As a resident of the Netherlands for the past 20 years, I still feel a bit silly when I speak this language called Dutch. And I still can’t tell if it’s the language itself, or if it’s just me. Certainly, judging by how people react, the way I speak the language is ridiculous. I fully respect the right of Dutch people to expect me to speak the native language. Yet, when I do speak Dutch, they often beg me to stop. And this is usually my own family.
There is something charming about Dutch. I like that – when in doubt – you can put a diminutive suffix on just about anything. It’s cute that the official word for cookie is koek, but everyone says koekje. Who wants to have a drink, when you can have a drankje? And indeed, when most neighboring countries serve beer by the liter, the Dutch still serve you a biertje. If you have one piece of bread, you have brood. But 2 pieces is a broodje. Even as the bread gets bigger, the name says it’s smaller. Most people love the idea of a big house. Not the Dutch: Who wants a house, when you can have a huis-je? No need for a big tree, just a boom-pje. And of course een beest-je.
To me the diminutive in the language reflects something in the Dutch identity. Maybe it has something to do with growing up next to a big sibling like Germany. Some people call it an inferiority complex. But that’s not quite it. While some cultures – say America’s – like to ‘Think Big,’ the Dutch language forces you to celebrate scaling down.
My Dutch friend has a boat. Coming from America, I ask ‘Is it big?’
He says ‘No, it’s a boot-je.’ I’ve heard Dutch people point to a map and refer to an entire country as a land-je. And it’s quite common to hear Dutch people refer to the sun – zon – with a diminutive. The largest object in the solar system, and the Dutch call it zonnetje.
Dutch names have a way of celebrating the humble as well. There’s Dutch Men’s Gymnastics champion Epke Zonderland. I happened to be watching the 2012 games with some people from the US and the UK. And – as there were no Dutch people around – I was happy to represent Nederland. After Zonderland won the gold, they asked me, ‘Zonderland. What does that mean?’ And I told them: ‘Well… zonder means without. And land is land.’ So Mr. Zonderland accepted the award for Nederland. But his name was saying, ‘I’m not with them.’ Heel bescheiden, hoor.
Some Dutch names have a hard time translating to English: Freek, Tjerk, Joke. And then there’s a member of the Eerste Kamer, whose name is Martin Kox. But he insists on being called Tiny Kox. The smaller the better. I was once at a business meeting, where I met a man named Fokko. I told myself not to laugh. Then he introduced his colleague Sikko. And I couldn’t help myself. I thought, ‘This must be a joke.’ It was no joke. It was Friesland. And certain Frisian names don’t even translate well into Dutch. Only in Friesland can you get elected to city council with a name like Sietske Poepjes. Note the diminutive. Not Sietske Poep. That would be absurd! But Poepjes is okay.
There’s even humility in the way Dutch couples refer to each other, who do samenwonen. They can’t say ‘Man en vrouw,’ so they’ll say vriend of vriendin, even when they have kids together and they’ve been living together for years. I’ll meet a couple, and the man will say
‘This is my …girlfriend.’
I’ll ask, ‘How long have you been dating?’
‘We’re not dating; we live together. She’s like my wife.’
‘How long have you been married?’
‘We’re not married …she’s my partner.’
‘So you’re in business?’
‘We’re not in business. She’s my …baby mama?’
Dutch people, you invented the term samenwonen. You really should figure out what to call the person you’re spending your life with. Why not samenwoman? Or perhaps samenwoman-tje.