Fingerspitzengefühl

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Most Americans visiting the Netherlands feel pretty much at home, I think, although there are a few oddities, like the large number of bicyclists and the fact that the trains run on time. But at a deeper level, the Netherlands is really a very foreign country.

Last fall, the editors of Onze Taal ("Our Language") asked readers for their favorite German word. They got 3,358 responses, with a suprisingly clear winner, as they explained in an article earlier this year:

1 fingerspitzengefühl 30.1% flair, intuition, tact
2 überhaupt 15.2% actually, at all, even, generally
3 sowieso 12.7% anyway, in any event
4 einzelgänger 12.4% loner, maverick
5 aha-erlebnis 11.9% eureka moment
6 ins blaue hinein 10.7% into the blue (= "at random"?)
7 quatsch 8.9% nonsense, hogwash, baloney
8 weltschmerz 8.1% world-weariness, sentimental pessimism
9 himmelhoch jauchzend 7.6% exulting sky-high
10 heimwee 6.6% (typo for heimweh "homesickness"
or heimweg "way home"?)

(The English translations are mine, and therefore not to be relied on, since I know little German and less Dutch.)

Perhaps this particular selection of words tells us something about the Dutch national character, though I'm generally skeptical of such linguistic tea-leaf reading. For me, the real sign of Netherlandic otherness is the fact that this question was asked (and answered!) in the first place.

There's no glossy popular magazine in English anything like Onze Taal. But if there were, it's hard to imagine its editors asking readers for their favorite words in some nearby language (Spanish, French, Dutch, etc.). And it's even harder to imagine them getting such a large number of responses — if we were to scale the response rate according to the ratio between the overall U.S. and Netherlands populations (about 309 million to 17 million), their 3,358 responses would scale to more than 60,000.

The source of this difference, of course, is that the Netherlands is a small country whose citizens need to learn their neighbors' languages in order to prosper.  But the fact that the difference is easy to explain doesn't change the fact that the difference exists.

Interestingly, these large differences don't prevent Dutch and Flemish linguistic nationalism from having surprising similarities to the U.S. "English Only" movement.

Thus in the Flemish- (i.e. Dutch-) speaking regions of Belgium, there's an on-going argument about whether the French-speaking linguistic minority should be made to learn Dutch in order to deal with the local government, to send their children to school in Dutch, and so on, despite the fact that Belgium is officially a bilingual country. In fairness to the Flemish, I gather that they feel that the situation is asymmetrical, in that a larger proportion of native Flemish speakers are competent in French.

In the Netherlands, the main linguistic controversy deals with immigrants — mainly from Morocco and Turkey — who don't assimilate well in to the larger society, and similarly don't learn Dutch very well. Since 2006, would-be immigrants need to pass a "civic-integration examination" as well as a Dutch language test.

The dominant worry in the U.S. has to do with the status of Spanish, where the situation is a sort of mixture of the Flemish/French and Dutch/other conflicts. Like French with respect to Flemish, Spanish is the language of nearby countries, whose speakers have been in the general area at least as long as the English speakers have. But like the Dutch with respect to Turkish and Arabic, relatively few U.S. native speakers of English are competent in Spanish.

What all of these situations have in common is that language differences align with ethnic differences, in a situation with considerable (and perhaps increasing) ethnic diversity in a given geographical area. Given that alignment, the amount of bilingualism or multi-lingualism seems to be secondary in determining whether controversies will arise about the use of minority languages.

In a post on "The folly of English-only" at Psychology Today, Derek Bickerton raises the example of Switzerland:

I know one country that's had hardly any trouble, inside or out, for several centuries. And … not merely does that country allow guns–it mandates that all men of military age have guns in their homes, and ammunition, and that they be ready to use them at a moment's notice. Just like the old Minutemen.

I'd like to hear from some people who are more familiar with the Swiss situation than I am. I gather that it's complicated — as this article explains,

According to Swiss jurisprudence and legal doctrine, the principle of 'linguistic freedom' means the right to use any official language in communications by private parties with the state and between themselves.

The protection of this constitutional right is, however, qualified by the territorial principle, which permits linguistic freedom to be limited to preserve the traditional makeup, boundaries and homogeneity of linguistic territories. By ensuring that linguistic communities have the space they require, the territorial principle recognizes that an individual can only realize himself or herself as a member of a linguistic community.

