I have mastered the Dutch language bit by bit and people say that my Dutch is better than average. I do not have any accent and sometimes I get compliments for that. I always answer that most Austrians learn to speak Dutch accent-free because they have soft consonants like the Dutch. For example, Austrian and Dutch ‘t’s’ sound the same: a short ‘d’ with the tongue closer to the front teeth, a mild burst, not like the German ‘tch’ which explodes from the teeth, no tongue involved. Vowels are also similar: Austrians - like the Dutch - call an egg an ‘ei’, while Germans would say ‘aai’. I can make Dutch people laugh when I do ze Tcherman Aktsent.
I never took Dutch lessons, I listened to people in the street, I listened to the radio, I read the newspapers, I mimicked words until they sounded Dutch to me and I tried them out. One appreciated my efforts and tried to help. My breakthrough was when I had a fit of laughter because I understood all ambiguous jokes told by a Dutch stand-up comedian. I had done it all myself, it had been my initiative, I was proud of myself.
But there always comes the day when you die, of shame…
After about a year in Holland — it was summer — some of my Dutch friends invited me to join them to a house in France. It was situated on the flanks of a mountain, close to a small lake, surrounded by forests. One day I had a strange encounter while I was descending from a mountain, and back at the house I wanted to share this with my friends. When we had our afternoon beer I started to talk:
“I walked on a small path when I saw…” but I could not continue my sentence because they all started to laugh. “You walked on a what?!…” I was puzzled and a bit offended, but good friends as they were they explained. In Dutch a path is called ‘pad’ but in Dutch the same word is also used for ‘toad’. The word I used for small path was ‘padje’ which in Dutch would mean ‘small toad’. The diminutive for a small path would have been ‘paadje’, a long ‘a’. How could I not know?
The mistake I made was that I should have known (and learned) that there are — as in most languages — exceptions. The Dutch diminutive for many words is the ending ‘je’. A narrow or small street is ‘straat-je’, a small child is ‘kind-je’ and so on. And a small toad is ‘pad-je’. A small or narrow path, however, for most Dutch is ‘paad-je’. Later I learned that both — ‘padje’ and ‘paadje’ — for a small path are correct, but that most Dutch have agreed on the latter in spoken language. In a way it seems to have become not so much an exceoption but a ‘dominant’ word, a norm. Hence the understandable hilarious reaction of my friends.
And the strange encounter I had walking down the mountain on that small…path?
I had met a witch and she… But that’s another story.
Storyteller: Peter Frühmann, Storybag, The Netherlands — partner in the Erasmus+ project GuLL and Lifelong Literacy Learner
More info about GuLL: www.pleasemakemistakes.eu
Guerilla Literacy Learning is a project co-funded from Erasmus+ (Agreement no. 2014–1-BE02-KA200–000472)