Bilingual Ambiguity: Applying Dutch Humor To English

I like to think I am truly bilingual. Most of the time I don’t know what language I think in, every now and then I catch myself messing up two languages in my own head, and pretty often, I can only think of a word in one language when I need it in the other. It’s not even that the languages are that similar, but sometimes they just mess up when I’m trying to form a zin, I mean, sentence. I’ve been told it’s a by product of being bilingual. Funny fact about me: I have a minor in bilingual studies, because I accidentally followed all the required linguistic and psychology courses. A small part of my level of English is due to the influence it has (had) in Dutch language. Movies, series, and games are all in English, and even English grammar has seeped into Dutch.

Slightly related picture, because it's hard to find grammar pictures.

Slightly related picture, because it’s hard to find grammar pictures.

Let me explain. The rule of thumb for writing words in Dutch is to combine words until it changes the meaning of what you’re trying to express. ‘Car insurance company’ does not change meaning when written together, and so autoverzekeringsmaatschappij is one word. Because people are so used to English, and probably because of an anxiety to create ‘new’ words, and the desire to go for a ‘safe spelling’, a lot of words that are supposed to be written as one, are more and more being written apart. On a side note (or, sidenote, as the Dutch would put it), I really like the creative energy that is involved in Dutch; you can create combinations of words that have never been used before in that combination, but are totally legitimate, even when the Google spell checker (spellchecker) tells you otherwise.

For language geeks, that would imply  that Dutch has no official longest word. Think about that!

For language geeks, that would imply that Dutch has no official longest word. Think about that!

In short, because people are alarmed by the Google spell checker, that doesn’t allow for Dutch creativity after all, or simply because they don’t know the rules, they have been changing the meaning of sentences, leading to hilarious (but unfortunately not translatable) results. Think of it as a form of the Oxford comma. The best part about this, and the reason for telling you, is that the hilarity goes on when you apply Dutch reasoning to English signs. I see so many signs everywhere that could mean something entirely normal, but at the same time something really funny. At times, it’s just confusing. Let me give you two quick examples:

  • A book store near my house was advertising a ‘Giant book sale’. I checked it out, but to my disappointment, all the books were a regular size.
  • A store in Kansas City had a sign out: ‘Watch battery replacements’. We decided to go see the soccer match instead.

Your turn: what is the best weird interpretation you can think of?

P.S. I really like signs, so you can find earlier blogs on the topic here and here.

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9 thoughts on “Bilingual Ambiguity: Applying Dutch Humor To English

  1. People who start writing Dutch words separately when they should concatenate them are sometimes said to suffer from ‘Engelse ziekte’. An appropriate moniker, if I say so myself.

    As to bilingualism, the more my English improves, the more I notice how I’m still not fully bilingual. While I’m fluent to a near-native level, my control of both languages spans differing domains. Generally this is classified as ‘diglossia’, where for the state of bilingualism I should (ideally) have equal control of all those domains in both languages.

    Example: I can name all straps in a horse’s tack in Dutch, because I used to ride when I was younger and most books I read on horsemanship were in Dutch. In English I can talk about horses as well, but my vocabulary is less advanced. However, when I discuss (say) feminism, I know much more jargon in English, since most of what I’ve read and argued about has been in English. There is no nice snappy Dutch phrase for ‘check your privilege’, as far as I know.

    I’m nor sure how nitpicky professionals and scholars are for this distinction between diglossia and bilingualism, but I’m hesitant to claim full equivalence. Best to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around, right?

    • I don’t see diglossia as a problem, especially when it comes to specialized knowledge. English being the academic language, I think most scientists would have considerable problems translating their knowledge back to their native language (I have yet to see a satisfactory try). To me, being bilingual means being able to switch languages effortlessly, whereas other foreign languages require a different mindset (if I speak French, I’m basically just translating Dutch into a French mold, grammar and all). The fact that I often don’t know what language I think in, is (unscientifically, I’ll admit) bilingual to me.

  2. Hmm. Interesting. My mother tongue is not English and for about half my life, I still used to translate from that language to English even though my education all took place in Canada in English. Maybe the trick is the language you use the most. I bet, in years to come as you speak less and less of your Mother tongue all your thinking will be in English (like mine is now).

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