Talking Dutch: The last word


Since we started this column 10 years ago, Dutch has seen a few changes, as languages always do – but people’s objections to new words and usages never go away

Derek Blyth on a decade of Dutch

Welcome to the final Talking Dutch column. As the weekly print version of Flanders Today shuts down for good, so, too, will this space.

Back in 2007, when the newspaper was launched, the goal was not only to keep English-speaking locals up on the news but also to reveal what made Flanders interesting and unique. We knew many of our readers weren’t fluent Dutch-speakers, so we added this column.

We didn’t necessarily plan to explain the finer points of grammar, such as the tricky distinction between u – the formal “you”, and jij – the informal “you”. We were just trying to give our readers some reasons to discover and enjoy the Dutch language.

The first Talking Dutch, written by Alistair MacLean, hit the nail on the head. He focused on the word wielrennen – cycle racing, explaining the important difference between wielrenners – the Lycra-clad pro cyclists you see pounding Flanders’ roads, and simple fietsers – cyclists.   

What we really wanted to do was to explain Flanders through its language. And we’ve had a lot of fun doing so, especially when it comes to the annual competition to find het lelijkste woord van het jaar – the worst word of the year.

This year’s crop of hated words included bejaarden – old people, bubbles – sparkling wine, absoluut –wrongly (to some) used to mean an emphatic yes, and leuk – nice, which people objected to because het klinkt zo Hollands – it sounds so Dutch. 

Shift in society

But the term that won most votes this year was diervriendelijk vlees – animal-friendly meat, on the grounds that dieren doden is per definitie niet vriendelijk – by definition, killing animals is not friendly.

The survey is interesting because it shows yet again that a language is not something fixed and frozen for all time. It keeps evolving, depending on how people decide to use it.

New words emerge all the time. Some become part of the fabric of everyday speech, while others are stamped out pretty quickly by public opinion.

Sometimes a new word comes along that captures a shift in society. Just a few years ago, we noticed the appearance of the word ontdoping – meaning a kind of reverse baptism. It referred to Catholics in Belgium renouncing their religion.

More recently, the compound word bakfietsouder has emerged to denote ouders – parents, who take their kids to school on an old-fashioned bakfiets – cargo bike (literally baker’s bike). You might think this is a positive development that will help to relieve congestion and pollution, but the word is more commonly used as a sneer about hipsters in Antwerp and Ghent.

Just a few months ago, Radio 1 asked listeners to come up with a Dutch word for mansplaining: het fenomeen waarbij een man iets uitlegt aan een vrouw wat ze al lang weet – the phenomenon where a man explains to a woman something she already knows (and often knows more about than he does).

Someone suggested manoloog. Another listener came up with expliqheren – a clever blend of expliqueren – to explain and heren – men. Someone else proposed mandacht – a neat modification of aandacht – attention.

Sadly, none of the proposals was very popular, so we appear to be stuck with mansplaining.

Leuk. And that’s our final word on the subject.

Photo: News Oresund/Wikimedia Commons