Tuesday, November 22, 2005

genoeg

One of the aspects of the Dutch language that I've really come to appreciate is its economy of words -- at least when it comes to certain social interactions... But I suppose this feature of language is easier demonstrated than described.

For instance: in American culture, if a person sneezes a bystander would likely say "God bless you" (or "Bless you" or possibly "I hope you get to feeling better soon"), right? But in Holland, a simple one-word response is given: "Gezondheid" -- "Health." Or consider the fact that if someone is setting off to perform some kind of task in America, they're wished well with the words "Good luck" (or "Best of luck" or "Break a leg" or something like that). But in Holland, all that needs to be said is "Succes" -- "Success." And then in difficult circumstances, how do Americans usually comfort each other? With a statement such as "Hang in there" or "You can make it" or possibly "We're in this together," right? But in Holland, it's appropriate to simply nod with a sympathetic look on your face and say "Sterkte" -- "Strength."

And even with my less-than-complete knowledge of the Dutch language, a number of other such examples come to my mind... "Aangenaam" ("Pleased to meet you"). "Proost" ("Here's to you"). "Gefeliciteerd" ("Congratulations" and "Happy Birthday"). "Jammer" ("Sorry about that" or "Too bad")...

I've heard Nederlanders mourn their language's relative lack of vocabulary when it comes to certain aspects of communication -- particularly in the context of art, poetry, music, and such -- but rather than join the self-deprecation of my adopted culture, I value and praise an ability to succinctly state a complex thought with as few words as possible. The Dutch seem to be less prone to the vices of wordiness and rambling (at least in comparison to Americans), and this is something to be celebrated. I'm not really sure if the Dutch economy of words really means anything or serves as any kind of defining characteristic of the culture at large... But I actually find myself often missing the English equivalent, and I wish that others from my native culture could share in the insights of my obscure second language.

Suppose you're on your way to share a drink with a friend, and outside the cafe you meet a friendly stranger on the street and find out that it's his birthday... Just seconds later, to your horror, his body is wracked by a violent sneeze and his back is thrown out by the force of the nasal blast. Of course, like any reasonable human being, you feel that you must stay with him until the paramedics arrive, and you give his hand a squeeze as he's loaded into the ambulance. As you sit down at the windowside table within the cafe to catch up with your friend, you find out that your friend has already ordered for you and the drinks are immediately delivered -- at which point you raise your glass in salute toward the ambulance which is just pulling away...

In which other language could you get away with just seven words for such a bizarre experience? "Aangenaam. Gefeliciteerd. Gezondheid. Jammer. Sterkte. Succes. Proost." And that's one of the reasons why Dutch is such a wonderful language...

1 Comments:

At 11:29 PM, Blogger Suzanne said...

I never really thought of it that way. I'll remember how wonderful it actually is that we don't use that many words. Next time I'm at a loss for words while translating English to Dutch, I'll remember this actually is a blessing :) Even when I have to translate someone saying; "He was sick because of the illness caused by his disease" as "Hij was ziek"

 

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