Game of Thrones and Language Development

Posted on 14. Apr, 2014 by in Culture, Dutch Language

I bet you have heard of Game of Thrones – the HBO Series that became so popular. I am again and again stunned by the great performance of the actors in it. And their accents. It is interesting that in certain American series all actors speak another accent, mostly the English one. That is also the case in Game of Thrones. All British and some American actors then, one might think, right? Wrong. One of them is Dutch.

Who is it? The evil witch that uses black magic under the Lords of Light and Darkness – Melisandre! The person behind her is Carice van Houten.

Carice van Houten is a Dutch actress, born in 1976 in Leiderdorp in the Netherlands. She has lived in the Netherlands her whole life. She went to a Dutch school, and to the Kleinkunstacademie (School of performing arts) in Amsterdam. She mainly performed in Dutch productions, but has also been active in the United States. Most famously, she played in the Dutch film Zwartboek (Black Book), a remarkable movie about the Second World War, in Valkyrie with Tom Cruise, also about the Second World War, and now in Game of Thrones.

In the English productions, she obviously speaks English. Not a big deal, many people, also Dutch speak English. But she speaks it flawlessly, with a to my ears crystal clear British accent. Where did she pick that up?

I do not want to deny that some people just seem to have the talent to adopt to certain accents without much ado, but I have not met many of these people. What can be another reason for such a flawless accent is the childhood environment.

There has been a study at the University of Amsterdam that has shown that a person can adopt to the accent of the environment he or she lives in without major issues until puberty ends. After that, it is harder to do, but it is possible. The father of Carice van Houten is Dutch-British. He was born in the Netherlands too, but he grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. This allowed him to acquire a very good understanding of the English language, and to make it one of his own. He then passed this on to his daughter Carice. Even though her parents separated when she was 5, she moved back in with her father at the age of 17. So when she was still developing, she has frequently been exposed to a British English that she as such got used to.

So her flawless English can be traced back to her childhood and teen years. It is interesting to see how this ability to accustom oneself changes over time.

When I was in the United States, I met a woman in a store. I asked her, on hearing her accent, whether she was German – and she was. She had lived in the United States for over 30 years, but she had only moved there, and then got in touch with the language, when she was around 34. She never lost the distinguishable German accent – even though she had tried very hard.

Then on the other side, some children and teens learn a vast amount of languages as long as they are young, like this guy. I think it is absolutely fascinating.

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Of course it is important to keep the language up to date by regularly speaking it. And I think that this is the biggest problem – to have an environment around where this other language is spoken.

All the same, I do not think accents that deviate from the ideal English or American accents are bad or inferior. After all, who is to decide what this ideal accent is? It is impossible to find, as everybody speaks a language differently, and everybody hears and interprets accents and pronunciation differently. And even if this was not a factor, accents are nice. They tell something about the person behind that personal way of speaking. Here in Maastricht, I have met students from Poland, Italy, England, France, Belgium, and Germany, to name just a few. All have their own accent, and it makes them unique. So if you have an accent when you speak, don’t see it as wrong, but enjoy being unique!  :-)



It Doesn’t Get More Dutch Than… New York?

Posted on 13. Apr, 2014 by in History


New York. So many songs have been sung about you, so many things have been written about you, so many people have traveled lengths great and small to see you.

NY is so ubiquitous that it often feels like the Bible should read: “And on the eighth day, the Lord created New York.” (You need a day of rest in order to come up with something as awesome as New York.)

It’s hard to believe that New York has only been New York for 350 years. Before that, it was New Netherland, a colony established by – you guessed it! – the Dutch.

It all started in 1606, when the Dutch East India Company sent English explorer Henry Hudson on an expedition to find a Northeast passage to India. But things didn’t go quite as planned.

He ended up, instead, on the east coast of what is now the United States. They sailed into the mouth of a river just north of Sandy Hook Bay and discovered a beautiful area teeming with natural resources. He hurried back to his employers to share what he had found.

Seeing the golden opportunity before them, merchants from Amsterdam sent agents to the new land to collect food, tobacco, furs, and timber to send back to Amsterdam – which was, at the time, Europe’s leading trade city – by the shipload.

Others followed, and soon, a colony was formed. New Nederland ran from Delaware to Albany, New York. The settlement included parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

In 1626, the island of Manhattan was purchased from the Native Americans and renamed New Amsterdam.

The colony grew and prospered. And earned a fortune for the private merchants in Amsterdam who had laid a stake in it.

But all good things must come to an end. England had long been eyeing New Netherland and had become extremely jealous of its success.

So, in 1664, the English took New Netherland by force. King Charles II of England bestowed the land upon his brother, the Duke of York, and the colony’s name was changed to coincide with its new owner. And that’s how New Netherland became New York.

