Wise words: Seven pillars of Dutch wisdom

Wise words: Seven pillars of Dutch wisdom

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Direct Dutch Institute recommends speaking Dutch as often as possible - even if all your Dutch colleagues speak English, and even if you only know a few words of Dutch.

The English language gave us the key question "to be or not to be". In the French language it was ordained "I think therefore I am" and in German they warned us "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent".

Thank you Shakespeare, Descartes and Wittgenstein! But what about Dutch wisdom? Ruud Hisgen presents us with a selection of words and maxims that sum up the Dutch way of thinking - in Dutch of course!

1. Zuinigheid met vlijt (frugality with effort)

Most Dutchies grow up with this maxim imprinted in their brains. Live according to this Calvinist principle and you will achieve a life full of bliss. Be frugal, work hard!

This wordly wisdom goes hand in hand with "arbeid adelt" (there is nobility in labour). The full saying is "zuinigheid met vlijt bouwt huizen als kastelen" or "paleizen" (thrift with diligence builds houses like castles or palaces).

Is there an equivalent in other languages? I doubt it as I couldn’t find anything similar in German, French or English.

2. Alles met mate (moderation in all things)

"Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg" (act normally and you’ll act oddly enough) is usually attributed to mums and dads who wish to remind their offspring that they should behave according to the unwritten social rules of their generation.

The successful eighties pop group Doe Maar (1978 - 1984) probably took its name from this saying, ironically implying of course that the young generation should really do what they want to do (doe maar) and break the rules of their parents.

One of their hits, "Is dit alles?" questioned the function of traditional marriage:
"We leven trouw het leven van zo velen
Ik wil iets meer, ik wil ‘n beetje los"

"Faithfully we live the lives of so many
I want a little more, I want to let myself go a little."

Yes, Dutch kids should question their parents’ rules. Such is life in Holland, but not too much, just a little! Be crazy but in moderation.

3. Meten is weten (to measure is to know)

A life of moderation is the Dutch ideal, but how can moderation be measured? What is moderate to one person is excessively crazy to another. Yet many Dutch people live according to the principle that everything in life can be measured.

The verb "to measure" is "meten". If we know the measurements, then we can continue to do our tasks. Or alternatively, people can only do their work properly if they are certain about the measurements, hence the saying "meten is weten".

Isn’t this a beautifully rhyming maxim? Just observe the symmetry of "M" and inverted "W". And isn’t it true that real knowledge can only be achieved if we sound the profundity of the mind and the depths and heights of reality?

4. Wat lijkt dat blijkt (what appears will become evident)

No, said the distinguished scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), master of "meetkunde" (geometry) and an obsessive measurement taker. He held that people cannot know anything for certain but everything probably.

Huygens’ first scientific principle was observation. What occurs in reality may deceive our senses, so we have to put more effort into watching.

The Dutch poet K. Schippers (1936) framed this insight into a wonderfully poetic line: "Als je goed om je heen kijkt dan zie je dat alles gekleurd is" (If you look carefully enough around you, then you’ll see that everything is coloured) - which is also the title of a magnificent anthology of children’s verse (highly recommended).

The phrase "wat lijkt dat blijkt"  was coined by classicist and poet Jan Pieter Guépin (1929-2006), who I was fortunate enough to be tutored by, in the 1970s.

5. Liegen loont niet (Lying doesn’t pay)

Have you noticed that the Dutch love little rhymes? So many of their sayings and proverbs are rhyming couplets. "Al is de leugen nog zo snel, de waarheid achterhaalt haar wel." (Lies may be fast, but the truth always catches up).

This popular saying was invented four centuries ago by the Dutch poet and statesman Jacob Cats (1577-1660). His collected poems were so popular that many upright merchants used to keep his emblem book next to the Bible.

So when in Dutchland don’t waste any energy trying to tell fibs or fables. Truth will out.

6. Laat je niet gek maken (wise up)

Most Dutch are men and women of few words. They hate those who profess "veel geschreeuw maar weinig wol" (much cry and little wool).

"Laat je niet gek maken" (literally don’t let yourself be fooled) is a wise piece of advice. Many people's favourite Dutch "philosopher" who exemplifies this adagium, is neither academic nor artist but a football player and trainer. His quotes and sayings are near and dear to many hearts. You’ve guessed his name: Johan Cruyff (1947).

If Cruyff received a euro each time someone uttered his saying, "Ieder nadeel heb zijn voordeel" (each disadvantage has its advantage), he’d be the richest man in the Netherlands.

Note that the verb in this truism is the ungrammatical "heb", and not as it should be: "heeft". I suspect that the "heb" is an involuntary tribute to the Dutch national hero.

By the way the word "truism" in Dutch is "de waarheid als een koe" (truth like a cow).

7. Don’t worry, be happy!

Yes, this pepper-upper has no translation because it entered the Dutch language in its English form. Originally it was a popular song sung by Bobby McFerrin in 1988.

In 1989 Dutch DJ Alfred Lagarde (1948-1998) recorded a version under the name Johnny Camaro. Except for these five words it was sung in Dutch with a heavy Surinam accent.

And now, whenever a Dutchie sees another human down, or in the process of going down, they sling this annoying phrase at the unfortunate one - to no avail of course.

The last word

When it comes to happiness, it's best to read the works of the greatest of all Dutch philosophers. His name, of course, is Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). His works may look extremely difficult, yet their message is very simple. You guessed it: "don’t worry, be happy"!

When Cruyff said: "Voetballen is heel simpel, maar het moeilijkste wat er is, is simpel voetballen." (Playing football is very simple, but the most difficult of all is to play football simply), he showed that his understanding of Spinoza is profound.

Spinoza ended his "Ethics" (the guide to end all guides to happiness) as follows: "Al het voortreffelijke is even moeilijk als zeldzaam" (All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare).

In other words, being simply happy without worries is not easy and will take a lot of effort.

Ruud Hisgen is managing director of the Direct Dutch Institute, one of the oldest language institutes in The Hague! For more information, please comment below or visit their website.

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Ruud Hisgen


Ruud Hisgen

Ruud is teacher and managing director at Direct Dutch, he is also an author.

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