How Amsterdam doesn’t have canals

Feb 24 · 6 min read
Gracht in Amsterdam (Zairon / CC BY-SA)

Amsterdam is famous for its canals. Except, it doesnt’ have that many. That is, in Dutch it hasn’t. The Dutch word for canal is kanaal, pronounced similar to canal. A kanaal is a wide and straight waterway used by small and large transport ships. The best known kanaal Amsterdam has is the “Amsterdam Rijn Kanaal”, a kanaal connecting Amsterdam to the river Rhine. We also have the Marktkanaal and the Amstelkanaal — connecting the river Amstel to the river Schinkel. We have a few more that you haven’t heard of.

When you visit Amsterdam, you take a canal boat tour. It takes you through waterways like this. You call that a canal. We call it a gracht. We have Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht, and a whole lot more. A gracht is a “canal” that was dug around the city for both defense and transportation. As the city expanded, new grachten — grachten is plural of gracht — had to be dug to accomodate the expanding city.

The day after your grachten tour, you book a trip to Waterland. Here they show you this. It is a sloot next to the narrow road. The “oo” in sloot is pronounced like “oa” in “moan”. Plural is sloten. Sloten were and are dug to pump water out of polders. Water seeps from the grassland into a sloot, then at the edges of the polder, the water is pumped into a vaart, sometimes called a ringvaart because it encloses the polder. In the old days, we used windmills to pump the water out, later they invented steam engine pumps, today we use electric pumps. A vaart looks like this. You can see the water level is higher than the land on the left, which is a polder. Water is pumped from sloten in the low polder into the higher vaart from which it can flow to the sea.

A vaart can also be a trekvaart. Here, the vaart was dug to accommodate trekschuiten, which were ships pulled by horses walking the jaagpad alongside the vaart.

You may want to visit the lovely city of Naarden. It’s an old city, with singels around it for defense. Singels is plural for singel. A singel typically has a star shape when you look at it on a map. That was easier to defend, in the old days.

Now you say “hang on, you’re telling me Dutch has seven different words for canal?”. No, that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that the Dutch have seven different concepts that in English are all called “canal”. If you show a Dutch person a picture of a sloot, they know it is a sloot. Nobody would call it a kanaal or a gracht. Same for grachten: you show a picture of a gracht and every person in the Netherlands can tell you it is a gracht. Kanaal, gracht, sloot, vaart, they are different things, different concepts. I can show you what I mean by introducing Mary, who is from the far away country of Marania.

Mary speaks Maranian. She visits your country, she teaches you some words in Maranian, which is easy to speak so you learn fast. She teaches you the word “vehikel”, which means “car”. The “i” in vehikel is prounounced as “ee” in “deep”, emphasis is on “i”. You show her your new bike, and she says “that is a nice vehikel”. You take her to town by bus, she says “we travel by vehikel”. She admires the shiny vehikel that is passing the bus — you call it a motorcyle. Then the bus has to wait for a big vehikel that is blocking the street. You tell her “a semi is blocking the street”, she says “yes, I see, it is a big vehikel. It is bigger than the one that passed the bus a moment ago”.
Maranian has only one word for car, bicycle, motorcycle, truck, semi, bus, train, subway, streetcar. It is all “vehikel”. Then Mary asks you “how come English has so many different words for vehikel, and how do you know when to call a vehikel a motorcycle, and when to call it a bus?” You start explaining that a bus is big, and a semi is big also, a bus carries passengers, but a minivan does too, and a motorcycle has two weels, or three, and a car has four wheels, or three, or six. You realize that while it is immediately obvious to you what a bike is or a car, Mary has trouble understanding. Her language has only one concept for vehikel. In Maranian, a bike is the same thing as a car or a bus.

This of course sounds ridiculous to you. You know that a bike is very different from a bus, or a car. When someone tells you they went to town by bike, you picture them on a bike, you don’t envision them in a bus or in a car. But think of Mary. When in Maranian, she says “I’ll go to town by bus”, she also says “I’ll go go town by car”. And also “I’ll go to town by bike”. A Maranian person doesn’t know which one she said, because what she said is “I’ll go to town by vehikel”.

I am not a linguist. I know the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and I know that linguists reject it. I also know the following. When a person tells me “I saw a picturesque sloot yesterday” and another person says “I saw a nice bridge over a vaart”, I know they haven’t been a the same place. What they saw was different. However, when they say the same sentences in English, they’d say “I saw a picturesque canal yesterday” and “I saw a bridge over a canal” I may think they were together and they saw the same canal. What they saw can be anything, as long as it involves water. In Dutch, I know what they saw in detail, I can picture it. My brain stores sloot and vaart and kanaal and gracht in different places, with connections to different parts of my brain. Kanaal is connected to big ships, sloot is connected to marsh-marigolds. Gracht is connected to the city, or to a castle, vaart is connected to polders and big pumps. When I think of a canal in English, it feels like an empty concept, not connected to any of the things sloot and gracht are connected to. When you tell me about the canal you saw, you’d have to give me a lot more detail before I can picture it.

I speak English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish, at different levels. Learning languages is fun, it is interesting, sometimes it is hard, and I know some people have better language-learning skills than others. What I have found in the decades I spent learning languages, is that it gets most interesting when you get to the advanced level of realizing that there is a lot more to language than just words and syntax. What I picture when you say “canal” is very different from what I see in my minds eye when you say “vaart” or “sloot”. There is no way to make me picture a sloot when you speak English: you’d have to tell a whole story to make me see the same image.

French is a poetic and romantic language. If you speak French fluently, it changes the way you think. You become a romantic by speaking French. When you hang out with friends on a terrace in Paris, having a glass of Sauterne, you feel like a different person. My theory is that you are a different person, because you think with the French part of your brain that is different from the English part, having a different personality. I have noticed the same thing when I was frequently traveling between California and the Netherlands: my personality changes when I travel from one country to another.

My point in this article is that there is a lot more to language than words and meaning and syntax: the language you speak determines the concepts in your mind, hence it determines the way you think. When you speak a different language, you become a different person. Which makes learning foreign languages all the more fun.

By the way, the title of this article cannot be translated to Dutch. If you translate “canals” to “kanalen”, it would be nonsensical. If you translate “canals” to “grachten”, it would not be true. This nicely illustrates the point I was making.


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Software engineer, AI engineer, entrepreneur, writer

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