Sunday, March 18, 2007

Learning Dinglish as a foreign language

One of the challenges of living in Holland is not just having to learn Dutch. On no, that would be too easy. You have to learn another language too, and it’s official. Dinglish is a requirement for anyone coming to live in the Netherlands. It’s taken me a few years to pick it up, as it’s quite difficult and rather confusing. Indeed, much of the time it does sound rather like English, but don’t be fooled – it genuinely is a different language, and the rules, pitfalls and traps are many. However, nearly everyone speaks Dinglish as a standard form of communication in business, and it really is very handy because it replaces the need to learn any other language properly.

The trouble is, though, I’ve become so good at it now that I even speak it on occasions when I should definitely be using standard English. After all, that is what I’m paid to do when I’m teaching….

My first encounter with Dinglish was when a friend approached me and asked with total innocence if I could fill in her backside. I paused, took a deep breath and was about to utter some scathing response when I realised with a flash of insight that she was referring to the reverse side of a form she was clutching in her hands. Relieved that I had escaped a serious breach of courtesy, I burst out laughing.

This was, of course, the wrong thing to do.

My friend looked wounded. What, she wanted to know, was wrong with her question? Nothing, I soothed. It was just that I thought she had been speaking English, and that we don’t talk about the backside in such a context.

Another example of Dinglish that had me rooted to the floor was when a student said proudly to me one day “Oh yes, miss, when it comes to boys, I always get my sin.” My eyebrows lifted only a fraction, I swear, but I couldn’t help the “ Oh …really..!” that popped out before I could stop it. Fortunately, I had the restraint to ask her exactly what she meant before I put my other foot in my mouth too. You can imagine the chuckles when I found out that mijn zin in Dutch means ‘my way’, and that in Dinglish she had just been telling me what a determined lass she was.

Without writing my own text book on the subject, there are so many of these tricky translation problems it would be impossible to list them all, but another of my favourites came up in a conversation with a fellow dog lover. We were talking about training our canine friends one day when she told me earnestly “Yes, Val, you must be very consequently with your dog”. It took me some time to realise that the meaning of this was ‘consistent’ which is consequent in Dutch, but the extra ‘ly’ is Dinglish. Bearing in mind that in Nederlands , there is no separate form to distinguish an adjective from an adverb, ending both in Dinglish with ‘ly’ is a safe bet and solves the problem of having to decide which form to use. Simple, but rather mystifying for the beginner. As a result, you often hear things like “the economically situation” and “a fully automatically machine”, not to mention “he had a highly regard for her”!

But, as with all good stories, the best has to come last, and here I refer to a little book on quotable Dinglish quotes, written by a former Dutch diplomat who has spent his life collecting exceptional Dinglish faux pas. He describes his absolute favourite as the phrase issued from the lips of a newly appointed MP who said in a speech at a glittering dinner for intermational guests: “I am the first minister for the inside and I am having my first period”. The poor woman never did understand why all the guests promptly choked on their drinks and had to be treated for shock. If, on the other hand, she had known that binnen in Dutch can be translated as ‘interior’ and ‘internal’ as well as ‘inside’, and that the English word for periode is in fact ‘term’, then she may have saved herself and her audience quite some distress, not to mention hospital bills.

Needless to say, though, another minister went one better. In response to a particularly generous gesture or gift (I forget which), he boomed: “I thank you all from the bottom of my heart....... and from my wife’s bottom too!”

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The power of the smiley

Have you noticed how important the smiley has become as a symbol of our positive, humorous and otherwise generous feelings about things? I realised this with some force earlier today when I found I'd made a comment on someone's blog in response to one made by another commenter (who was then, and will still, remain anonymous!) which that person found offensive. Clear so far?

Knocked off my normally good natured heels to find I'd upset someone, I scurried over to said blog to examine what I'd written. I realised with regret that, although my words were intended to be light hearted and teasing, they could, if read in a different mood and from a different perspective, be found to be critical and objectionable, which is of course what had happened.

I also realised that had I put the inimitable smiley at the end of my comment, this would not have happened, but I'd been in a hurry and just dashed it off without thinking.

Words in black and white can't be erased, and the damage they can do remains like a blot. The reader can't hear the cheerful tone of voice, can't see the teasing expression, and can only see the bald, bare words on the screen or page. If I am writing seriously, I take a great deal of time to make sure the right expressions and emotions emerge through my words and can only hope I achieve this, but when blogging, or writing emails or sending text messages, I don't have the time for this, and I imagine most other people don't either; hence the meteoric rise of the smiley. It covers up for all sorts of crass, tactless statements that I know I might otherwise have been guilty of, and for that, dear little symbol that it is, I am immensely grateful. I just hope that the person I wounded unintentionally will read this and know that my real intentions were as good natured as the ubiquitous smiley - and that I am too ;-)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Paradoxically speaking

The Netherlands is a country of the most amazing paradoxes and contradictions. Almost every week, I learn something that leaves me shaking my head foolishly in astonishment.

Consider this: Hollanders pride themselves on their tolerance and liberal approach to life, but these are the very qualities that allow pockets of the country to be so strictly religious that even the most rigid conventions are observed in entire villages, not just households.

As an example, I had a student once who came from a village in Zeeland where she was treated as an outcast because she wore jeans and long pants and did her gardening on Sundays. Absolutely true! When I commented on how fantastic such a situation was in so progressive a country, I was told that it is because the Dutch are so tolerant that this intolerance can exist. Get it? I wish I did!

On a similar theme, the country can still be divided along loose religious lines, i.e the north is protestant and the south catholic. Although this is fairly diluted these days, and like most other western countries, religion is not that big an issue, you can nevertheless still see the divide clearly in the culture. The south is home of the carnival and grand festivities. Wine and good spirits flow with typical catholic extravagence. In the north, though, there is little in the way of this type of hair loosening event, and in fact it is still seen as rather 'low' behaviour.

Add to this that some of the major broadcasting networks are run by the dominant religious groups, and you start to wonder how it is that so secular a country whose government is a mystery of concensus and coalition can also be home to such noticeable spiritual boundaries.

And there's another oddity I learnt a week or so ago from Invader Stu: Amsterdam, city of the coffee shops, all night parties, red light district, the gay games and basically an 'anything goes society ' closes its liquor sales at 3 a.m on a weekend night and absolutely nowhere can you buy anything but alcohol free beer after this time.

The list continues: Illegal acts such as smoking weed are not prosecuted or even fined, but walking your dog without a lead is; the police all carry guns, unlike their counterparts in the UK, but as a force, they are considered by most people to be little more effective than rather feeble social workers; voluntary euthanasia and gay marriage were first legalised in the Netherlands, but fail to turn up at a family birthday party and you are in trouble for the rest of the year!

I find it a source of constant amazement and fascination - if only because it is always so unanticipated. "We are tolerant", said a Dutch friend "As long as you don't expect us to be, that's all." And that's a paradox in itself, isn't it?