My new favourite word, or, Going Dutch
I love words. It’s (ironically) difficult for me to describe just how much I enjoy the feeling of selecting the right word for something, or the right series of words to convey a feeling or point. Creativity thrives with constraints, and for a writer there is no constraint more obvious and more important than that of the words you have to play with.
English is a mad language when you really step back and look at it. Now that I’m knee-deep in learning Spanish as a proper language I actually use (different and more pressured – in terms of actually using it day-to-day – than learning French in secondary school), I’ve gained a new perspective on just how crazy English must be to have to learn from scratch. We have so many exceptions in grammar and in spelling and a wealth of homonyms as well as words that differ only in pronounciation (présent as in physically there vs. presént as in to make a speech – where the é, borrowing a convention from Spanish, indicates the stressed syllable). Sometimes words are identical but for context! Nonetheless, it can be a beautiful and expressive language in the right hands and it has a deserved reputation for being the language of many of the great works of words that exist in the world.
Despite my love of English, my new favourite word is not from it. Nor is it from Spanish, the other language I am most involved with at the moment, and spend so much of my time turning over in my head. No, despite the many wonderful words in Spanish (of which I know only a tiny fraction) and its own great reputation for musicality, my new favourite word comes from an unexpected source: Dutch.
Many of you are probably pretty unfamiliar with how Dutch sounds or even looks, written down. I know I was, despite a few days spent in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. It wasn’t until I got to know my housemate Jerome (from Breda in the Netherlands, a solid contender for centre of the universe by the sounds of things), and especially once Seph arrived and they started talking often in front of me that I was exposed to enough Dutch to really get a feel for it.
It’s a remarkable sound. It’s like a cross between English, French and German, with this familiar kind of rhythm to it that whispers “Don’t worry, just listen a little harder, you’ll get it.” And the thing is, as soon as you actually tune in you realise you can’t understand a single word. But when you listen to it out of the corner of your ear it’s as if it’s a language you once knew and forgot so long ago you don’t even remember knowing it. But some deep, arcane part of your brain recognises enough to stir lazily, and open one eye to take it in.
A’s are pronounced like a caricature of a posh English lord. Demand would become dem-OND, with a delicious swallowing of the N and D that keeps it in the throat and makes it warm, softening the transition between the N and the D but emerging for a solid, crisp finish. Like some German dialects – and to a greater or lesser extent depending on where in the Netherlands the speaker is from – there are phlegmy throat noises too, with G’s and K’s often coming out like someone softly clearing their throat.
It’s a deeply musical language, rising and lilting expressively through sentences as they ebb and flow. Perhaps this is part of what makes it sound so nearly-understandable; combined with a similar talking speed and cadence to English you can almost guess what’s going on in a conversation based on the tone and pitch of the words. I really do enjoy listening to Dutch being spoken to a degree that surprises me. It helps that I so far associate it only with people I’ve really liked, I suppose, but it’s great. It doesn’t hurt that Dutch people tend to speak English with probably my favourite non-native accent in the world. Girls sound lovely and feminine without being over the top and men sound friendly and warm.
It’s addictive to try to mimic Dutch words – the sounds are so much fun to listen to that they’re also fun to try to recreate, much like singing along to the radio. I have the same problem with Scottish, once visiting my sister in Glasgow and getting in an awkward situation in a shoe shop where I had to keep up a faked Scottish accent throughout my interactions with the shop staff (while actually buying a pair of “shuuz”) so as not to look like a complete ignorant idiot after walking in practicing the Glaswegian brogue on my sister. The tragedy is that, just like singing, you sound amazing in your own head – spot on, in fact – but to others, or when you hear an honest recording of it, you realise you might want to keep it to yourself.
