Practical Dutch: Learning vocabulary the fun way

Practical Dutch: Learning vocabulary the fun way

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Kickstart School in The Hague specialises in English and Dutch courses in a supportive and challenging learning environment, ranging from beginners to advanced levels.

Any idea which English word is the equivalent of "nose holes" (neusgaten) in Dutch? What about "tooth meat" (tandvlees)? Well, "nose holes" are "nostrils", while "tooth meat" is a practical way of describing "gums".

Let’s have another go. Who can hazard a guess at the translations for "prickle pig" (stekelvarken) and "naked snail" (naaktslak)? Well, the prickles give away the "porcupine", while a snail without its house is no more than a "slug"!

Practical Dutch culture, practical Dutch language

Dutch people have a reputation for being practical and straight to the point. As demonstrated by the examples above, this practical sense has also influenced the development of Dutch words.

Even if the practicality of Dutch culture seems foreign to you, this practical feature of the Dutch language can work to your advantage when learning Dutch.

When approaching Dutch vocabulary from this perspective, you can see that many words are not only easy to learn, but also quite entertaining.

For example, it’s much simpler to memorise the words for professions when a veterinarian is called an "animal doctor" (dierenarts) and a dentist is called a "tooth doctor" (tandarts).

Literal animal names

Some of the most amusing examples of the practical origins of Dutch words can be found in the animal kingdom. Some animals have very clear-cut names. A squid is an "ink fish" (inktvis) and a sloth is a "lazy being" (luiaard).

Other names are slightly more ambiguous. Why settle for "seal" when you can call it a "sea dog" (zeehond), or "tortoise" when you can call it a "shield toad" (schildpad)?

Some animal names - like "Nile horse" (nijlpaard), which is Dutch for "hippopotamus" - seem bizarrely obscure. However, the origin of this particular example becomes clearer when you discover that "hippopotamus" is derived from the Greek for "horse" and "river".

Practical descriptions

This tendency for practical descriptions can also be seen in the naming of certain objects. Why bother about "gloves" when you can wear "hand shoes" (handschoenen)?

Keep heading down this path and you can almost begin to guess words. Browsing a Dutch website about the Wadden Islands, but not sure what the word verrekijkers means in the section about bird-watching? Break it down and you can see that "far-lookers" is not a bad way of describing "binoculars".

Or, practising your Dutch with the "garden man" (tuinman), but not sure what he means when he mentions onkruid? Well, practically speaking, a "non-herb" is a rather broad description of a "weed".

Similar spelling and pronunciation

Such practically descriptive words make learning Dutch easier than you might expect. Moreover, many Dutch words are spelled and pronounced almost exactly the same as in English.

Some words are even identical. Think of furniture (bed/bed, book/boek, table/tafel), food (apple/appel, banana/banaan, pear/peer, water/water, coffee/koffie), and animals (rat/rat, cat/kat, elephant/olifant).

Once you learn a few simple rules about Dutch grammar, you can add even more similarities to this list. For example, to make a Dutch noun plural, you usually add -en. Once you apply this knowledge, you can recognise planten as "plants", sokken as "socks", and lippen as "lips".

Other times, you need to learn pronunciation rules before realising that "tiger" and tijger, and "mouse" and muis, actually sound very similar.

One word, many meanings

Another advantage of the practicality of Dutch vocabulary is that a single word in Dutch can be used to mean several different things - all of which would have their own individual words in English.

One such word is kastje, which can be a cupboard, closet, locker, cabinet, or chest of drawers. In a similar vein, hoogte can refer to both a person’s height and a mountain’s height, without the need to learn the word "altitude".

Sometimes one Dutch word can be the equivalent of more than ten different English words. Case in point: teken(ing) can refer to a sign, note, signal, symbol, omen, symptom, signature, autograph, drawing, diagram, or sketch.

And if alternative Dutch words do exist, they are more often than not very similar to their English equivalents (signaal, symbool, symptoom, diagram, schets).

Count yourself lucky

So next time you feel that learning Dutch is too hard, spare a thought for those having to learn English, with its much broader vocabulary!

The practical nature of Dutch culture and language has done us a favour in making at least some vocabulary not only easy to learn, but fun as well.

A small word of warning though. You may occasionally come across a "false" meaning when translating a word literally. An obvious example is "peanut cheese" (pindakaas), which has everything to do with "peanut butter" and nothing to do with "cheese"!

Most of the time however, practically deducing the meaning of Dutch words is a humorous exercise. As an Australian, one of my personal favourites is the "bird-beak-animal" (vogelbekdier). Can anyone guess the lucky recipient of this quirky name?

Letitia Baker works at Kickstart School in The Hague, which offers Dutch and English language training for motivated people wishing to achieve tangible results.

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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...

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