How do you say 'cycling' in Dutch?

How do you say 'cycling' in Dutch?

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UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, talks about languages and cultures, helping you to expand your knowledge of Dutch vocabulary and grammar through examples.

Language can tell you a lot about the people who speak it. The meanings of words, or the fact that such words exist at all, give us insights into people's values and cultures.

What's more, the differences between languages reveal fascinating differences between cultures; between Dutch and English, say.

National obsessions

The language of sports is a good example. Sporting terms tell us a lot about national obsessions. For example, English as used in the UK, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa has a baffling array of cricket terms.

Similarly, Canadians use the word "hockey" to refer to their beloved ice hockey, rather than field hockey, whereas for Europeans, it’s the other way around.

The Dutch likewise have special words to do with skating. Rather than simply referring to "ice," the Dutch make a distinction between kunstijs (man-made ice in skating rinks) and natuurijs (ice in the great outdoors).

Only after you’ve seen a line of skaters sweep rhythmically across a frozen canal can you fully appreciate the significance of this distinction. Skating outside in the winter is a Dutch national obsession.

But perhaps the most revealing sport-related distinctions to be found in the Netherlands are those relating to the humble bicycle.

Fietsen or wielrennen?

Crucially, the Dutch distinguish between everyday cycling (fietsen) and competitive cycling (wielrennen). Fietsers (cyclists) are found everywhere. This, after all, is a country where there are more bicycles than people. Percentage-wise, more daily journeys are made by bike in the Netherlands than anywhere else in the world.

The term wielrennen, on the other hand, is reserved for the sweaty, colourful and seemingly endless cycle races on which the people of Benelux are so keen.

While fietsen is practical or recreational - about getting from A to B, perhaps with a nice cup of coffee on the way - wielrennen is flashy and competitive. Wielrenners don’t hesitate to warn fietsers to get out of the way with an impatient ring of the bell. Nor do most fietsers hesitate to comply with the request.

The Dutch fietser

There is no average fietser. The diversity is astounding, and most types can be seen every day around the country, including:

 old ladies cycling sedately back from the market, baskets packed with vegetables;

teenagers cycling to school four abreast whilst sending texts on their mobile phones;

commuters in suits, shielding themselves from the rain with an umbrella in one hand;

fifty-something couples in matching rain gear, enjoying a long-distance cycle (fietstocht);

a parent riding with a toddler perched in front, an older child sitting behind, legs dangling nonchalantly over the back wheel.

The Bakfiets: a very Dutch phenomenon

The bakfiets, or cargo bike, has developed a whole sub-culture of its own. A sturdy bike with a wooden crate in front, it can be used to transport two, three or even four children, leaving enough room for a week’s shopping.

As it largely eliminates the need for a car (with the exception of longer distance travel and the worst weather), the bakfiets has become a standard feature in modern Holland.

Indeed, the term bakfietswijk is used to refer to the kind of safe, prosperous neighbourhood that urban planners are so keen to encourage. These buurten are populated by young families and on-the-rise professionals, many of whom are the proud owner of a bakfiets.

English cycling vs. Dutch fietsen

The English language, on the other hand, tends to use cycling as a catch-all term. Cycling is how children get to school and how some commuters get to work, but it’s also what Bradley Wiggins did when he won the Tour de France.

For want of a second term, the English use the same word for a sweaty, Lycra-clad cyclists as they do for serene, vegetable-buying cyclists.

While the Dutch simply cycle to work in their work clothes (admittedly, few Dutch cyclists wear stilettos), in the UK, cycling to work often involves donning expensive all-weather, brightly-coloured sports gear.

In the UK as in other less cycle-friendly countries, cycling to work is an event, even a political statement; in the Netherlands, it’s simply part of everyday life.

Expats and their bikes

Many expats who move to the Netherlands eventually become proud owners of bicycles and bakfietsen.

Despite the rain and the wind in this famously windy and rainy country, they wouldn’t go back to a car-dominated lifestyle for anything in the world.

It’s one area, despite the linguistic hurdles, where it’s pretty easy to become more Dutch.

Vivien Collingwood works for UvA Talen. Their courses are geared toward educated professionals who can benefit from a rapid learning curve. For more information, please comment below or visit their website.

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Vivien Collingwood


Vivien Collingwood

Vivien Collingwood is an English-language editor and copywriter, and a Dutch-to-English translator. She's been living in the Netherlands since 2003.

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