The US EMBASSY speaks Dutch
- Ambassador Pete Hoekstra has Dutch roots, but how good is his Dutch?
- What are the favourite Dutch words at the United States Embassy in The Hague?
- What do they know about the Dutch language and the history of the US?
In three videos I asked the US ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, his wife, Diane Johnson, and some of his colleagues from the US Embassy in the Netherlands questions like these.
Pete Hoekstra, US Ambassador to the Netherlands from January 2018 till January 2021, was born in Groningen. That’s in the north of the Netherlands. After living in Friesland for 3 years, he and his family moved to Holland, Michigan.
There he met his wife, who has Dutch roots as well (!) because her grandparents came from the Netherlands to America.
That two originally Dutch people met in the United States is not strange after all. Because they weren’t the only ones who had moved from the Netherlands to a place abroad.
The Dutch in the United States – Emigration in the 50s and 60s
Between 1946 and 1969 about half a million Dutch citizens emigrated; that was about four percent of the total population. Canada and Australia in particular, but also the United States were popular destinations at the time.
After the Second World War, the people who left wanted a fresh start. Also, poverty wasn’t unusual in the Netherlands at the time. These new countries, which were ‘younger’ with more space and had fewer consequences from the war, offered new opportunities.
A United States Census counted around 5 million Americans as being wholly or partly of Dutch descent. (1)
Berend Botje …
In the video I ask about Berend Botje. And of course I asked this question because it was about America.
The complete text of this 19th century song is:
- Berend Botje ging uit varen (Berend Botje went out sailing)
- met zijn scheepje naar Zuidlaren (with his little ship to Zuidlaren)
- de weg was recht, de weg was krom (The road was straight, the road was crooked)
- nooit kwam Berend Botje weerom. (Berend Botje never came back.)
- Een, twee, drie, vier, vijf, zes, zeven (One, two, three, four, five, six, seven)
- waar is Berend Botje gebleven? (Where’s Berend Botje gone?)
- Hij is niet hier, hij is niet daar (He’s not here, he’s not there)
- hij is naar Amerika. (He’s gone to America.)
- Amerika, Amerika, (America, America,)
- driemaal in de rondte van je hopsasa. (three times around your ‘hopsasa’.)
Not only did I ask about this song because it is about America. I also wanted to know how good their knowledge of Dutch children’s songs and books was.
In the video I ask people from the US Embassy about Scheepsbeschuitjes. Why? Not because these biscuits are really interesting.
It’s a kind of test of whether they can pronounce one of the most difficult sounds in Dutch.
But first, it’s good to know that in Dutch, there are two ways of pronouncing the [g/ch]-sound.
The first is the one that is known for being difficult: the guttural sound, made at back of mouth, also called the ‘harde g’.
The second is called ‘zachte g’ (soft G) and this sound is voiceless or silent.
Another famous example of this difficult sound is in the name a city: Scheveningen
Scheveningse (scheve schoenen)
This word or phrase was used during WW II to detect German spies. Germans would pronounce Scheveningen (a town close to Den Haag) with the Dutch sound ‘Sh’.
In this video I asked what the favourite Dutch words at the United States Embassy in The Hague were.
Hoekstra’s wife came up with this word:
And she could not have chosen a more Dutch word. It is a typical Dutch word that doesn’t have a real translation, in any language.
Gezellig is a broad term that can be used in a lot of different situations.
- Hoe was het verjaardagsfeestje? Gezellig.
- How was your birthday party? Fun!
- Wat een gezellige huiskamer!
- That a cosy living room!
- Zullen we gezellig samen shoppen?
- Do you want to go for a nice day of shopping.
Like ijsberen this is a verb. If we look at the literal meaning of the two parts of this verb we can translate this to ‘bellying out’.
Uitbuiken means that you relax after you have had a big meal. You just let your belly hang out!
This verb may well go along with the action of undoing the top button of your trousers, lying back in your favourite chair and saying:
Literally in English it would be: to blow out! This verb means going outside to be in the wind to clear your head. In most cases this happens by the sea, because here the wind blows the hardest.
There comes the monkey out of the sleeve – Dutch proverbs and expressions
A fun thing about learning Dutch is getting to know about new proverbs and expressions. Pete Hoekstra gives the example of the Dutch and their ‘lange tenen’. This literally means they have long toes.
Yes, the Dutch are long (tall) people, but this means they are sensitive people, or easily offended.
Another example is ‘Hoge bomen vangen veel wind’. ‘Tall trees catch a lot of wind’, which is the Dutch equivalent of getting all the flack.
In the video, there’s the expression there comes the monkey out of the sleeve (Daar komt de aap uit de mouw)
When it suddenly becomes clear what something is like, or when somebody’s true intention or character is finally apparent, it’s quite common to declare ‘Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve!’.
Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School