By Mark van Engeland

 
Making Noises

Today, we'll begin looking into the thing that the Dutch call pronunciation; and oooooh, boy, is it a subject that's close to my larynx!

I have a real problem with Dutch; which I believe will be shared by most English-speaking people.
'What is that problem?' I hear you ask.
Well -- and I have to try to find a way to say this which will annoy as few people as possible -- It's something that I've never had with other languages (Italian, COBOL, Pascal, etc.).  The problem is that when I try to speak it, I feel completely silly!
(D'ya think I got away with it?)

But really silly!
Let's take a look at an example, before I dig myself in any deeper:
The letter 'U'.
In Dutch, the 'u' gives a sound which does not exist in English.  You have to sort-of half purse your lips, push your tongue against the back of your lower front teeth, and say 'oo'.
Try it.
Well, what does it sound like?
Yup.  You've got it.
It sounds exactly like Peter Sellers, saying 'a bomb!', in that dreadfully silly French accent he used for the Pink Panther movies!
That's what I mean by silly!
It's not the language that's silly -- hell, it's been in use for centuries, which means it's perfectly normal -- it's me who feels silly, when I try to speak it!
All the new vowel sounds that an English speaker has to learn for Dutch are sounds which we only make when we're either completely drunk, or acting in such a way that we ought to be!
The diphthong 'ui' sounds like 'ow', but again with the lips pursed and the tongue forward in the mouth -- exactly like the Goon Show's Bluebottle, saying 'Ow, stop hit-hit-hittin' me on my nut!'.
Funny thing, but Bluebottle was played by Peter Sellers, too.  He must have had Dutch blood in him (either that or he thought the Dutch were silly).
The word 'ui' means 'onion', by the way, which could explain the sound it makes (try taking a hearty bite of a raw one!).
For the Dutch, of course, these are not silly sounds; and my calling them such might offend a few people, but that is not my intent (for a change!).  I daresay there are a few English diphthongs which work the same way for the Dutch speaker -- but you, the English speaker, are expected to make these 'silly boy, showing off when grandma calls around' noises, without giving in to the temptation to pull a silly face to go with them!
For someone who makes his living out of acting extremely silly; both in writing and on stage; that temptation is almost too much to bear!  I want to break out and do the stupid arm movements, or strut around in character as an idiot, just to cap the 'performance' off!
It's not silly; it's just the way it is!
It's not silly; it's just the way it is!
It's not silly; it's just the way it is!

I'm hoping that if I write that out a few thousand times, I'll get over it.

A trademark irrelevant interlude (you should have come to expect them by now!):
Most people outside the UK are unfamiliar with the Goons.  They were Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and a few others from time to time.  Largely written by Milligan; one of the greatest humorists who has ever lived; it was a radio series, where the protagonists took on a number of roles each, using numerous silly voices (except Secombe, whose every voice sounded remarkably like Harry Secombe) to perform hilariously surreal sceneggiati.  The goons were the final evolutionary phase of the British sense of humour -- from which Python, etc., got their inspiration -- and we are all now quite insane.
Eccles, played by Milligan, sounds something like (and is about as intelligent as) Barney, the purple dinosaur; whilst Bluebottle sounds like... Well, just imagine Peter Sellers doing a knobbly-kneed schoolboy.

