Dutch is a pirate language

Aaaaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!!!!!!!

That one word describes not only the frustration I feel about my total inability to learn Dutch, but the atonalities in that vented expletive also sum up the essence of Dutch:  when in doubt, lengthen your “ahrs” and gargle for that phlegm that’s been stuck in the back of your throat for the last several days.  Our friend Terry, who lived here for four years, claims that Dutch is a pirate language not because they stole it from anyone — it IS German-based — but because spoken Dutch sounds like a bunch of pirates communicating between bouts of expectorant-hacking.

I never thought I’d ever say that German is (a) a relatively easy language to figure out and (b) sounds a whole lot nicer compared to….well…Dutch.   Because Dutch is fairly closely based on German, and because I pride myself on my heretofore relatively facile ability to pick up on new languages, I’d entered into our Netherlands adventure assuming I’d be able to at least learn a few key phrases fairly easily and rapidly.  What a pipe dream that was.

Don’t get me wrong. This blog is NOT about whether or not I love the Dutch language or all things Dutch.  I LOVE the Netherlands.  I LOVE the people I’ve met (even those very inconsiderately loud [and gorgeous] gaggle of girls that live above us).  I have found almost every aspect of life here entertaining and satisfying.
Except the language.  I have found myself hopelessly unable to master the first thing about how to pronounce and speak the language.  I stare and stare at my puny Berlitz guide to Dutch and for the life of me, after 10 minutes of practice, still can’t remember how to pronounce all those dipthongs.

Thank god everyone speaks English.  Otherwise I’d be lost in a sea of mispronounced dipthongs and phlegm.
I am definitely a romance language person.  After all, romance languages, based  on Latin form  the base of many of the predominant languages of the world. Thank you Julius Caesar.

French, Spanish, even Italian, I’ve managed to pick up in my travels sufficiently to get around and make myself understood (the big exception being a “conversation” with two elderly ladies in Lucca, Italy, whose instructions in the local dialect so befuddled me I told Michael just to drive to the next town and we’d look for a hotel there). Note to Carol: ask directions of younger people who may just give you directions in the official language of the country and not some local dialect that bears no resemblance to said official language.

Anyway, the point is, Dutch utterly baffles me.  I can’t get the pronunciation or the rhythm of Dutch, both essential accomplishments for me to be able to even pick apart the simplest menu.  Compounding my inability to get the hang of Dutch, despite or even whatever German I know – and I assure you it is minimal – interferes with my ability to either pronounce or remember the vowelic rules of Dutch.  (I made up “vowelic” – sounds totally appropriate to me, given the cirumstances!)

So, what has helped me go completely around the bend trying to learn Dutch is that the pronunciation rules of German hold no sway here, no matter how much Dutch theoretically resembles German.  So I’m adrift in a voewlic and vocabularic nightmare that seems to have no way out.  Okay, so it is not politically correct to assume that Dutch is even remotely pronounced like German, despite its Germanic foundations.   I’m guilty of wanting an easy, pronounceable way out of this linguistic nightmare.

Repeat the mantra:  thank god everyone speaks English.

So here’s the most important book I didn’t bring.

My little 3×4 Berlitz “cheat-book” clearly isn’t up to the task.  I need at least a 20 page pronuniciation guide and at least a hundred pages of audio links to begin to do this language justice.  For the first time in my life, I’m a language nightmare.  Doesn’t sit well.

Here’s some example of some of the very different pronunciations I am continuing to grapple with:  Ou, ui, ee and the ever-present “g”

–“Oude” means “old”.  It’s pronounced “ow-tduh”, not “ood”.  Unfortunately for me, there’s a whole LOT of “oude” things in this country, none of which I pronounce correctly. Like “oude kaas”, which mean “old cheese”, as in the cheese you want to eat until you turn into a cheese puff ball.  More on cheese in the next blog.
–“ui” such as Uithof, the local name for the University of Utrecht, is not pronounced “u-ee-hof” but “aw” is as in “saw”.
—  “ee” is pronounced like a long “a” in English, so the word zee which means “sea”, as in North Sea, is pronounced “zay”.  [Just to make things difficult, if you combine “ee” with some other letters – like in the word twee (which means “two”) and because the letter “w” is pronounced as “v”, the correct pronunciation comes out as “tvay”.   Wish I’d learned to say that properly before buying train tickets in Amsterdam…..]
–And then there’s the befuddling letter “g”.   Why does everything on the menu in this country begin with “g”?  In Dutch, the letter “g” is pronounced with that hairball-inducing “hkaachkt” expulsion that makes me want to apologize for spitting missiles of phlegm on people. Obviously, to say the least, I have not mastered the “g” sound in Dutch.

What’s even more vile than listening to me or Michael trying to pronounce “g” is the visual presented:  the facial-contortion of a human inducing a hairball.  (Or was it the recently ingested bitterballen,  the national “treat” of deep-fried, cast-off animal meat parts in of a tad gravy – I kid you not!)  Here’s a photo so you can identify these little “appetizer” demons.  Don’t they look innocuous, like deep-fried meatballs?

They are NOT innocuous.  To quote my friend Karin, my guru on all things Dutch, they are made of discarded animal parts that you don’t want to know about (eyeballs, tails and innards, to begin with).  Makes me want to wax nostalgic for that god-awful scrapple my roommate, Patti, fed me for “sustenance” the morning of my most important grad school exam.  I went into that exam weak from barfing up breakfast.  Enough said about both culinary experiences.

Back to Pirate Dutch.

On top of all the  occasional tongue-twister vowel combinations that make no sense to my 59 years of English lanaguage, I came across the triple-vowel whammy, “ eeu”.  Huh?  What popped to mind was an adolescent expression of distaste, but I knew that couldn’t be right.  So I at the medical conference we went to, I asked Ernie, a Dutch physician with near-perfect English, how that was pronounced, and he said it comes out sounding sort of like the oo’s in “moose“ with a hint of “uh” somewhere in there…..but not exactly. Ernie said quite apologetically (the Dutch are so polite!):  “There’s no real translation of that sound into English.”   No kidding.  But whatever the pronunciation, I will certainly botch it!

But to the heart of the matter:  The frequent doubling of “aa” in Dutch is what definitely provides the pirate inflection into the language.  The double “a” has an elongated, deep-throat “aahhhhh” sound to it, again making you look and sound like an expectorating camel – or pirate. 

For the grand finale of this little treatise, I thought I’d share  the most confounding word I’ve come across — besides the street name at the beginning of this blog.   If I can ever pronounce it before I leave in 2+ more months, I will be ecstatic:  wegwerpscheermesjes, which means disposable razors – thank god I brought a supply!

Stay tuned for more musings on “going Dutch”!

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3 thoughts on “Dutch is a pirate language

  1. Hm… If I’m not mistaking there are 19 different vocalic and diphtongued sounds in Dutch.
    a and aa
    e and ee
    o and oo
    u and uu [like German ü]
    i and ie

    ai and aai
    ei and ij [sound the same]
    oi and ooi
    ui
    ou and au [sound the same]
    eu [as in German ö]
    eeu(w)

    • Thanks, Niels! My little Berlitz guide to Dutch has most — but not all — of these dipthongs. But what happens when you hae THREE vowels coming together, like in “mooie”?

      • It’s a matter of quality…

        Ooi sounds like oi, but just a tidbit longer. Compare hoi [hi) and hooi [dried grass/straw].

        Ai and aai are a bit different. Would sound like i in English kite. Whereas a sounds the same, but then with a long dutch AA, like in haai (shark).

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