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I had an interesting chat with a colleague about the Dutch language recently, one of those random things that arise out of conversation sometimes, so I’m just going to woodle on a bit with a double-Dutch digression.

To the English speaker Dutch looks both familiar and unfamiliar, which was the starting point for our conversation. Some years ago, I saw a man on the train from Harwich simply bursting with curiosity. I could tell that he was intrigued by his neighbour’s newspaper – not the headline, but its very title, De Telegraaf. His cogs were visibly whirring while he tried to work out why it was German-but-not-quite German. The train’s starting point in Harwich might have been a giveaway, with its connections to Hook of Holland, but perhaps the cog-whirrer didn’t know that. After all, Dutch is a corruption of Deutsch, reflecting the similarities between the two languages. By the time we drew in to Liverpool Street his curiosity was at such a pitch he was unable to contain himself any longer – there was so little time left to ask. Sitting opposite the two men, I was able to lipread the entire exchange. The question: “What language is your paper in?” was, totally ironically, framed in English. The man reading the paper smiled broadly and put him out of his misery in idiomatic English with a slight accent visible on the lips, as only a Dutchman can. “I’m Dutch, and so’s my paper.”

To get back to my colleague: he’d lived in Amsterdam for some time as a student, but had never learnt Dutch, or Nederlands, as it is properly called. Instead he turned it into a game. When confronted with written Dutch, he read it out loud in an English accent. Making up a hybridised, anglicised version – a kind of intermediate stage between the two languages, and between the eye and the ear – enabled him to break down the words he couldn’t make sense of by reading alone.

I rather think he’s not the only one who’s historically taken such an approach across the North Sea. In historical source material, I’ve often come across a mixture of the two languages, not franglais but Dulish! For the (Cape of) Good Hope, for example, I’ve seen both Good Hoop or Goed Hope, which illustrate how close the two languages are at the vocabulary level.

I tackle Dutch a bit differently. Having English as my native language, German as a second language to A-level, and part of my English degree in linguistics, allows me to join the dots between two languages I know formally and a language related to both I don’t. It is no accident that linguists talk about “language families” – there’s a strong family resemblance among this particular branch of the Indo-European family. I make use of patterning in both grammar and vocabulary to search for likenesses either to English or German words.

For a good example that both illustrates likenesses and the rules governing relationships between languages, you could do worse than start with the word deaf itself. In Dutch it becomes doof and in German, taub. Not very similar, you might think, but there are rules where you can recognise a common word by acknowledging that German regularly replaces English d with t and English f with b. Once you know this, it all falls into place – a good example is how English day becomes German Tag. (This is called a consonant shift, first propounded by a linguist named Grimm, whose other hobby was fairy tales.) Words for family relationships and disabilities and certain other categories don’t change an awful lot between languages over time compared to other units of vocabulary, because they are necessary words (and illustrate the prevalence of disability in the past). See, for example, in Anglo-Saxon, one of the ancestor languages of both English and German, one of the wisdom poems extols Christ in these terms: he is deafran duru, he is tungan dumba (he is the door of the deaf, he is the tongue of the dumb).

My colleague and I therefore have quite good and entirely self-taught receptive skills in the written language, but absolutely no productive skills whatsoever, i.e. neither of us can actually speak Dutch! We use different approaches to get very similar results, but it’s also true that our respective strategies have something to do with our hearing. He makes sense of it by turning the written word into the spoken word because he’s always been hearing: I do it entirely by searching for visual correspondences between written forms because that was the only route available to me at the time. His approach is intuitive and based on the ear, mine is academic and based on the eye.

As a conversation, it was brief and utterly random, but gave me an insight into the way that being deaf has had an impact on my learning style, the way I think, and why I’m interested in languages.

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