Dutch Language Blog

Feeling the language Posted by on Jan 15, 2009 in Dutch Language

Like every other language, in Dutch you can say the same thing in many different ways. None is necessarily wrong (unless you break all grammar and spelling rules of course) but one or a few are always better.

With this topic, I’m hoping to encourage you to think outside the box. Think past all the standard Dutch Words and phrases you hear and learn. A very good way to do this, is to by a Dutch book with synonyms for example, or a very extended dictionary. This can really be a helpful tool to boost your knowledge about the Dutch language and it will lift you above the ‘tourist Dutch level’ you might otherwise get stuck in.

An example:

Gister liep ik met mijn moeder over straat – Yesterday, I walked with my mother down the street (I know this sounds odd in English, but to get my point across, I need to stick with the same word order as in Dutch)

Now, you can change the above sentence in a few different ways. You could change the order of the words, or you could substitute a few words with other, better sounding words.

Changing the order of the words:

Ik liep gister met mijn moeder over straat

Met mijn moeder liep ik gister over straat

Ik liep met mijn moeder gister over straat

Ik liep over straat met mijn moeder gister

All above sentences above are accepted Dutch sentences. Grammatically, nothing is wrong with them. Still, a few of the above examples would be never used that way, because some sentences flow better in a certain way. It also matters where you want the focus to be. What’s more important: what you did yesterday, who you were with yesterday or where you were yesterday.

Gister met mijn moeder over straat ik liep

Met mijn moeder gister ik liep over straat

I hope you can see how the above two sentences are NOT correct Dutch sentences. I could give you more examples but I know you get my point J

Okay, now to substitute a few words in the example sentence.

Ik – I

Like many other languages there’s only one word for ‘Ik’

Lopen (verb, ‘liep’ is first person past tense) – to Walk

Hmm, there should be a few different verbs that convey the same message, but with slightly different ‘feels’ and ‘meanings’

Slenteren, wandelen, kuieren, banjeren – all these words basically mean the same, but in meaning they can differ from casually strolling down the street, to a bored strolling down the street, to lounging around and a fancy promenade.

It all depends on what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Gister – Yesterday

One word to say Yesterday

Moeder – Mother

Many different ways to say ‘mother’, some forms are used in dialects only, some forms are more affectionately used and other forms are more commonly used.

Mama, ma, moe, mams, mem, moesje – all these forms basically mean the same, a few English equivalents are: mum, ma, mama, mumsy, mammy, etc. etc.

Straat – Street

Also a few different ways to say ‘street’, the meaning differing in terms of the area you are walking.

Boulevard, steeg, laan, weg, dreef, allee – all these forms basically mean the same, but in meaning they can differ from walking down a road, street, lane, back alley, boulevard, etc. etc.

As you can see, there are many ways to influence the meaning, sound and flow of a certain sentence.

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  1. Mathieu:

    Agreed, feeling the flow and rhythm are essential to sounding “natural”. Especially for the “insertions” that don’t really mean so much …

    Things like … “weet je [wel]?”, “Ik dacht zoiets van [xxx]”, etc. The little phrases that just help the rest flow.

    This is one of the many things that reading subtitles while watching TV can really help you out with. There are certain turns of phrase that are always used. And there are some are just colloquial, with others very informal or age-limited. (It would be strange for a 60 y/o to say “onwijs gaaf” or “Dit film is vet hard!” for example)

    If you speak like the subtitles, you’ll rarely go wrong (even if your numbers won’t always match! what’s up with that???)