Everybody knows this. If you speak the language of the place you visit, you’ll always get bigger smiles, more open doors, more generous servings in the market. And if you live there, you don’t want to pass on any of it.
Well Belgium, like I like to say it, is a nice countries. Yes, countries. There are two bigger regions, Flanders and Wallonia, that even though belonging to the same government, by no means feel like the same. Brussels is the third region. Language, flag, social benefits, bus companies, garbage disposal rules….a lot of things are different. And there’s even a German-speaking region, but I won’t go there.
I live in Flanders, where they speak Dutch but with a different accent from The Netherlands, some very interesting input from the French and with a lot of variations in local dialects.
Learning a new language is usually a synonym of getting a headache very often and I was no exception. I started having lessons, of course, but also the environment around me shifted suddenly from English to Dutch now that I had officially moved and was not here temporarily anymore. And that’s when I got very quiet. Some people are not afraid of putting together all the bits they already know, even if it doesn’t make sense, but I’m a lot more shy and I would only say something when I was at least 80% sure it was ok.
ANYWAY. After more than a year, I’m still not great at Dutch, not even good. But I can already follow a conversation, manage life by myself alone and veeeery rarely even make a joke. Those are the days of triumph! And in this year and a few months I’ve learned many interesting things about Dutch, that I decided to call from now on “The Language of Suspense”. I’ll share a few to prove my point.
I think I will never ever ever get used to the way they say numbers. Twenty-five becomes 5 and 20. So that means you have to say the second number you see before the one in the first place. You’re there in suspense, you want to know how much money this freelancer makes, maybe you’re even considering a career change. She starts by saying “FIVE AND” and you imagine all kinds of scenarios. 25 seems ok but very low for her skills, it’s probably 65…but what kind of job does she have? Could it be 95? I WANT TO KNOW. And then, in the end, it comes. I still don’t know what job she has, but it’s not worth a career change, even though I considered it between that 5 and that 20.
Writing down someone’s phone number? Zero-four-three-and-forty-five-and-fifty-sixteen. It’s a mess. Hearing the price of something with two digits for euros AND cents? One-and-thirty-euros-and-seven-and-sixty-cents. It’s a mess. Saying the measures of a table, your shoe size or a color code? It’s a total mess.
Just like Bruce Lee encourages us, friends, to be water this sentence could end there at “I am tea” (ik ben thee). But no, there’s more to it and if you’re learning Dutch you know by now it can still have many ends. And being it the Language of Suspense, you’ll have to wait until the end to realise what was, is or will be of this tea. Because maybe there will be tea for you in a near future; but maybe it’s all being thrown away in this precise moment.
The negative of a sentence comes sometimes in the end, which makes it sound more like a sarcastic hashtag in the end of a social media post than any other thing. Like:
I love Mondays. #not
But this is only the simple version of what we sometimes hear in the speakers at the train station. Once I heard something like “The Intercity train from 14:23 with the destination Oostende that stops in Ghent and Bruges rides exceptionally today…not”. You’re there, you made it on time to the train station, you got the train track right, you have a valid ticket, soon you’ll be home, you’re happy, your train is coming. #not
Besides being the “Language of Suspense", the Dutch from Belgium is also the “Language of Diminutives“. You can put a -tje or a -ke after almost every noun and it will not be weird. I’ve gotten professional messages referring to an emailtje, in every corner you can buy broodjes (sandwiches), the most basic beer is a pintje, a snack in the middle of the afternoon is a vieruurke (four o’clock) and, my favorite, is when they take the French question “ça va?” (how is it going?) and they turn it into one word in the diminutive form - çavatjes?
And since they turn everything into small and sweet, I was surprised when I learned about the sweet names parents call their kids or lovers call themselves. Hilarious.
This is why learning Dutch is OK. Conjugating verbs is easy and a lot of things don’t make sense but can be very entertaining for a foreigner. For example, “pants” are lange broek (long pants) and “shorts” are korte broek (short pants). I always wonder what the middle pants are. If you’re having a baby, you will actually be buying it, because what you say is ik ga een kindje kopen (I will buy a kid). And, of course, difficult words to pronounce all together in a sentence can make me laugh out loud: gij hebt veel herinneringen van geheime geuren in jouw geheugen (you have many memories of secret scents in your memory) - you can hear it here.
And now, for my favorite way of saying goodbye,