And there is some history of traditional language-related conflict in Switzerland, according to William R. Keech, "Linguistic Diversity and Political Conflict: Some Observations Based on Four Swiss Cantons", Comparative Politics 4(3) 1972:

While Switzerland is correctly known as a country in which different ethnic groups live together peacefully, there are a few Swiss setting in which there is conflict among these groups, Of the twenty-five cantons and half-cantons, four have historical linguistic minorities. Of these four, three have been rather free of sharp conflict among language groups, while one has known almost constant tension for many years. [...]

In Bern, … there is intense conflict among language groups. [...] Over the last twenty years, French-speaking spearatists have committed arson, blown up railroad tracks and military barracks, defaced statues, broken up meetings, and the like, using terrorist tactics to punish opponents and to call attention to their plight.

This conflict resulted in the creation of a new canton, Jura, in 1979 — presumably using "the territorial principle" to conciliate the dispute. But apparently things are not quite settled yet.

In addition to this residue of traditional ethno-linguistic divisions, Switzerland is presumably facing new linguistic issues due to the fact that it has one of the highest immigration rates in Europe, with nearly a quarter of the population now foreign-born.  I haven't seen much discussion of linguistic issues — maybe the immigrating Eastern Europeans, North Africans, etc. are mainly learning German or French, or perhaps knew one of these languages before they arrived.  But I can't imagine that the SVP would be very tolerant of any immigrants who insist on quasi-official status for native languages that are not already part of the established Swiss linguistic structure.

None of this should be taken as support for the various "English Only" or "Official English" movements in the U.S.  As far as I can tell, these are potentially damaging attempts to solve a perceived problem that is continuing to solve itself, just as it has throughout American history.

A few relevant earlier LL posts:

"When smart people get really stupid ideas", 4/2/2004;
"Palatine Boors and their Maryland descendents", 5/14/2004;
"Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be considered harmful", 5/21/2004;
"Nativism clings to life at 100 or 101", 6/24/2004;
"The secret Netherlanders among us", 7/2/2004;
"English under siege in Pennsylvania", 7/25/2006;
"No Spanish on the school bus", 2/9/2008

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67 Comments »

  1. Jens Fiederer said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    Your translations from the German are fine (marginally native speaker, left the country at 10 years of age, but still have relatives there).

  2. vanya said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    "Ins Blaue hinein" means "without preparation", "without a plan". "Ins Blaue hinein reden" means to just start talking off the top of one's head with no real knowledge or forethought. You can also "fahren ins Blaue" – i.e. set off at random with no real destination.

    Dutch people seem to have a very high comprehension of German in general, despite themselves. I once went to a German cabaret show in Amsterdam where the performer spoke only German, and the audience, which appeared to be at least 90% Dutch (judging by the conversations at intermission), laughed at all the jokes and apparently had no trouble following rapidly spoken colloquial German. I can't imagine that happening in England or Denmark. I can, however, imagine a French performer in Italy probably finding an appreciative audien

  3. Galileo said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    Pointing out that "heimwee" has become a common word in Dutch to the extent that many don't realize it's a German loanword in the first place.

    vanya:
    Ducth and German are closely related and mutually understandable to a certain extent. I'm a native dutch speaker and can read German texts with only a little effort. Spoken conversations are doable, if spoken clearly and slowly.

    It's worth noting though that a German show in Amsterdam is more likely to attract a minority of German-speaking Dutchmen, so you deduction might be a little skewed. ;)

  4. mike said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    Maybe I've just been unlucky, but it's my experience that the trains in the Netherlands run on time less often than in neighboring countries, though perhaps still more often than in the US.

    [(myl) My luck with train schedules in the Netherlands has generally been fairly good, but frankly, I was relying on the impression generated by an animated conversation that I once overheard on a railway platform in Utrecht, started by two elderly women and picked up by a half a dozen bystanders. I asked someone what all the fuss was about, and they explained that the train was seven minutes late, and everyone was carrying on about how the country was going to the dogs. I take trains in the U.S. fairly often, between Philadelphia and New York or Washington, and for someone to complain in that way about a train that was seven minutes late would be grounds for a diagnosis of mental incapacity.]

  5. Nathan said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Trains in the US? lolwut?

    Anyway, I think something like this could work for Spanish in some parts of the US. I might vote for lisa y llanamente, which has a great mouthfeel. But the results would likely end up dominated by advertising stuff like carrrrne asada.

