Dutch Language Blog

Paulien Cornelisse: Taal is zeg maar echt haar ding Posted by on Mar 13, 2011 in Dutch Language

My office book club, which has only met once, at Trafalgar Café in Eindhoven, where we discussed our shared literary experiences over schnietzel and beers, recently read a book that has been quite popular among Dutch readers since it came out in 2009:  Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding, by Paulien Cornelisse.  Cornelisse is a comedienne and performance artist; Taal is her first book, and it is full of sketch-length observations about the Dutch language – its ironies, its 20th-century meanderings into nonsense.  It’s a fun read, and it shouldn’t be particularly difficult to get through for intermediate to advanced Dutch students – apart from some Dutch pop-cultural references that whizzed clear over my own head.

The title is a reference to one of the many little things that Cornelisse skillfully chips at with her etymologist’s pick-axe:  in the course of normal Dutch conversation, the qualifier zeg maar is used with what is in Cornelisse’s opinion alarming frequency.  In this way, the book is also a good manual for people looking to speak truly conversational Dutch.  Some examples:

  • Zeg maar.  This expression is used to qualify something and make it sound a bit more approximate.  In English it’s a bit like the way some people litter their sentences with “kind of.”
    • Dutch: Het is zeg maar een vis zoep.
    • English:  It’s sort of a fish soup.
  • Leuk.  This Dutch word, which means something very broad that includes “nice,” “fun” and “cute,” is overused if you ask Paulien Cornelisse.  It is, however, useful to the beginning Dutch speaker for its versatility.
    • Dutch:  Ik vond het een heel leuk avondje.
    • English:  I thought it was a very nice evening.
  • Best wel.  Corneliesse argues that this overused phrase allows Dutch-speakers to make statements without clarifying their real meaning.  In short, one uses best wel in the way we might use “pretty” or “pretty much” in English.
    • Dutch:  Ik ben best wel vol.
    • English:  I’m pretty full.

I like Cornelisse’s book, although I was surprised by how many of her observations about Dutch seemed universally applicable – or, at least, applicable to my experience with English.  Though languages are full of untranslatable nuance, they are also held together by pillars of shared meaning – those things that all humans are obliged to express, and which do not tend to differ from place to place.

You can watch Corneliesse talk a bit about the book here.   I like the interviewer’s description of the book as full of taal-dingetjes.  That one is a unique Dutch-ism, no question.

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  1. Robert Edworthy:

    Thanks Elena, the phrases such as ‘Zeg maar’ and ‘Best wel’ have really helped me. Do you have anymore you can share?