Nonetheless, I’ve so far avoided recording myself attempting Dutch words and my efforts appear to delight my Dutch companions. Every now and again they would share a word or two with me. The first word I ever learned was put, the Dutch word for a manhole. Yes, the things in roads for allowing access to a sewer. For some reason Jerome asked me one day what they were called in English, and I asked in return what they were called in Dutch. I love that it’s perhaps the most useless and strange first word to learn, but it also sounds lovely. “Perrrt.” Try it. It’s class.
I started to keep a running record of the words I learned in Google Keep as I went along, writing them down phonetically in a way I understood, even if the real way to spell Dutch words completely escapes me. It’s not straightforward, with J’s all over the place, double O’s sounding like, oh rather than ooh and so on, and I’ve had very little experience with written Dutch. Incidentally, groot, pronounced “grow-t” means large. I wonder if it was a factor in the naming of the character in Guardians of the Galaxy?
When Seph discovered my phonetic spellings he had a field day. It turned out my untrained ear was hearing all sorts of things that were nowhere near the actual letters involved – and this even goes for the ones that aren’t so differently pronounced than in English.
My attempt at writing down my new favourite word looked like this:
Which, even as my ear has tuned a little more, is not so insanely far off the pronunciatory (what? Totally a word) mark as Seph’s reaction might have lead me to believe. So what’s the actual word?
Okay, so I wasn’t even close.
Every Dutch person reaches for the word “cozy” when trying to describe what gezellig means, but is quick to stress that it isn’t cozy, really. It’s just close in feeling. Seph described it to me that if his mum heard of him meeting up for a drink with a few old friends, she might describe that as gezellig.
I rolled the word around in my head a lot after that. It helps that I think I experience the feeling strongly in the evenings spent on our balcony chatting to the two lads over dinner. We discuss all sorts of things and enjoy that warm feeling of good conversation with good friends.
I love the idea of words that don’t translate between languages directly. Research has been done that shows that the language you speak changes the way you see the world, and I imagine that the untranslatable words are a large part of that. Polyglots talk about how they find that their personality can be subtly or even markedly different depending on the language they are operating in at the time. I felt like I could understand gezellig as a feeling which I only knew that one word for, and I couldn’t help turning it over in my head a lot afterwards, thinking about how I would describe the feeling in English.
After a few days, I suggested to Seph that the best translation I could make based on my understanding of it so far might be “cozy companionship” or “cozy camaraderie” (incidentally, I love the word camaraderie too). He lit up straight away, and seems to think it’s a bang-on translation. It’s an interesting experience for me, because I don’t think I’ve ever semi-organically discovered the meaning of a not-directly-translatable word before (at least since I was a baby and learning English by whatever magical osmosis kids use). Now I can actually appreciate that feeling – of knowing a word, knowing it’s perfect for what it means, but not knowing exactly how to translate it into another language. As someone who loves words, it’s a special thing to experience.
I wonder what it means for Dutch people that they have one word for the kind of cozy companionship or cameraderie that we all (hopefully) experience with our best friends? It suggests at the least that it’s a highly-valued and highly-appreciated thing. Has to be a good sign, and nothing I’ve seen so far suggests otherwise.
Of course, since I learned the word, understood it and made my stab at translating it, I can’t stop saying it. I’m sure it’s going to irritate Seph and Jerome at some point, but I plan on making hay while the sun shines for now.
That said, I suppose one thing about the word is that you can’t really overuse it unless your life is filled with a very good thing, and something I wasn’t sure I’d find anywhere once I embarked on the nomad adventure. As I said to Jerome a while back, one of the very reasons I left Dublin was because, with many of my friends leaving the city, if I was going to feel lonely somewhere it may as well be somewhere far away. Somewhere where it made sense to feel lonely.
I’ve maintained almost since the start of my time here in Las Palmas that I’ve gotten incredibly lucky with the timing of my visit and myriad other things, mostly because of the people its allowed me to meet. Instead of having to deal with the loneliness I expected, I’ve come a few thousand miles away and managed to make the kind of friends that you don’t find very often no matter where you are.
Pretty gezellig, eh? Super gezellig.