  6. David Beaver said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    Note that this was not a study of favorite German words, but favorite German loanwords (Dutch loanword = "leenwoord"!) in Dutch. So while the glossy magazine and the survey do speak to the high language awareness of the Dutch, the case is not quite as strong as suggested. It's as if Americans were to report on their favorite Yiddishism (which they do from time to time): it wouldn't imply that those reporting spoke Yiddish.

  7. bulbul said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    It's as if Americans were to report on their favorite Yiddishism
    Well, yes, if the US shared a border with a large and powerful nation where Yiddish was spoken as a first language, a great portion of US households watched Yiddish TV and a large number of Americans had some passive knowledge of Yiddish…

    [Well yeah, German loanwords entered Dutch through different routes than Yiddish loanwords enterd US English. But the survey was still a loanword survey, not a foreign language survey. - DB]

  8. Josh said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Another "Blau" idiom: a person who is playing hooky from school is someone who "macht Blau".

    And as a non-native German speaker, I've been able to have written conversations with Dutch speakers, though it's fairly strenuous on my part. It seems to me that there are enough cognates with German and English words in Dutch that you can at least get the gist of what's being said, especially when context can help clear up uncertainties.

    I've been far less successful trying to do the same with more distant Germanic languages like Norwegian and Danish.

  9. Arjan said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Oh, no! Why did Wiedergutmachungsschnitzel not make it? ;)

    @Galileo: there may be some level of mutual intelligibility (quite a lot more so in the neighboring dialect areas near the border than for standard Dutch), but you have to take into account that most people have had German classes in high school.

    @bulbul: most people in the Netherlands have access to a few German channels, but very few people ever watch (combined ratings around 2% or so).

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    Given the fact that Dutch and German belong(ed) to a dialect continuum extending right up into Switzerland, I suppose this is not so surprising.

    But I've always been mightily impressed by the very high competence of so many Dutch speakers in English, where the similarity is so much less.

    I used to work for a German organization with a lot of British and Dutch employees; the Dutch (admittedly an unrepresentative group in working for an international organization) had no difficulty whatsoever with either English or German, in both of which they seemed to be practically at native-speaker levels of competence.

    I vote for Weltschmerz, BTW. One of my favourite words in any language.

  11. Galileo said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    arjan,

    "@Galileo: there may be some level of mutual intelligibility (quite a lot more so in the neighboring dialect areas near the border than for standard Dutch), but you have to take into account that most people have had German classes in high school."

    Define "most". I've had 1 year of german, 1 hour a week and I retained quasi nil from it, and I know perhaps 3 people who have it on a more substantial basis. Germanophonic presence is very weak everywhere but in and around the Eastern Cantons. (I'm speaking about Belgium.)

  12. Jim said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    "a large number of Americans had some passive knowledge of Yiddish…"

    Only a few generations ago this was true of German in America.

  13. MM said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    Favourite English loanword from Italian – looks similar to me – http://www.rankopedia.com/220/Step1/19376.htm

  14. Alan Gunn said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    One difference between us and the Dutch is that we've had lots of experience with large numbers of immigrants coming here, speaking their old languages some, then adopting English. You might think we'd have gotten used to it by now and so should worry about it less than the Dutch, but it doesn't seem to have worked out that way.

    [(myl) Yes, exactly.]

  15. Yusef said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    I wonder if there is a any relationship between "ins Blaue hinein" and "to go off into the big blue yonder" in English, which I understand as meaning speaking about either nonsense or about difficult and advanced subjects.

  16. Frans said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    As Galileo more or less pointed out, heimwee is Dutch whereas Heimweh is German.

    @Arjan:

    @bulbul: most people in the Netherlands have access to a few German channels, but very few people ever watch (combined ratings around 2% or so).

    Not speaking in any kind of scientific way here, but I imagine that most people who watch German TV obtain their signal with a satellite dish. But then I also think anybody who uses cable if they could use satellite is insane (and not only for all the German FTA channels, though that's definitely a part of it).

  17. Sili said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    Many of these are so ingrained in Danish that I doubt anyone would be able to identify then as loanwords:

    fingerspitzengefühl – "fingerspidsfornemmelse", though the German is used directly occasionally. I find to my embarrassment that I've been pronouncing it without the "en" in the middle.

