Sunday, 26 July 2015

Selective Lingustics

I've been living in Belgium for some months now and, like anyone who spends any time here, have become aware that a low-level tension exists between the users of the two main languages, French and Dutch, (or Flemish, if you prefer). To be strictly accurate, this tension comes mainly from one side of the linguistic barrier. It is the Dutch/Flemish speakers who resent the French speakers, quite often, while the French speakers seem to give no thought to the issue - and, in general, to make no effort to speak Dutch, hence the problem, I suspect.

In response to this state of affairs, my first thought was to try to learn Dutch. Apart from wanting to be polite, I do also enjoy learning languages. The Dutch language - so far as I've got with it, which is not far at all - has turned out to be particularly intriguing. For me, as a native English speaker, it seems curiously Chaucerian, with all sorts of vaguely familiar English words embedded inside it. Of course, this characterisation of the language as similar to something we've moved on from, containing fossilised bits of our own, by implication, more advanced tongue, must surely strike a native Dutch speaker as rather arrogant. If my perspective were different, if I were a native Dutch speaker, I expect I'd have a very different opinion about which is the living, breathing, streamlined 20th century language and which the one with bits of dead stuff tucked away in its linguistic stores.

However, I am an English speaker, and from that perspective it does seem interesting that, while, for instance, we still use the word 'lope', but only to denote a very particular kind of walking, in Dutch loping IS walking. In other words, if you want to say that you are walking in Dutch, you say you are loping. I've no idea what you say, if you want to say you are loping. Such nuances await me, away in the distance, down the path of future study.

What I don't  know is whether I will ever get far enough down that path to discover them. The reason for this is that I've begun to wonder whether rushing off and starting to learn a new language might be a bit silly and ultimately unproductive. Instead of trying to achieve what will only ever be a superficial knowledge of Dutch, might I not be better employed concentrating my efforts on the languages I've already studied relatively seriously but have since neglected? Instead of continuing with Dutch should I get back on track with the ones I used to know moderately well and consider getting by in the Dutch speaking parts of the country with the one universally useful phrase that I have now learnt in the language that they speak there?

The phrase in question, by the way, is not the one someone in my family makes a point of learning in the language of whatever country he is about to visit: "Another beer please; (actually, this person always learns not one, but two phrases that he regards as indispensable, the other being "My friend will pay"). In fact, my  Dutch phrase is not even a phrase, as such; it is a question. It is "Do you speak English?" and since I've mastered it, (not very hard, I grant you), I've taken to using it whenever I go into a shop or a restaurant in the Dutch speaking parts of the country.

The response I've received, I have to admit, has been surprising. My assumption was that I would just be going through the niceties, demonstrating good manners, avoiding doing what so many English speakers abroad tend to do - that is, launching into their own language wherever they are, in the belief that everyone in the world understands it and is more than happy to speak it at the drop of a hat. I imagined the invariable response would be, "Yes, we do, of course", and from that point on we would all natter away in English. Not a bit of it. Instead, to my astonishment, many of the people I've asked have told me that they don't speak English, but volunteered the fact that they do speak the taboo language i.e. French.

So then we've nattered away in French and everyone's appeared to be quite happy - even though, if I went in and started speaking French straight away, they'd almost certainly refuse to admit they speak it. Indeed, someone I know who was coming through from Paris the other day, asked a cyclist at the traffic lights in a town in Flanders if he could give them directions. My acquaintance spoke in French and the cyclist claimed he understood nothing and made it clear that he did not want to speak to them.

Rather miffed, the Parisians drove off, still wondering where they were going. To their surprise, when they reached the next traffic light, they noticed the same cyclist frantically pedalling up behind them. When he reached them, he tapped on the glass, making frantic gestures of apology. The driver from Paris wound down his window and greeted the cyclist, who, in perfect French, explained that he hadn't seen their French number plates when they'd asked his advice and had assumed that they were French Belgians. All smiles, he proceeded to provide the information they wanted.

So it looks as if I can continue just using French and not really bother to learn more Flemish, provided I remember to always light my small candle at the altar of linguistic difference. Acknowledgment of difference appears to dissolve the difference, which is convenient but confusing. Perhaps it was out of this odd psychological situation that the idea of double Dutch first arose.


  1. Poor Dutch. Samuel Johnson said that one would be disgusted to travel to Rotterdam and find the inscription on a monument to Erasmus written in Dutch. Lichtenberg thought that the ass seemed like a horse translated into Dutch. (It is fair to say that Johnson was arguing in favor of Latin rather than English on monuments.)

    Lope, Dutch and English, I have always supposed to be a cognate of the German "laufen", which can mean either run or walk. It seems to me that it has pretty much dropped out of spoken and even written English, except as naming or describing a gait.

    1. The old rule of thumb with German f becoming English p seems to apply to Dutch as well so Laufen/lopen works. Lichtenberg - once again your secret teaching method sends me off to expand my knowledge

    2. The NYRB Classics series includes Lichtenberg's The Waste Books. It cost $14 US when I bought it, fits handily into a coat pocket, and can be read by fits and starts or at length.

  2. Thank you so much for alerting me to his existence