Thursday, 9 January 2014

Learning Dutch, language of rivers and horizons

I'm one of those that are crazy about Dutch, my language of 'water, rivieren en horizonnen'. 

True, German breaks my heart. It is spoken far more, is the language of the great European composers and poets, can both open a door towards professional benefits as to a superb world of poetry - a universe in itself.

It can also feel quite heavy, sombre, difficult, dark - when compared to that fun, open, clear, sexy, far easier Dutch of the little brother. 

Looking inward versus looking outwards. Heimat versus world.  

How can 2 brother/brĂ¼der/broeder languages come with such a different feel?  

As so often in the world the answer is: sea and water. Zee en water.  

(If you sometimes you don't know the answer to a question, any question, try 'water'. There's a chance you're correct). 

For ages the Dutch and, to a lesser extent, the Flemish, lived at a corner of the continent. Traveling over land (mud tracks, carriages) was an incredibly difficult affair. Much easier it was to jump on boats and use the sea as the motorway. 

So whereas inland people can have a tendency to withdraw in themselves, or only deal and communicate with the nearest neighbours (such as the Flemish with France) - the Dutch of the 17th century were already everywhere. 

Now only 2 provinces of the Netherlands, super tiny 'Holland' founded New Amsterdam (which later became New York), arrived in South-Africa, negotiated with the Japanese, meddled with Indonesia and heavily influenced the language at the other side of the street: England. 

The Jan and Kees were everywhere. Leaving a footprint such as the expression 'the Yankees'. 

It has resulted in a small country that is both northern - and open and extraverted.
Always in for an experiment.

"Oh, oh, don't learn our language, we want to learn yours"! 

This is the commercial side of a people who have gone to markets everywhere.

Come over, you Jews expelled from Spain, you protestants that are at risk in France, you Flemish painters that need refuge... come on over, inject our thinking and markets alike with new ideas and objects from far away lands! We'll be the pre-USA!

I exaggerate.
(In Dutch: ik overdrijf. 'I over drive', 'I over float' - so much is related to the sea and to water here).

You catch my drift. The tolerance of the Netherlands is not just a souvenir brought back from all those travels, it's also economically profitable. Just as a more than average enthusiasm to master the most commercial language of the moment is a typical result of that (shall we place a bet? Who will be the Europeans with the best knowledge of Chinese by 2040?).

Holland, Netherlands, Dutch... why so many words??

Making things difficult is SO not Dutch.

If anything, it's all about ease, openness, clarity, honesty. Having had to deal with a great mixture of cultures have resulted in an attitude of: make things as 'Esperanto' as possible. Avoid confusion.

In Dutch itself it's easy:

The country is Nederland where people speak Nederlands and they are called Nederlanders.


And it is called all that because NETHER / NEDER means 'lower in position'.

It's the rest of the world that is really confused: they still name the country after that piece of it that was so successful in the 17th century: Holland.

Just as people keep speaking of 'Indians' (native Americans) or 'Gypsies' (for thinking they came from Egypt), Holland is the word in the collective memory.

And why that word 'Dutch'? Don't even go there. It refers to Deutsch, the German word for German for there was a time that the one and only German was divided into High German (hills and inland) and Low German (at the sea). Further it refers to 'Diets' which means 'of the people'. And so on and so on. So there you go:

The Dutch speak Dutch and live in the Netherlands.

And they sing songs like 'Het is een nacht' - or 'It is a night':

'Een nacht die je normaal alleen in films ziet'.

A night that you normally only in films see.

OK, a night that you normally only see in films. You will have to shuffle the words a bit.

And no Dutchman will find it anything else than charming if you did so the wrong way around - for being a tiny bit in love with anything coming from over the sea, if only an accent or a new ingredient to the dish.


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