Tuesday, April 06, 2004

It's All Dutch to Me - A Weird Linguistic Experience

Here's a comment that's sure to enrage all native Dutch-speakers out there, but here it goes anyway: spoken Dutch (or some varieties of it anyway) sounds remarkably like English*!

The reason I mention this is that I was sitting next to a trio of tourists today, who happened to be talking loudly amongst themselves about this, that and the other. I don't make it my hobby to eavesdrop on the conversations of others, but these individuals seemed determined to share their discussion with everyone around them, so voluble were they; or, in retrospect, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they felt so confident that they wouldn't be understood that they saw no reason to keep the volume down. Anyway, as I listened on, I found myself growing ever more perplexed: why was it that what these obviously English folks (or so I thought), loud as they were, nonetheless seemed incomprehensible to me? I had this vague feeling of almost but not quite comprehending what they were going on about, when after a considerable period, it dawned on me that perhaps they weren't speaking English after all. But if so, what language could it be?

I know a Slavic or Romance language when I hear one, and so I could rule those options out straightaway. Finnish and Hungarian are also sufficiently distinct from all European languages that I knew that neither of those languages could have been what I was hearing. The more intently I listened, the more certain I was that these strangers had to have been speaking a Germanic language - words like "ya/ja" and "for/vor" that are common to most of them being one tipoff, and the general intonation (to which I am always attuned, being a native speaker of a tonal language) being another. Indeed, it was the intonation pattern that led me to dismiss the possibility of the mystery language being Swedish, Norwegian or Danish. At the same time, I knew it couldn't be German, or I would have understood what was being said, which meant it absolutely had to be ... Dutch?

As indeed it was. The final clue came in a most unexpected manner, as someone handed a check to Mr. van der Waerden, who just happened to be the loud gentleman in heated discussion with two ladies next to me. That is about as Dutch as a name gets, so there was no cause for further puzzlement as far as that went. But why then did so much of what I'd been listening to seemed at once so familiar and yet meaningless?

Now, I do happen to know a bit of written Dutch, and by leaning on my understanding of German I can make my through a fair amount of Dutch (and Afrikaans) writing with surprising ease, but knowing how to read a language and understanding its spoken form are very different skills, and I've little opportunity to work on the latter in my daily life. I try to listen to Radio Netherlands broadcasts on the web, but given that most speakers on it will likely be using Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands ("General Civilized Dutch"), this is probably a less than ideal means of getting a feel for the sound of the language in ordinary usage, being the Dutch analogue of trying to learn how ordinary English people speak by listening to Oxford-educated BBC broadcasters going on in Recieved Pronunciation. Still, that the gap between the written and at least some forms of the spoken language should have been so great that listening to one would fail to help me recognize the other came as a surprise to me; I'd really expected the language to sound more ... well ... German in intonation (this my Dutch readers may feel is taking things too far!), what with being right next to Germany and all, an assumption that Radio Netherlands broadcasts have actually helped to foster.

I still have one wild hypothesis up my sleeve to explain what I heard, though I'm in no position to confirm or disprove it. Could it have been that what I mistook for Dutch was actually Frisian? Never having knowingly heard Frisian spoken, I can't even begin to guess, but given the history of settlement of the British Isles and the classification of Frisian as the closest to English of the Low German languages, the possibility naturally occurred to me. That Friesland is a province of the Netherlands also makes the hypothesis seem reasonable, as it could be that Mr van der Waerden's name is just a reflection of a degree of assimilation to the mainstream.

UPDATE: I've just discovered Omrop Fryslân, an online Frisian radio station. Listening to a broadcast, my hypothesis doesn't seem quite as outrageous as I originally thought. Still, I don't know the sound of the various Dutch dialects well enough to be in any position to dismiss the possibility that I really was listening to a variety of Dutch, rather than Frisian. One complicating factor that I haven't mentioned at all is the incredible influx of English words into all of the other Germanic languages (other than Icelandic), especially amongst the young. When one is listening to young people casually throwing English words into a conversation which is already going on in a language with many similarities to English, it can be hard to tell which language is actually in use.

*This may sound extraordinary to American ears, but it isn't so difficult to understand if one appreciates that there is a tremendous amount of variation in the way English is spoken in the British Isles, and to one who has lived amongst the British for any decent amount of time, all of them will sound as "natural" to the ear as would Brooklynese or a Texan twang would to an American.