Talking Dutch: You didn’t say 17 dwarf hamsters


Getting your head around a new language is hard, and we couldn’t care less. Or could we? But you don’t mean that. Or do you?

Derek Blyth on a state of disbelief

Just when you think you’re beginning to get the hang of a foreign language, some new expression comes along to floor you.

The Dutch writer and comedian Paulien Cornelisse put her finger on one such problem in a recent article. She noticed that people had started to say dat meen je! – oh really! instead of dat meen je niet! – you don’t say.

She gave this example: Mijn nicht heeft zeventien dwerghamsters – my niece has 17 dwarf hamsters. Dat meen je niet! – You don’t say!

It’s complicated, Cornelisse says, because obviously the person did say that her niece had all those dwarf hamsters. But the speaker used the expression Dat meen je niet to show that she was a little uncomfortable with the idea. Je wil alleen maar zeggen – you really just want to say, dat je zelf blij bent dat je niet zeventien dwerghamsters hebt – that you’re happy that you’re not the one with 17 dwarf hamsters.

But now people have started to say Dat meen je! – which translates literally as “you mean that”. Daar wordt hetzelfde mee bedoeld als ‘dat meen je niet’ – And what they mean is exactly the same as “You don’t say” – literally, “you don’t mean that”. Confusing, no?

Cornelisse argues that the new expression might be more accurate. ‘Dat meen je’ klopt eigenlijk beter – “You mean that” actually sounds better, want je zegt het dus alleen als iemand iets wel meent – since you’re only going to say it when someone really means something.

Toch klinkt het fout – But it sounds wrong all the same, omdat het op een geschokte, ongelovige toon wordt uitgesproken – because it’s spoken in a shocked, unbelieving tone, in plaats van als een statement – and not just as a statement.

You could care less?

In het Engels bestaat een dergelijk fenomeen – a similar phenomenon exists in English. Here the expression “I couldn’t care less” means the same as “I could care less”.

Apparently, the expression “I could care less” was first used in the 1960s in the US. It irritates a lot of people, including the comedian John Cleese, as you can see from a rant he has posted on YouTube.

Cornelisse argues that the expression “I couldn’t care less” is more logical. Het betekent dat je je niet voor kan stellen dat er iets is dat je minder belangrijk vindt – It means that you can’t imagine anything you could care about less.

Whereas “I could care less” is less strong. Denk je blijkbaar dat er dingen nog wel minder interessant kunnen zijn – you are clearly thinking that there are some things that could be less interesting.

In other words, Americans really should be saying “I couldn’t care less.” (Unless, that is, they still have a little bit of care left, in which case they could care less.)

Photo: Ingimage