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Word of the Day: beetje (bit)

Expats make for expert observers. What do you think of the Dutch language and has it struck you that the Dutch are so fond of ‘verkleinwoorden’ (diminutives)? Words like: UITJE, outing, DUTJE, nap, BIERTJE, beer, HAPJE, bite to eat, ZONNETJE, sun, HEERLIJK WEERTJE, lovely weather. 

I raised this question to some Dutch sports women when we were having EEN KOPJE KOFFIE MET EEN KOEKJE, (cup of coffee and a biscuit) after strenuous exercises in the fitness centre. ‘Maybe it’s because we live in a small country (EEN LANDJE), we like to put things into perspective’, one person said. And someone else: ‘We like to to make things less serious and want to sound funny’. And: ‘We like to be liked, so we use a lot of endearing words, een beetje gezellig!’.

While I had been doing fifty sit-ups half an hour earlier, and crossing my pain barrier in despair, an idea had suddenly struck me. I suggested to my coffee drinking audience that there might be another reason for the Dutch fondness of diminutives.

Dutch is a very monotonous language in comparison with many other languages like Italian, French, Spanish, or Swedish and Danish. Because speakers of these language have so many melodic variations at their disposal, it seems to me that they use these variations to express their emotions. In Dutch we have assertions, imperatives, questions and that’s about it. So it might be that we express our emotions by adding all kinds of suffixes and meaningless infixes, insertions (like maar, nou, toch etc.).

Annette who is a teacher of Dutch in Delft and who studied our language at Leiden university put on a doubtful face. ‘Don’t know…’ she said, ‘I’ll have to think about it, IK MOET ER EEN NACHTJE OVER SLAPEN (I want to sleep on it)’.

Now, you loyal facebook friend, non-native speaker, expert observer, what is your idea? Let me know. Join this discussion. In the meantime I’ll tell you the story of the extremely popular word and diminutive par excellence: BEETJE, bit, small quantity.

‘Spreekt u Frans?’ EEN BEETJE.
‘Wilt u nog wat eten?’ EEN BEETJE
‘Is hij slim (smart)?’ Nee, hij is een BEETJE DOM.
‘Doe je aan sport?’ Ja, EEN BEETJE

BEETJE, bit, comes from the word BEET, meaning ‘bite’. And BEET comes from the verb BIJTEN, to bite. The same goes for English ‘bit’ and German ‘bisschen’. French has ‘un morceau’ which comes from ‘mordre’ ‘to bite’. So ‘a little’ stems from the world of eating, biting and chewing in most languages and cultures. EEN BEETJE, a bit, bisschen, morceau is really a bite, a mouthful, a drop, a dram, a nip, a shot….

The word BEETJE is unlike the word GELUK (of a few posts ago) a successful word in terms of the European Song Contest. The song EEN BEETJE won first place in Cannes in 1959 in the rendition of Teddy Scholten (Rijswijk, 1926-Rijswijk, 2010).

It is a lovely song, a BEETJE a naugthy song, especially considering the fact that it was conceived in the rigid period of the fifties. You could even interpret the song as a plea for adultery. Here is the refrain:

‘n Beetje, verliefd was je wel meer, meneer, dat weet je.
Je hart kwam wel eens meer op een ideetje.
Dat speet je, maar ach weet je,
soms vergeet je wel een beetje gauw je eedje van trouw.

(A little, in love you were more frequently, Sir, you know it.
More frequently your heart was struck by a little idea,
It made you feel sorry, but ah you know,
Sometimes you forget a little too quick your little oath of fidelity.)


Source photo.