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by Frans Hertoghs | English translation by Ragini Werner | NEEDSer

Is it really true, are the Dutch always so terribly blunt? You hear that often, especially in English-speaking countries. We, the Dutch, don’t feel it is true. We may be forthright and direct, both of those. But blunt? Of course not!

Polite Language

So what’s going on here? Do we have a hereditary defect, which prevents us from seeing our own bluntness? Or do the others see us in the wrong light? Are they prejudiced against the Dutch? Well, about the latter, naturally, I can’t say a thing. But I can say something about the former because we are not blunt, certainly no more than other citizens of the world. It’s just that our politeness is hidden in our language. It goes like this.

Softeners

More than other languages, Dutch is ​​full of little words that on their own don’t mean much but do provide a kind of softening effect on our utterances. Thus, we say, for instance, “Oh, do you want to be so kind as to step aside a tiny little bit for just a moment.” That sentence is full of little words that soften the demand, that work sort of like a fabric softener. We don’t give an order, “Move out of my way!” but ease the request with:oh, perhaps, want, just a moment, a little bit, even a tiny little bit andwould. Seven pure fabric softeners in one sentence.

Performance

In English, you wouldn’t translate that literally. It would sound ridiculous. So, what would an English-speaker say then? Something like, “Move aside, please”? Yet in English too, that sounds rather blunt. So the speaker puts on a little softening performance: he tilts his head, gives a disarming smile, uses a friendly tone and suddenly that somewhat harsh request sounds a lot nicer.

Untranslatable

Dutch speakers don’t have to act like this. And there are those who never would, especially those who’d feel ridiculous putting on a performance with a special face and a special tone for such a simple request. But the Dutch way of asking is untranslatable. And so, if these people must resort to speaking the English language, which uses little or no fabric softeners, they often forget to add the little act that softens their request.

Giving orders?

A Dutchman doesn’t say please at the drop of a hat. He says, “Mag ik de koffiemelk even? / May I just have the condensed milk?” Here that justmeans please but in a special form. And “Gaat u toch zitten! / Do sit down!” is certainly not an order but a heartfelt request. He might say, “Gagerust even zitten / Go ahead and just sit.” That sounds slightly harder but “Gaat u alstublieft zitten / If you please, sit” sounds definitely unfriendly. That’s almost an order.

Subtlety

Listen to these nuances: “Kom hier! / Come here!” versus “Kom eens even hier / Come here a bit” or Kom toch eens hier / Oh come on over here” or “Kom maar hier / Come here if you like” or a combination of all three “Kom toch maar eens even hier.” The point is, each request gets its own fabric softener. Who does all the work in good Dutch manners? Our Dutch language. Our beautiful, subtle, not-always-translatable language.

So, are we blunt? Absolutely not! We may be lousy actors. But blunt is different.

zelfportret FH

Frans Hertoghs is a writer, journalist and broadcaster who studied Dutch, majoring in Onomastics (the study of proper names). He publishes in various magazines, including Holland Focus. In 1995 Frans left the Netherlands and moved to New Zealand where he has TaalsTaaltjes, a weekly column on the Dutch language and culture that is broadcast on SBS Dutch Radio and emailed to subscribers. If you'd like to receive a copy of TaalsTaaltjes (Dutch only) please contact NEEDSer.