When Words Are More Like Sentences (Or – Be Very Careful What You Say)

I was brought up hearing two languages (sometimes in the same sentence – especially if my Mum had forgotten the English word for something).  In fact – this may surprise you – it was only when I started school that I found out that Dutch was a totally separate language from English – until then I was convinced that Dutch was a dialect of English (a bit like Glaswegian).

There are two ways in which my Mum could mix Dutch and English up.  Either by using Dutch words in English sentences or by saying a sentence using all English words but translating literally from Dutch.  Usually this would involve telling me to sit “on” the table instead of “at” it.  (Trust me – this isn’t as scary as being told that someone is waiting “on” an airport.)

As a result of this I have two dictionaries open in my brain at all times.  This can get confusing because there are some words which sound the same in both Dutch and English – yet have totally different meanings. The most confusing two for me are “door” and “plank”.

To an English person a door is something you lock when you leave your house.  To a Dutch person “door” means “through”.

The word “plank” is even worse – as illustrated by this story my English Grandma told me about a message my Mum left my English Grandparentsabout  a key.

Apparently my Mum had told my English Grandparents that she had left the key on the “plank”.  So my Grandparents searched for a loose plank of wood with a key on it.  Well, they eventually found the key on a plank of wood – but it was attached to either a wall or a unit of some kind – my Mum should have used the English translation of “shelf”.

As a result of this confusion I sometimes end up taking English sentences literally.  “Plant Crossing” just makes me think of “The Triffids” (the walking plants in a Sci-Fi book and film I was subjected to in my first year at Secondary school).

There is one thing I love about the Dutch way of speaking though.  Even when I couldn’t understand very much of the language itself I could always tell what mood my Mum was in just by listening to her speak.  I have been told that Dutch people can sound like they are singing when they are speaking – if you ask me an angry Dutch person just sounds like someone has kept their finger on the trigger of a rifle.  The angrier the person the more rapidly the words are fired out of their mouth.

There is one word which I honestly thought was from “Formal” Dutch – I heard it so often – but its usage signifies the speaker is from my Mum’s native Rotterdam.  To an English person it sounds almost like “Darlek” (as in the characters from “Dr Who”) but a Rotterdammer will translate it as “soon” or “imminently”.

I love languages, accents, and dialects.  In fact, if I could have any accent I choose I would like my native Norfolk accent back.  I lost it when I started school in the wilds of South Leicestershire.

I wish we could keep accents and dialects (as well as languages) instead of letting them be diluted beyond all recognition – and that is before you think about the different types of jargon you hear on a daily basis.

I could – if I so chose – type this blog post in either (almost) pure Leicestershire dialect or Dutch.  Neither option would be useful in helping most people to understand a word of what I wrote.

We need to be careful about the language we use and the way we construct our sentences. Otherwise – be able to understand each other we will not!

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