Saturday, 7 May 2016

Muffled Meaning

When we first arrived in Belgium, I had grand plans to learn Dutch. Then I sat beside a diplomat from one of the Baltic states at dinner one evening. He was talking about the EU and Brexit and the general grumblings of some of the member states about Brussels and its edicts, (very little else is ever talked about in Brussels diplomatic circles, needless to say; the state of current cinema, the difficulty of combating snails organically in the vegetable patch, the decline in the quality of New Yorker short stories, all these topics run well behind EU related issues as conversational gambits, despite my best efforts).

What the diplomat told me was that he thought one of the problems that was causing difficulty for the EU was the organisation's habit, whenever it found itself getting into difficulties in one area, of going off and starting to insert itself into a new area of the lives of the member countries, rather than plunging deeper into the area it was already not dealing with and sorting things out there.

"I'm in danger of doing exactly the same with languages", I thought, as he laid out this theory for me. If I continued with Dutch, I'd probably get worse at some other language and I'd end up capable of getting by only on an extremely superficial level, without mastering Dutch - or any other language -particularly well.

I stopped trying to learn Dutch the very next morning. One thing I did not want to do was resemble the European Union in any of its aspects. Therefore, until I knew the word for the lesser-crested blue-wing wood duck in at least three languages that I'd already had a go at, I was not going to try to pick up any new ones, (languages, that is - I never try to pick up wood duck).

I'm glad I made that decision. Not so much because I'm proud of not being able to speak Dutch in the parts of Belgium where Dutch is spoken - and, by the way, I have learned the Dutch phrase for "Do you speak English?", just in case you think I simply bowl into shops and restaurants yelling in my own tongue, impolitely. Many people do, but not me. Oh no. I bowl into places, ask that question and then start yelling in my own tongue, which is far less annoying, I'm sure.

Anyway, the main reason I'm glad I've stopped learning Dutch is that it means I am still able to enjoy looking at the language from the outside and amusing myself by imagining I've stepped back into the times of Chaucer. I find the result oddly charming.

To give you an example, here is the sign over the local do-it-yourself shop:

Then there is the name for spreadable cheese:
Smear cheese, just what I feel like.

Finally, my absolute favourite, the phrase to denote free range chickens:

I love the thought of all those chickens saying cheerio, were off out loping. I like the idea generally of loping, not walking. I wonder why we decided we would walk, rather than lope? When I ask questions like that, people tell me I ought to have studied linguistics, but I suspect that there are no answers really to explain how these things happen. It's like the deplorable way"stepped foot in" has begun to dominate over the earlier and, in my opinion, far better, "set foot in" as the accepted phrase. Or how "disinterested" has come to encompass "uninterested", (do not get me started), or how "reach out" has begun to seem normal rather than entirely emetic.

Language, curiously, considering it is a tool made by humanity, gathers momentum and ends up having a mysterious life of its own.


  1. Skeat connects "walk" with German roots meaning to roll, but he doesn't say how it came to replace the cognates of lope.