Dutch Language Blog

Curious Words in Dutch 3: Bellen Posted by on Jul 1, 2019 in Culture, Dutch Language, Dutch Vocabulary

There are many strange words in a language. Words that are just not used much, words that are pronounced in a weird way… Just words that have something curious about them! And those are the ones we look at in this series. Today, we look at bellen.

Previous posts in this series:

Curious Words In Dutch

Is Bell Related?

Alexander Graham Bell (Image by Library and Archives Canada at Commons.wikimedia.org – public domain)

Bellen means “to call”. The Dutch also use the term interchangeably with telefoneren (to phone). For example:

Ik ben net met hem aan het bellen.

(I am on the phone with him right now.)

Alexander Graham Bell is best known for inventing the telephone. While Philipp Reis came up with a concept he called the “telephone” first, Bell is the one that made the telefoon a commercial success. Bell – bellen. Did the Dutch simply derive the verb for phoning from the guy that invented it? Many people believe so. And it seems plausible.

But no.

500 Years Old

Deze ridder belt! (This knight “belt” (shouts)!) At least that is what you’d say back in his time. (Image by Henry Hustava at Unsplash.com)

Bellen comes from Middle Dutch, which was spoken in the Dutch area between 1200 and 1500. Way before the uitvinding (invention) of the telefoon. Back then, it meant to call or shout. The English “to bellow” and the German bellen (to bark) are derived from that same root. With the invention of the telephone, related verbs were also created: telefonieren in German, “to (tele)phone” in English and telefoneren in Dutch. But somehow, we stuck to bellen, like the English stuck to “to ring”. This coincidence makes it seem like Bell was actually the origin of the word, but it is just coincidence. Though, that coincidence could have influenced that bellen became so much more widespread than telefoneren.

Why then, is bellen or “to call” a sensible verb for telefoneren? Because when you phone somebody, you call them to respond. You ring their phone, because you want them to respond. That is what “to call” and bellen mean – and so it makes sense to use bellen or opbellen to refer to ringing somebody. It makes a little less sense to use bellen, like the Dutch do, when you are already talking to somebody on the phone. But they do it anyway! Though opbellen is used more for “to call”. Like this:

Ik bel haar op.

(I am going to call her.)

Ik bel met hem.

(I am phoning with him.)

Furthermore, bellen means “to ring”. In the telephone sense, but also in the sense of ringing a bell. For example:

Ik bel de hele tijd, maar de voetganger gaat niet aan de kant. [with your fietsbel – bike bell – in a car, you toeter (honk)]

(I am constantly ringing, but the pedestrian is not stepping aside.)

Ik belde aan, en mijn vriendin deed de deur open.

(I rang, and my friend opened the door.)

What do you think about this coincidence? Do you think it is a mere coincidence or do you think that there is more to it? What is the verb for “to telephone” in your language, and do you also have something Bell-related in it? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.