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Word of the day: toekomst (future)

NU (now) was the painful ending of my previous posting a couple of days ago. My dentist had to anaesthetize a canine tooth for a root-canal therapy. Because two normal injections had no effect, he put the needle straight into the nerve. For a moment it was terribly painful but then it felt completely numb. The area around the slaughtered nerve is still sensitive today, this Sunday.


I needed a little distraction. So we decided to go for a long walk and enjoy the colours and smells of autumn. When we entered the Delftse Hout (‘hout’ is an old Dutch word for wood or forest, for instance ‘Voorhout’ is a Hague avenue which used to be ‘before the wood’) we found ourselves talking about the TOEKOMST (future) and its possibilities. 

Isn’t TOEKOMST an apt word for events that are still to come? Originally the word meant ‘approaching someone’ and very often the noun referred to the coming of Christ. From the eighteenth century onwards it lost that meaning and now it only means ‘the time to come’. German has a similar word ‘Zukunft’ with a similar meaning.

Before the English stole the word ‘future’ from French (Latin ‘futurus’ means ‘going to be’ or ‘yet to be’) they used the equally lovely word ‘hereafter’ which was in Old English ‘heræfter’. This word can also mean ‘after death’ which is in Dutch ‘hiernamaals’.

Walking through this autumnal wood we could almost imagine ourselves to be in the ‘hiernamaals’, the next world (if there is one). Thirst and hunger, however, reminded us that we were still in this inconstant sublunary world which fills us with fear for the future.

Anyway, what the hell is TOEKOMST anyway? What is to come is just as nonexistent as what has just been. Only NU (now) is undeniable reality.

Most languages have a future tense. In French it is expressed by a conjugation of the verb (I work = je travaille and I’ll work = je travaillerai). English expresses the future with the modal verb shall/will. The Dutch express the future with the present tense: ‘ik werk nu’ (i am working now) and ‘ik werk morgen’ (I’ll work tomorrow).

What about the modal verb ‘zullen’? ‘Zullen’ was originally used for the future tense, but not anymore today. So stop translating ‘shall’ and ‘will’ by ‘zullen’. It sounds silly. Don’t say: ‘ik zal vandaag thuis weaken’ but say: ‘ik werk vandaag thuis’ (I’ll work at home today).

Remember that ‘zullen’ is usually used to express a promise or a proposal (ik zal je een biertje geven -> I’ll give you a beer), a threat or a command (jij zal Nederlands spreken-> you shall speak Dutch), a prediction (volgend jaar zal je Nederlands perfect zijn -> next year your Dutch will be perfect).

The Dutch use the simple present together with an adjunct of time to express future events. That’s why time indicators have such a prominent position in the sentence.

Okay, there’s more to ‘zullen’ than meets the eye, and if you really want to read up on it, have a look here.

This wasn’t the type of future that we discussed in the Delftse Hout. We entered the picturesque city of Delft. Along a canal on a bench a man was gazing into the sky. Next to him there was a brown owl gazing at us. A giant owl. Een UIL. Yes, an owl of the ‘Oehoe’ type, an eagle-owl.


‘What is the name of the owl?’ I asked. ‘I call him Bubo bubo because it sounds great and it is also the official Latin name’, the man said in Dutch with a slight German accent. He told us that he was waiting for EEN VALK, a falcon. It had not yet returned because he suspected that it was delayed by some gulls. 

Alex Wedam was his own name. He said that he was originally from Austria. Apart from falcons and owls he also owns eagles and vultures. Some twenty birds of prey in total.

We admired the beautiful owl and waited for the return of the falcon, but our stomachs reminded us that there was hot ‘appelgebak met slagroom’ waiting for us at Kobus Kuch. So we left.

If you would like to meet Alex Wedam and his feathered friends, visit Het Rieten Dak in the Delftse Hout on Wednesday, 23 October between 11 am and 4 pm. He has interesting stories to tell and you’ll be amazed at what the birds can do.