<Goon Show mode on>

    Bluebottle :  'Ere, Eccles, what is you doin' with that book of Dutch grammar?
    Eccles :  I'm trying to fix my car.
    Bluebottle :  Yes, ha ha haa!  I can see you are fixing you car, but why are you usin' a Dutch grammar book?
    Eccles :  Well, because when the man at the garage explained it, it was all Greek to me; but I haven't got a Greek book!  Just a minute...  I think I've got it!
    Various bangs, clanks and whistles; terminating with the sound of a world war 2 Stuka, dive-bombing a cat.
    Bluebottle :{Adagio}  I don't think Mrs. Splunge is going to be very happy with you.  She has only had that cat for a week.
    Eccles :  I know, but the car's workin'!
    Bluebottle :  'Ere, I know a little Dutch, you know.
    Eccles :  Really?  I didn't know that.
    Bluebottle :  Yes.  She lives at number 27, Spleenthorpe Street.  She will not be able to resist me, once my bag of sherbert lemons arrives from the mail-order catalogue!  She will be like putty in my masculine, icing-sugar-and-lemon-crystal-coated hands!  Ha ha haa!
    Eccles :  Maybe she's got a Greek book I can borrow.
    Bluebottle :  I do not know, but she told me some Dutch.
    Eccles :  Oh?  And what does it sound like, then?
    Bluebottle :  I am talkin' it now, you silly Eccles, you!  If you are not payin' attention, then I will not let you drive me home in your car!

<Goon Show mode off>

Back to the subject of pronunciation:
One of the first things that caught my attention about the Dutch is how computer literate they all are.  When you hear street-sweepers discussing dot com, or dot this or dot that, you know that the people in the country know their Internet!
I'm tempted to leave that unexplained, but I suppose I'd better not.  *sigh*
'Dat' means 'that', and is pronounced 'dot'; while 'komt' is the second and third person singular of 'komen' (to come -- you/he/she/it comes), and is pronounced 'comt', with a near-silent 't' that often loses itself in the first syllable of whatever word follows.
The clause 'dat komt' (Pron: 'dot com') is used to delimit or restrict an event, occurrence, or happening, e.g.: 'dat komt nog wel' (literal: 'that comes yet, ok?') means that something will happen later; and 'Who did this?' could be replied to with: 'dat komt door Jacques' (lit: 'that comes through Jacques'), which means that whatever occurrence is being discussed is Jacques' fault.
Since any phrase which apportions blame is likely to be one of the more frequently used phrases in any language, the Dutch get to sound like net-heads.  I won't comment on what the French sound like, because I have promised to be very, very good (this week) -- the fact that 'Jacques' is a French name has no bearing on anything...

Now, let's talk about pain.
I am English.  Insofar as pronunciation, we English are big softies.  The 'R' is pronounced with the lips, the 'CH' is pronounced with the front of the tongue, etc..  There are no harsh sounds, and there are no sounds which require any real effort to produce.
Not so the Dutch.
By the time a Dutch kid is five years old, he can crack walnuts in the back of his throat!
The English 'G' doesn't even rate as a decent glottal stop -- but the Dutch 'G' can kill at twenty paces!
Clear your throat.
You've got it.
The nearest equivalent sound that Anglo-types will know is the Scots' 'CH', as in loch (This had to be pointed out to me by a Dutch person, funnily enough -- I was too busy suffering to notice the similarity).  Treat the letter as a piece of wood, and sandpaper it on the way out.
The dutch 'CH' has a similar sound; so much so that, whilst learning, you might as well make the same sound for both 'G' and 'CH'.  I have a theory that 'G' stands for 'Growl', and 'CH' is actually an acronym for 'Cough-Hack'.
My throat keeps sending me hate-mail, since I moved here -- especially since the nearest town centre to me is a place called Schiedam (pron: S-*cough-hack*-eedum).
Once you've had a few years' practice with the language -- and can therefore growl harshly enough to send whole prides of lions fleeing in terror to whimper in dark corners -- you can start to worry about making the G/CH distinction.
For now, worry about where the money will come from to pay for all the throat lozenges and mouthwash you're going to need!

In the next language column, I'll start looking at the number of similar words there are between Dutch and English.  There are enough that putting together a rudimentary vocabulary is relatively easy, so starting to speak in pidgin-Dutch comes quickly -- so long as no-one realises you're English, of course (or American, I should add).

Will that be next week?
Who knows?
I have a lot more to say about Dutch cuisine, by now -- and I'm sure you are all desperate to hear how our intrepid agent Double-0 PS fared in his mission -- so who knows what madness will come next?

 

 

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