave as if trying to point out where I was going wrong.
“MEDaille Race,” I replied, trying to copy her pronunciation exactly but still not really hearing what the difference was.
“Nee Papa. Mmmedaille Race.”
Sophie seemed to decide that I was not going to be getting it right any time soon. After a slight pause she put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and simply said, “Het is een beetje moeilijk, Papa.”
I couldn’t help it. I cracked up laughing. My almost (but not quite) three year old daughter had just put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and tried to make me feel better about my ‘failed’ attempts to say a Dutch word by telling me it was ok because, “It is a bit difficult, Papa.”
“Yes,” I replied with a smile, “Papa finds Dutch a little difficult.”
Sophie seemed to decide that that was the end of it for now, absentmindedly nodded and returned her attention to the screen.
I still had no idea what in my pronunciation had not satisfied her (or if I had been getting anything wrong at all) until a few days later when I was telling the story to a Dutch friend. It turns out I had been saying it wrong. I thought I had been saying ‘Medaille Race’ but my pronunciation was closer to ‘Madaille Race’. It was so subtle that I had not noticed. Sophie had though. I think she is going to be correcting me a lot in the future.
I am thirty five years old. I have been learning Dutch for the last fourteen years. During that time I have gone on courses, attended classes, filled out homework and taken exams.
My daughter is two. She has been learning Dutch for two years (the first year mainly involved listening). She has not gone on any courses or attended any classes. She has never had to do any homework or take any exams either (unless that is what the scribbles on the wall in crayon where last week).
She might be half Dutch but there is no denying that my Dutch is better. This is because I have a twelve year head start and a really good motivator; I can’t let her get better at speaking Dutch than me… And that might prove to be difficult because she is already gaining.
Alarmingly she has already over taken me in some areas of the Dutch language. For example; unlike her I am unable to name all the Care Bears in Dutch, I do not know all the words to the Nijntje theme song and until yesterday I did not know the Dutch word for rainbow (until she told me).
This is a little unfair because I don’t get to practise the same kind of words that she does. I simply don’t get a chance to use them in my everyday life and would get strange looks if I tried. I can’t stand up in the middle of a meeting and say that, “the points made are all well and good but we must consider that the tijger doet rrraaaaaaa and the poes doet miauw.” I would probably be escorted out of the building and advised to seek help.
To add insult to injury my daughter and I will often have ‘disagreements’ over English vs. Dutch. Just last week we were having a debate about whether her favourite ball was green or groen. She was of the strong belief that it was groen. I was trying to introduce the idea that it was green. She was having none of it. When I tried to meet her half way and concede that the ball was both green and groen at the same time she only became more defensive in her beliefs.
“Neeeeee Papa! Groen!”
Sometimes when I do say something in Dutch she might try to repeat it but get the pronunciation slightly wrong. When that happens I repeat the word for her again so that she can retry. Because of this we usually end up in a loop, each saying the word one after the other, again and again. To be honest, after a while I get slightly lost and start to wonder who is leading who. It’s possible that she is actually trying to teach me the correct pronunciation of whatever word we have ended up saying over and over again to each other. When this happens I try to use the ‘I am an adult’ approach to proving that I am right and break the loop but then my wife usually enters the room and tells us that we are both wrong.
It is possible that I am going to lose this race.
If you look up the word ‘dus’ in a Dutch-to-English language book it will tell you that it translates into the word ‘so’. However, this is a terrible over simplification. The word ‘dus’ is used by the Dutch to communicate a wide range of thoughts, feels, emotions, insights, desires and meanings that are not covered by this simple translation. Today we will look at a few of its many meanings:
The Short Dus (Direct)
The short ‘dus’ communicates anger. It is often used to punctuate the end of an argument and declare ones self the winner. It is supposed to be the final word that crushes the opponent and signal that it is either time to storm out of the room or slam down the phone.
Meaning: This argument is over! I win!
Example: I’m right. You’re wrong. Plus you’re an a**hole. Dus!
