Behind the words: hidden cultural meanings in language

Behind the words: hidden cultural meanings in language

Paid partnership

 Kickstart School in The Hague specialises in English and Dutch courses ranging from beginners to advanced levels.

Have you ever heard a Dutch person say "This is wet finger work" and wondered what on earth they were talking about?

Or, Dutch people, have you ever heard an English person appraising something as being "quite good", only to later realise that it was their polite way of saying that they found it disappointing?

Literal vs. intended meaning

The truth is that accurately communicating meaning involves more than stringing together a few words. For most things we say, there is both a basic meaning and a culturally-influenced connoted meaning. For true communication to take place, one must understand both levels of meaning.

In some cases, vast distances can exist between the literal words and the meaning that those words communicate within a certain cultural context. If one is not attuned to this cultural context, then classic cases of miscommunication, awkwardness, and embarrassment can ensue.

"Not bad" or "quite good"?

An example can be seen in the differences between what British people say, what they mean, and what Dutch people think they mean. You may be familiar with the tabular comparison of these three things that has been popularly shared on the internet.

The original table was compiled by Dutch businessman Maarten Rijkens as part of his hilarious book I always get my sin, which chronicles the bizarre English used by Dutch people in international business environments.

For instance, a British person saying that something is "not bad" is actually their understated way of praising something that is rather good, while Dutch people would understandably interpret this to mean that the thing in question is not yet up to scratch.

Do you really mean it?

Similarly, British social etiquette can sometimes lead English-speakers to make polite offers that they have little intention of following through on. "You must come for dinner sometime" is really more of a courteous nicety than an actual invitation, and has left many Dutch people wondering why no social gathering ever eventuated.

Reading between the lines

These examples demonstrate the British cultural tendency to take a mild and indirect approach to things in an effort to be polite and avoid offence. They also show how this cultural trait can drastically alter the meaning of the words that are being said.

The English person communicates the connoted (or implied) meaning of the phrase, the Dutch person understands the literal meaning, and the result is misunderstanding and a lack of true communication. Without an awareness of the cultural nuances embedded in the English language, any non-native speaker would be left completely befuddled.

"I sat with my mouth full of teeth"

Other amusing situations can arise when one tries to literally translate an idiom from their own language into another. There are several delightful Dutch expressions that simply don't translate well into English.

"I sat with my mouth full of teeth" (Ik zat met m’n mond vol tanden) is not a vivid description of a dentist’s appointment, but a way of saying, "I was speechless".

In a similar vein, "We were hanging on your lips" (We hingen aan je lippen) is a more visual rendering of the English expression, "to hang on every word".

Other Dutch idiomatic translations are less logical to deduce, such as "There is nothing on the hand", which has nothing to do with hands. "Aan de hand" refers to something being wrong, so "Er is niets aan de hand" means "There's nothing wrong/There are no problems".

Humorous or offensive?

While such miscommunications can often provide humorous opportunities for people to bond over the mishaps of language learning, at other times they can mistakenly cause offense or reinforce cultural stereotypes.

Consider the English perception of Dutch people as being uncomfortably direct or even rude. Where an English person says "I’m sorry? I beg your pardon?", a Dutch person might say "What? What say you?" (Wat zeg je?). While the Dutch person has no intention of causing offence, their words sound abrupt and impolite when literally translated into English.

Using language to explore culture

Such reflections should convince us of the importance of teaching culture as part of the language-learning process. Knowledge of the culturally-embedded meanings in language is essential to effectively communicating with native speakers.

Exploring all the intricacies of cultural nuance and subtext in language can be both fascinating and humorous.

Expand your learning

So a word of encouragement: next time you are studying the difference between being "bored" or "boring", or puzzling over where verbs go in a Dutch sentence, don’t forget to expand your horizons.

Spend some time learning idioms, observing Dutch people interacting in everyday life, or picking up on the cultural connotations in language by watching classic examples of indirect British politeness. Hugh Grant in "Notting Hill" is a perfect example.

Letitia Baker works at Kickstart School, which offers English and Dutch courses in The Hague. For more information, please comment below or visit their website.

Kickstart Dutch & English Language Training

Letitia Baker


Letitia Baker

Letitia Baker works at Kickstart School. Kickstart's Dutch and English courses teach you language skills in an active and communicative way. We help you to gain confidence when speaking in...

Read more



Leave a comment