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Learning Dutch

Dutch is a very nice language, but I think they should have stirred it a little longer, to get the vowels and consonants a bit more uniformly blended. The "lumpiness" of Dutch letter combinations is one of the most disconcerting things in a language that in many other respects is very much like English. Netherlanders will toss off a word with six consonants in a row without even thinking about it: "kunstschilder" (painter), "herfststorm" (autumn storm---and how about that double "st", huh?), and lots of others that I have to take about three practice shots at before I can even get close to pronouncing them. The gem of the collection is "angstschreeuw" (cry of anguish), an eight-consonanter with a mean little aftershock: after you've worn yourself out pronouncing the "ngstschr", you immediately have to tackle the three-toned diphthong "eeuw", which is not fair.

Vowel lumps tend to be more manageable, though; the largest number of vowels I've spotted in a row is four, as in "draaien" (to turn), although they fake you out sometimes by putting three identical vowels together, as in "tweeentwintig" (twenty-two). There's supposed to be a "trema" (dieresis) over the third "e" to let you know that it's the start of a new vowel sound, but this is a mere grudging concession to the forces of sanity.

I say if you can't lick 'em, join 'em, and since Dutch is a compounding language, I have decided to see what I can do in the creation of truly impressive vowel lumps. The best I've come up with so far is "tweeeiuiomelet", or two-egg-and-onion-omelet, which has seven, but I'm sure there are better possibilities out there. Another Dutch word that doesn't exist but should is "fietsgolfjes" or "bike ripples", meaning the sound a bike makes going over a newly-laid brick bike lane where the bricks are still a little loose and ripple/rattle exactly like the chuckle of waves receding from a pebbly beach.

Netherlanders tend to be somewhat more linguistically conservative than we are about this sort of neologistic nonsense, probably because theirs is less of a global language (though it did have to adapt to new surroundings in South Africa and Indonesia, for example) and has had fewer silly foreigners poking around in it. This may also be why they have a hard time understanding badly-pronounced Dutch such as mine: since so many Dutch know English and so few non-Netherlanders (comparatively speaking) bother trying to speak Dutch, they seldom hear Dutch except as pronounced by a native Dutch speaker, so they don't easily recognize the abused version.

And since in Dutch the consonants are about as difficult as in German and the vowels are about as difficult as in French, the bar for the non-native Dutch speaker is set fairly high. The consonants "g" and "ch", for example, are both pronounced somewhat like the German "ch", so the common word "graag" (please, gladly, thank you) comes across as "khhrAAaakkhh". It's rather a pity it's such a polite word, because the easiest way for an English speaker to pronounce it more or less correctly is just to snarl it: you have to remember to snarl graciously, like a Klingon taking tea. Overall, though, it's a much easier language than Hindi and I got no kick coming about that.

—— Kim Plofker
2004-11-14 16:40:18

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
Comments to: dpvc@union.edu
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