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Dutch street language: from Mokum to Damsko

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.

There are several stages to learning Dutch in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam specifically.

After many months (or most likely years) of practise, there's the breakthrough moment when you’re suddenly able to follow conversations. If you’re lucky you then move on to the glorious stage when you can actually join in and talk about koetjes en kalfjes (a Dutch idiom for "small talk", literally: "little cows and little calves").

Next level Dutch

Once you’ve wrestled your way through all the levels from beginner to advanced, there is always more to discover: whole worlds, in fact, consisting of words and expressions you won’t find in the textbooks.

Take a ride in the Amsterdam metro, for example, and you might hear someone talking about going to Poortje, because they are desperate for a new pair of pattas.

What’s going on here? Is this even Dutch?!

Straattaal

Words like Poortje and pattas are examples of what is sometimes called urban or youth slang or, in Dutch, straattaal - the language of the street. It is a kind of language variation that occurs in many different forms around the world, and usually incorporates elements from other languages, reflecting the multicultural environments in which they develop.

You can hear Dutch forms of straattaal not only in the streets of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but also in Almere and even the Achterhoek. Influences come from a variety of languages including Turkish, Moroccan Arabic, Berber and Papiamento (the main language of the Dutch Antilles).

However, perhaps the two most important sources of straattaal vocabulary are the English of hip hop culture and Sranan, a language spoken in Suriname and by Dutch people with Surinamese roots.

I live in Damsko

The two examples at the start of this article show the Surinamese influence. Pattas is derived from pata, the Sranan word for sneaker. Poortje, meanwhile, is often used in Amsterdam-Zuidoost to refer to the shopping precinct Amsterdamse Poort; this follows a pattern common to Sranan, in which geographic names are given a diminutive nickname.

Other examples of Sranan influences are mattie (from mati, meaning "mate") and Damsko, an alternative name for Amsterdam.

Bargoens: a secret language

Straattaal is hardly new of course. In the past, Dutch has known other variations of street slang incorporating elements from other languages, the most famous one being Bargoens.

This form of jargon originated in the 17th century and was spoken mainly between 1850 and 1950. Bargoens was a "cant language" - a language used among thieves and other criminals to prevent the non-initiated from understanding what they were talking about.

The origins of Mokum

An important source of words in the Bargoens code was Yiddish. The marginal status of Jewish people meant they often earned their bread as travelling salesmen and therefore mixed in the circles from which Bargoens emerged.

Some examples of words used in this way are poen (money) and lef (guts, daring), while Mokum, another name for Amsterdam that you still hear in Ajax chants, is derived from the Yiddish word for "city".

Another word appropriated in this way, gabber (mate), has become known globally among some circles because of the genre of house music of the same name.

Enduring slang

Many of these words have become so familiar that the Dutch who use them have no idea of their history. That makes me wonder which of the words used by today's young people in their version of straattaal will survive and become part of the general vocabulary.

Will the slang of today fade away? Or will young people keep talking about their pattas as they grow older, while their kids come up with their own "shizzle" in terms of slang?

Keep listening!

Just like everywhere else in the world, the way people speak gives you a great insight into a place's history and varied identity.

So if you are looking for a new challenge in your Dutch-language journey, and want to add a real local/global touch to your vocabulary, my advice is to keep your ears open. You never know what interesting linguistic gems you might hear on the tram, in the metro or at one of the city’s many markets.

Do you know any other Dutch slang? Add it in the comments below!
 

Sarah Welling 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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Sarah

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Sarah Welling

I am half Dutch and half English and work as an editor and translator. I am fascinated by the subtle and less subtle ways in which my two languages and...

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