Loanwords in the Dutch language: schwung, amok and dedain

Amok, schwung and dedain: foreign loanwords in the Dutch language

Learning Dutch might seem a bit difficult, but when you think of the many words from other languages that en passant found their way into our vocabulaire, it’s actually not that bad! You probably already learned your first Dutch words way back – just by learning your own language.


Most loanwords in the Dutch language originate from neighboring countries like France, Germany and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent from Spain, Italy and Indonesia. We use loanwords to fill gaps in our dictionary, like typical food from other countries (sushi, spaghetti), but also for things that simply don’t have a Dutch translation, like timing. “Je bent precies op tijd. Perfecte timing!”


We also use loanwords to vary our word usage. Many French loanwords simply sound more elegant than their Dutch equivalents, for example. (Although you could also say ‘cadeautje’ instead of ‘cadeau’ to reverse that effect, but soit.) Compare the following sentences:


“Ik ging op bezoek bij een komiek, die opvallend genoeg een goede bui had en me in een kroeg op een glas sinaasappelsap trakteerde.”


“Ik ging op visite bij een cabaretier, die saillant genoeg een goed humeur had en me in een café op een glas jus d’orange trakteerde.”


French words made their way into the Dutch repertoire especially during Napoleon’s reign. We still use them on several occasions, like when you’re walking on the trottoir with a paraplu in your hand, waiting for the taxi-chauffeur to arrive, while seeing how a notoire man with a capuchon is getting arrested en plein public, and gets taken to the politiebureau after being gefouilleerd. (Which is quite a misère for this enfant terrible pur sang. Such an echec!)


Since Germany is our neighbor, it’s not a big aha-erlebnis that we also share a lot of words with this country. And while some loanwords are an sich quite obviously German – especially when there’s an umlaut around – there are also examples you überhaupt won’t see unless you’ve got a good fingerspitzengefühl. Nowadays we use words like bewusteloos (bewußtlos), psychoanalyse and waanzin (wahnsinn) thanks to the rise of German-speaking medics and psychologists, such as einzelgängers like Sigmund Freud.


(I actually don’t know if Freud überhaupt was an einzelgänger, so this addition was really for the bühne, but he sowieso wouldn’t mind me calling him so, because my leitmotiv is just spielerei.)


Many groups of loanwords are related to specific topics, like music (‘De operazanger zingt graag a capella, of met pianomuziek”) or art (“Dit is niet het origineel, maar een replica van die beroemde fresco”). And since a lot of Italian immigrants came to Amsterdam when it was one of the world’s most important trading cities in the 17th century, we also still use many money-related Italian words: “Ik heb een goed brutosalaris, maar netto houd ik wel erg weinig over.” Or: “Mijn saldo is erg laag, dus kan ik mijn automatische incasso’s niet meer betalen.” And the word bankrupt, ‘bankroet’ in Dutch, comes from the Italian banca rotta, which literally means ‘broken bank’.


Sometimes loanwords differ slightly from their original counterparts. Even though the most common Spanish words for a retiree are ‘pensionista’ of ‘jubilado’, the word pensionado actually made it to the Dutch dictionary: especially meant for people who don’t only want to say they’re retired, but also that they’re spending their retirement at some costa while enjoying their siesta in their hangmat (hamaca) on the patio.


The next paragraph is written in Dutch, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to understand it, since it’s still basically English anyway.


Ook het Engels heeft een grote impact op de Nederlandse taal. We zijn erin getraind om veel woorden met elkaar te mixen en constant naar het Engels te switchen. Je moet immers wel een beetje up-to-date blijven! Er zijn ook mensen die deze Angelsaksische input willen tackelen, en ons willen laten afkicken door Engelse woorden zoveel mogelijk te boycotten. Maar daar is natuurlijk wel een beetje teamwork voor nodig.


Some English loanwords got replaced after a while, like hard disk for ‘harde schijf’. We do still use e-mail though, and often leave out the ‘e’ so it becomes mail. So when someone says ‘Ik mail je morgen!’ it doesn’t mean you’ll actually find an envelope in your physical mailbox – it’s just Dutch laziness. And instead of ‘texting’ someone, Dutch people rather say appen. For example: “Hij heeft me nog steeds niet geappt!” Or in other words: “Hij heeft me nog steeds geen berichtje gestuurd op WhatsApp!”


Words can end up in other languages in several ways. Some of them directly, some of them indirectly – like suiker, that originates from the Arabic word sukkar, just like azucar (Spanish), zucchero (Italian), Zucker (German) and basically all the other translations for sugar. And sometimes it’s just one big circle. If we talk about wallets in the Netherlands, we mostly say portemonnee (from the French ‘porte monnaie’) or portefeuille. The Dutch word ‘beurs’ however – which has several meanings, but in this case: wallet – has found its way to many other languages: from French (bourse) and German (börse) to Russian (birža) and Norwegian (børs).


Speaking of which: Dutch loanwords do exist as well. Some of them are not to be proud of (apartheid), while some of them are, kind of (polder, dijk). Especially the Malay and Indonesian languages have a lot of words with Dutch roots, such as kantor (office), spanduk (banner) and asbak (ashtray). And for the record, Dutch people also use words that originate from Malay or Indonesian. When we say we’re about to make amok (cause a stir), there’s a big chance we end up being the pisang (literally: banana, but within this context: being screwed), which is not really senang (pleasant).


Enfin, the Dutch language is a potpourri of influences. And one could look at that with dedain, but I’d rather say it’s very picco bello, because it also adds a lot of schwung to our vocabulaire.


This blog was written by our Dutch teacher Yoran.

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