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Word of the day: Duits (German, Deutsch)

April 10 is the Dutch day of Deutsch. Dutch, as you know means Nederlands, Netherlandish. Deutsch means German. German used to be a very popular language in the Netherlands but these days study of the language is in decline both at schools and at universities. In fact, there are more Germans who study Dutch than Dutch who study Deutsch (German). And this is a great pity. More Dutch people should speak German. Better for our economy. Better for mutual communication. That’s why the Action Group German supported by the German government organised this national day of German today (10 April 2014).

Duits kleiner

Dutch and Deutsch are like brother and sister, even more kindred than English and Dutch. For many Germans the study of Dutch is a piece of cake (literally in German: ein Stück Kuchen). The expression for ‘that’s a piece of cake’ in Dutch is ‘dat is een makkie’ and in German it is ‘das ist ein Leichtes’. ‘Makkie’ derives from ‘makkelijk’ (simple) and ‘Leicht’ also means simple.

Seriously, Germans can quickly and easily learn to understand the Dutch. Speaking the language is a different matter, but because our languages share a similar word order and a lot of words, Germans can master conversational Dutch in no time. Advanced German students of Dutch sometimes get confused, because there are many words that sound and look alike but have a different meaning. These words are called ‘false friends’ (valse vrienden).

The slogan of the Action Group, for instance, is ‘Mach mit!’ which means ‘Join in!’ and in Dutch ‘Doe mee!’. ‘The Dutch verb ‘doen’ in German is usually ‘machen’ but looks like ‘tun’ (do). Because ‘machen’ looks like Dutch ‘maken’ (make), many Germans will say ‘Ik maak het’ (I’ll make it) when they mean ‘ik doe het’ (I’ll do it’). So ‘machen’, ‘maken’, ‘tun’ and ‘doen’ are very often false friends. Confusing.

Another example of such a ‘valse vriend’ is the German word ‘schlimm’ (pronounced as /sjleem/). It looks like Dutch ‘slim’ which means ‘clever’ and even like English ‘slim’ which means ‘slender’. In German ‘schlimm’ means ‘bad’ or even ‘evil’. So when a German calls your kid ‘slim’, ask whether the remark is complimentary or insulting.

The words DUITS (German) and Dutch (Nederlands) themselves are also extremely confusing. DUITS in German is ‘Deutsch’ (pronounced as /doitsj/) and in Dutch it is ‘Duits’. They’re extremely false friends indeed. ‘Schlimm’ watch out. So why are ‘Dutch’ and ‘Deutsch’ so similar?

Here is the answer: Before the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands became an independent state in the sixteenth century, the term ‘Dutch’ was used for most languages and dialects that were spoken in the lands that reached from the North Sea coast to the eastern German borders. The word ‘Duits’ or ‘Diets’ originally merely meant the common language (volkstaal) and it was used to distinguish the ordinary language of the lowly people from the learned language of the Church, Latin.

The opening line in our national anthem ‘Wilhelmus van Nassouwe / ben ik van Duitsen bloed’ does not mean that William of Orange was originally German, but that he came from the country where they spoke ‘Duits’ and by that they meant both German and Dutch.

My friend Paul Marcus is a German artist and author who has been living in the Netherlands for many decades now. His wife is Dutch and her name is Barbara. When you see them together, you’ll understand why Paul’s favourite German word is ‘die Sehnsucht’. Can you guess what this beautifully sounding word means? Here is a hint. Just look at the painting (called ‘Man en Vrouw’) that he made and you’ll understand what ‘glühende Sehnsucht’ is. Tell me. ‘Mach mit!’