The name of the settlement may have changed, but not much else did. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in the Hudson River Valley area to see the Dutch influence that still exists there.

Harlem and Brooklyn are obvious ones (from Haarlem just outside of Amsterdam and Breukelen just outside of Utrecht), but there are many, many more.

See how many of these sound familiar…

Bowery (bowerij, old Dutch for ‘farm’) – a neighborhood in the south of Manhattan

The Bronx (named after Dutch settler Jonas Bronck, who had a farm there) – the northernmost borough in New York City

Coney Island (old Dutch: Conyne Eylandt; modern Dutch: Konijneiland) – a beach in southwest Brooklyn

Long Island (old Dutch: Lang Eylandt; modern Dutch: Langeiland) – an island in the state of New York

Rikers Island (most likely named after Dutch settler Abraham Rycken, who set up house on Long Island) – an island in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx, which serves as the city’s main prison complex

Staten Island (old Dutch: Staten Eylandt; modern Dutch: Stateneiland, named after the States-Generals who governed what was then known as the United Provinces of the Netherlands) – another one of New York City’s five boroughs, located in the southwest part of the city

Yonkers (possibly named after jonkheer Adriaen van der Donck, whose estate was located there; jonkheer = lord) – the fourth most populous city in the state of New York, located in Westchester County

Been to New York and want to add a Dutch influence or two to the list? Share them in the comments below!

Photo: Darren Johnson (dazjohnson), Flickr Creative Commons

April Fools!!! – But why?

Posted on 01. Apr, 2014 by in Culture, Dutch Vocabulary, History

Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril - with this phrase, the watergeuzen made fun of general Alva of Spain when they took his city Den Briel (therefore zijn bril) on April 1, 1572. Watergeuzen are  what you could call “Water Beggars”. “Water”, because they came by their ships in the North Sea. They basically were Dutch civilians fighting the Spaniards in the Hollandse Opstand, also briefly mentioned in the previous post. It was often thought that April Fools originated with this event, because it was hilarious to many that a small country like the Netherlands could fight off the gigantic and mighty Spanish Empire. But why was Alva in Den Briel anyway?

The Story


The Dutch were making a lot of fuzz in this Hollandse Opstand, which lasted from roughly 1568-1648. Philips II, the King of this Spanish Empire, was very annoyed with the Dutch. He had the Turks coming on the eastern border, a real threat he had to address, and several times in his reign he had problems with the English, French, and Germans. True, France was basically his and Germany had no unity at the time, but together, they were threats he had to fight off.

The Dutch, however, quite unique, independent and thus quite neutral, were no real threat to him: they just wanted their freedom. They rejected Catholicism, which he tried to uniformly enforce in his Empire, and they rejected his reign, which he of course did not like either.

When he had enough of this small nation creating such problems, he sent Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, better known as Alva, together with 10,000 men. He was a renown general – old, but with battle experience. He was not very soft and merciful, and that would show itself when he arrived in the Netherlands in 1568. Philips II made him the landvoogd der Nederlanden (governor of the Netherlands). First, he had a lot of success, and conquered many cities. One of them was Den Briel in what is now the provincie (province) Zuid-Holland (South-Holland. The Hague and Rotterdam are also in this provincie). Because of his harsh conduct and power, also the powerful Philips II he had behind him, people were scared of him.

But then, this unorganized, much smaller group of poor peasants, the Watergeuzen, just took back Den Briel from him, making this the first free city of the Netherlands. People won back their courage, and were poised again to keep the Spaniards out. Alva left in 1573, as also his mission had no success. Hilarious! Such a powerful man, driven away by a tiny, not very strong nation.

Reenactment in Den Briel

So no, April Fools does not come from this, but we, the small Dutch nation definitely had fun getting rid of Philips II. And this is remembered every year by the 1-aprilvereniging (the April 1st club) in Den Briel. They reenact the conquest and the victory of the Watergeuzen.

Het Wilhelmus

Also interesting is to note that in the Dutch volkslied (national anthem), the Wilhelmus, the Spanish king is honored. The first couplet, which is still part of the contemporary version, ends with the following words:

Den koning van Hispanje heb ik altijd geëerd (The king of Spain I have always honored).

This part of the Wilhelmus originated in the Hollandse Opstand. It is argued that this part of the song was added not to really honor the Spanish king, as this was the last thing the Dutch wanted to do. But since they officially were subject to Philips II and did not want to aggravate him, they just included this in the song. However, it was never really taken seriously and became more a phrase to mock the Spanish king. Nowadays, it is just included as a reminder to the endurance of the Dutch on road of independence of the Dutch.


I remember, back in elementary school, we would say the following phrase when we played a prank on somebody on 1 april. 

1 april, kikker in je bil, die er nooit meer uit wil!!! - Please guess what this means ;-)

And also, of course, what pranks are you going to play on others???