Date: Tue, 19 Oct 2004
From: Lee Lady
There are those who say that Dutch should not be considered a minority language, since it is spoken not only in the Netherlands and half of Belgium (with a different spelling and slightly different pronunciation), but in much of Indonesia and the other former Dutch colonies. And Africaans, the dominant language of South Africa, is very close to Dutch.
The thing is though that regardless of what may be true in Indonesia and Africa, in Europe there is no need for one to know Dutch in the way one needs to know French, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, since a traveler will never encounter people who speak Dutch and not English. And if there are any books available in Dutch and not English, surely they are books that no one outside the Netherlands would want to read.
Of course as for me, I like learning new languages, even when I don't actually learn very much of one. So the more Dutch I heard, the better.
I found that one of the best resources for learning Dutch spelling (which I find quite a challenge, with the multitude of vowel combinations) was riding the trams and comparing the announcement over the speaker with the lighted display, although the display gives much less detail. It took me quite a while to figure out that the "Fan Hoch Mu-se-um" (or, more accurately, "Fan Choch," with the German/Scottish ch) was the van Gogh museum. "G" in Dutch is never pronounced as it is in English, and is pronounced the same as German "ch" most of the time. (Thus it is undoubtedly related to the old English consonant "gh," which is of course silent in modern English. "Night" in English is "nacht" in both modern Dutch and German.)
From GET LOST! The Cool Guide to Amsterdam: "g is prounounced like a low growl, the sound you make when you're trying to scratch an itch at the back of your throat, like the ch in Chanuka."
People call German a gutteral language, but it is nowhere near as gutteral as Dutch, which sounds like it is spoken almost entirely in the back of the throat. The most commonly used word for "please" (also corresponding somewhat to the German word "gerne") is "graag" ("chrach"), which is a word that I think only frogs can pronounce. And by frogs I don't mean the French, who could never in a million years pronounce it, but those little animals that hang out in ponds and who cartoonists commonly depict sitting on a lily pad.
Dutch is supposedly the European language most closely related to English. There is a consonant shift between English and German (Grimm's Law) that doesn't occur between English and Dutch or Danish. Thus "Good evening" becomes in German "Guten abend," the "d" and "v" shifting to "t" and "b." (The shift from "end" to "ing" is very standard and took place during the time of Middle English.) But in Dutch it is roughly (I don't have my phrase book handy) "Guude avoind," which would be much closer to the English if it weren't for that dastardly "g."
On the other hand, English has an abundance of French-derived and Latin-derived words which don't exist in Dutch, and the grammar in Dutch is much closer to German than English.
In Munich, announcements on the trams were always given in both German and English. These were in a computerized voice, which is the same female voice I heard making the anouncements on the metro in Athens and Lisbon.
In Amsterdam, though, the tram announcements, also computerized but with an extremely different voice (male), were given only in Dutch. And although the conductors on the trams, like everyone I dealt with in Amsterdam, were perfectly capable of and willing to answer questions in English, they always started off with the assumption that everyone spoke Dutch. I found this especially amusing when someone, obviously a tourist, would get on the tram through the wrong door (thereby preventing the conductor from checking their pass or selling them a ticket) and the conductor would complain loudly. But since the conductor was complaining in Dutch, the poor tourist often honestly had no idea what the problem was, or even that it was him the communication was directed at.
The Amsterdam trams are confusing at first in any case, especially if one is used to trams in Germany where one gets on through any door that is convenient. One is in a hurry to get on before the driver closes the doors again (although I suppose in practice he would wait), and there are no signs in English saying "Exit only" or "Enter here," and the little pictoral indicators are not all that obvious when one doesn't know to look for them. About the fourth time I got on an Amsterdam tram, I realized that I'd screwed up (and in this case, the conductor hadn't even yelled at me), and went back to show the condutor my all-day pass, saying (in English, of course), "Some day I'll get this system figured out." And she answered (in English), "Yes, it's confusing, because this is the older model tram, with the conductor in the back." But (based on previous encounters) she would never have initiated the conversation in English if I hadn't spoken in English first.
Likewise, one goes into a lot of restaurants and has a menu in Dutch, of which I could usually figure out about half, based on my knowledge of English and German. But as soon as I would say a word in English, the waitress would say, "Oh, would you like the English-language menu?"
The implied attitude is that it is an anomaly for someone not to speak Dutch, despite the fact that Amsterdam is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe.
At the train station though, most announcements are made in two languages, usually Dutch and English. This is especially true of the most important announcement (or at least the one that's repeated the most often): the No Smoking announcement. For the train I took going to Cologne, the platform announcements were made in Dutch and German, which made sense for a train going from the Netherlands into Germany.