The Short Dus (Indirect)
This version of the short ‘dus’ is similar to the previous but it is used when re-telling the argument to a friend who did not witness the original fight. It still communicates anger but it is not directed at the listener (even though it might sometimes feel like it).
Meaning: I won that argument!
Possible Additional Meaning: And you better agree with me!
Example: “I was right. He was wrong and he’s an a**hole. Dus!”
The Giggle Dus:
This ‘dus’ is friendly and often accompanied by a small chuckle. It is used when delivering the punch line of a joke or a funny story that the user finds amusing. Sometimes it is even replaces the punch line to leave the outcome up to the listeners imagination. It can also be used as a reaction to hearing something amusing.
Meaning: This is (or that was) really funny.
Example: “He left his computer logged into facebook… Dus. Hehe.”
The Drawn Out Dussssss (Confused)
If the Dutch are confused about something they will often use the drawn out ‘dus’ to communicate this. It signals that farther information is required and is often used in a moment of silence when something has not been fully explained yet. The longer the dus, the greater the confusion.
Meaning: And? What happens (or happened) next?
The Drawn Out Dussssss (Sarcastic)
The sarcastic version of the drawn out ‘dus’ is used when the idiot you are trying to explain something to is too stupid to understand. If you are tired of repeating yourself simply replace the instructions or explanation you would normally give with the drawn out ‘dus’ instead.
Meaning: Could you be more stupid?
Example: It’s so easy a child could do it. Dusssssssss *roll eyes*
The Contemplative Dus:
When the outcome or result of an action is unknown the contemplative ‘dus’ is often used. It is a slightly submissive ‘dus’ that suggests no farther action will be taken by the person using it, either because there are no options left to them or they simply cannot be bothered. It is sometimes accompanied by a shrug.
Meaning: We’ll have to wait and see what happens next.
Example: “I’ve done everything I can… Dus.” *shoulder shrug*
The Reactionary Dus:
When something surprising or unexpected happens the reactive ‘dus’ is often used. It can convey genuine surprise or be used in a sarcastic manner when someone is not following the Dutch ‘doe normaal’ rule.
Meaning: That was (or is) weird.
Do you know any other uses of the word dus that should be included?
I have come to the conclusion that the Dutch have a very special ability. It might even be possible to call it a super power. I am not sure if it is a skill that they are born with or one that they develop naturally over time but it is something that I have encountered a lot.
Every time I try to talk Dutch with an unfamiliar Dutch person they are able to detect, analyse and identify my accent before I’ve even fully formed the first syllable of the first word of my sentence. It is entirely possible that the Dutch can hear my accent as I breathe.
“Ohhh. You,re English,” they will often interject as I stand there with my mouth open having only muttered the sound ‘umm’ or ‘err’ or simply having coughed. They even managed to say it with a hint of surprise that suggests they should have identified my accent sooner (before I entered the room for example).
It is either a form of super human hearing that allows the Dutch to do this or they have just had a lot of practise hearing people mangle their difficult language beyond recognition. The second option seems more likely because it is probably something that happens so often that they have been able to fine tune their accent detection instincts. Maybe they have even learnt to identify certain mistakes with certain countries (thus aiding the identification process).
“Oh. You pronounces the ‘ei’ sound as ‘aaa’. That’s a classic English mistake.”
Wherever I go in Holland it is almost impossible to say anything in Dutch without being immediately identified. This must make life very stressful for any spies who are trying to lay low in the Lowlands. They must be in constant fear of detection just from having to have a casual conversation with a passer by.
Even at an early age Dutch children seem to have this special power. Have you ever attempted to speak Dutch to a small Dutch child? It rarely goes as you expect. In my experience they might not be able to identify your accent yet and they might not even be able to fully understand that there is such a thing as a non-Dutch person but they will know something is wrong. They know it just by hearing your attempts to speak the language that, they themselves, have not even fully mastered yet. Then they will just stare at you in an awkward silence (awkward for you, not for them) as if waiting for you to stop being strange and start making sense.
No one can hold up to that kind of pressure for long and if you are a spy there is no dignity in having your cover blown by a three year old.