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Why the Dutch sit on and behind computers Posted by on Jun 18, 2021 in Dutch Language, Dutch Vocabulary

Yep. You read that right. The Dutch sit on their computers. And behind them. But in front of them? Sometimes. What’s going on? Little hint: It’s prepositions. Weak hint, sorry… But let’s dive in!

Sitting behind or in front of the computer?

sitting on computer weird prepositions

You wanna hop on? (Photo by Tanner Van Dera on Unsplash)

Here’s the linguistic mystery. Some Dutch say:

Ik zit op de computer (I sit on the computer).

However, you more commonly hear:

Ik zit achter de computer (I sit behind the computer).

Still weird. Why don’t they sit voor de computer? Some people say that too, I’m sure, but you’ll mostly hear one of the above, op or achter. On the other hand, we do say:

Ik zit voor de tv (I sit in front of the TV).

Sitting achter the TV would be really sitting behind it!

So what happened here? Have the Dutch simply not figured out how to use voorzetsels (prepositions)? It’s more interesting than you may think.

OnzeTaal explains it as follows: You use achter (behind) when you’re actief bezig met (actively using) the object. Voor (in front of) when you’re alleen maar kijken naar (only looking at) the object.

So that’s expressed like this:

Ik zit achter het stuur, en rijd de auto (I sit behind the wheel, and drive the car – look, English does it too sometimes!)

Ik zit achter het bureau (I sit at the office – “at” takes its form many times in English, it seems.)

Ik zit achter de toetsen (I sit at the keys).

And of course: Ik zit achter de computer (I am at the computer).

 

However, English does some weird things too. While the Dutch sit on and behind their computers, English speakers are on them: I am on my phone, I am on my computer, I am on my laptop.

 

Here’s stuff the Dutch sit in front of:

Ik zit voor de open haard (I am sitting in front of/at the fireplace)

Ik zit voor de spiegel (I am sitting in front of the mirror)

We zitten voor de tv (We sit in front of the tv)

So stuff that we passively interact with. In a way, like OnzeTaal describes, it really just means that met het gezicht gekeerd naar (with your face turned towards). So really, just looking!

What this means is that you can, of course, also sit voor de computer – then you are passively looking at the computer.

And in general, of course, voor de computerachter de computer etcetera also still keep their literal meaning. So er is een toetsenbord voor de computer (there is a keyboard in front of the computer) and er zit veel stof achter de computer (there is a lot of dust behind the computer) work in their own way.

So what about op de computer zitten?

Op de computer zitten

weird prepositions Dutch op de computer zitten achter

Photo by Studio Republic on Unsplash

According to Taaladvies, voor, achter, aan or op de computer zitten are all correct. Whew.

Ik zit op de computer is really quite informal. Saying ik zit aan de toetsen (I sit at the keys) works too, and so the English “at” and the Dutch translation aan can also be used!

Why do we say op de computer zitten? I couldn’t find a satisfying answer. But if I had to guess, I’d say that it is related to the expression er bovenop zitten (sitting on top of it/being on top of it). A perfectly translatable expression!

Ik zit er bovenop! (I am on top of it!) means that you’re busy getting something done – just like you would when being busy with something on a computer or other device. Perhaps this expression moved its preposition from the mere activity to the device on which the activity is performed!

But that’s just my guess. What do you think? How are these things said in your language? 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.