    überhaupt – "overhovedet"

    aha-erlebnis – "aha-oplevelse". I know I've used the German in English in the past for lack of a better word.

    ins blaue hinein – "ud i det blå", off without target, into to nature, that sorta thing.

    weltschmerz – Okay, I don't think we use that in Danish, but it seems almost English to me.
    heimwee – "hjemve", acke for home, literally.

  18. vanya said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    t's worth noting though that a German show in Amsterdam is more likely to attract a minority of German-speaking Dutchmen

    Galileo, quite right. I just thought it interesting that Amsterdam probably has a pretty significant minority of German comprehending Dutchmen if a fairly obscure German-speaking cabarettist can pull in a decent crowd from the local population on a Saturday night. I don't think that would happen in London, Copenhagen or even Prague. Or New York.

  19. Bill Walderman said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    What's most impressive to me is that there are enough Netherlanders who are interested in their language to support the Onze Taal organization, which seems to be a kind of membership organization and which apparently publishes the periodical (if I'm reading the Wikipedia article correctly).

  20. Tim said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    In the original poll, were the respondents offered a list of words from which to choose, or were they simply asked to come up with their favorites off the tops of their heads? Because that would make a big difference to the comparisons with how a similar poll would go over in the US.

  21. Frans said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    Bill, that's correct. Additionally, according to Wikipedia it's the biggest organization of its kind (with nearly 40,000 members). But do note that a reasonable number of subscribers is bound to hail from Belgium.

  22. Frans said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    @Tim: skimming through the linked article it would seem that they presented a list of 66 German loans, 3 of which each reader could vote for. They say a number of readers also presented their own favorite words and expressions, but that none of these was mentioned often enough to influence the top 10. However, for what it's worth, I got the impression this was not encouraged.

  23. peter said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    And what would be the list of favourite German loan words in English? I would vote for:

    festschrift, gestalt, gesundheit, schadenfreude, weltanschauung, zeitgeist.

    Americans I know also often add the suffix "-meister" to an English word to indicate mastery, as in gamemeister.

  24. Mark P said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    How about kindergarten?

    I think you might have found more German words in use in the US in the years immediately after WW II. I remember my father using a few (raus, Kartoffel … occasionally "mox nix"). Most didn't survive.

  25. microtherion said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Zürich just started a new (and somewhat controversial) integration ad campaign, featuring various multilingual posters, so it seems the solution is thought to be to cater to a rather large number of languages (each poster has a somewhat different subset of languages).

    As another data point, at a recent preschool orientation meeting I attended, there were translators for (if I recall correctly) Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Tamil, Albanian, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. Interestingly, there were none for French, Italian, or English.

  26. michael farris said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    What about Fahrvergnügen? How soon we forget.

  27. michael farris said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    "What's most impressive to me is that there are enough Netherlanders who are interested in their language to support the Onze Taal organization"

    I've noticed many English speakers tend to assume that Dutch speakers' general excellence in English implies indifference to their own language (perhaps caused by the immigrant scenario so prevalent in Anglophone countries). IME (very limited though it is) that's very far from the case.

    In a similar vein, I was recently in Belgium (mostly dealing with multilingual Nederlandophones including some that have to deal with English speakers on a regular basis). One inmistakable undercurrent was active resentment of having to do _all_ the heavy lifting in communication with English speakers who were long term residents of Dutch speaking Belgium and didn't make the slightest effort to assimilate linguistically (probably assuming their Flemish colleagues were happy to use English with them all the time).

  28. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    It's the same the whole world over. When my wife began her speech with a few rote-learned greetings in the local language of a Pacific island recently, she was told afterwards that she had done more than some English-speakers had ever attempted although they had lived on the island for decades.

  29. Nanani said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    RE: ins blaue hinein : into the blue (= "at random"?)

    My first thought was that it resembles the idiom "out of the blue" for something unexpected, random, unprepared, etc.

    A usage example would go: "Then just out of the blue, she asked me to come with her." <- the idiom suggests that the speaker wasn't expecting this invitation.

    Is "out of the blue" a Canadianism or perhaps an eggcorn I wasn't aware I'd picked up?

  30. Mark P said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    I'm familiar with "out of the blue" in the southeastern US.

    Apparently "Ins Blaue hinein" was a movie made in 1929. I gather the meaning in this case might be "In(to) the blue distance". It seems consistent with "at random." "Out of the blue" seems to me to have something of the same flavor.

  31. Bill Walderman said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    "I've noticed many English speakers tend to assume that Dutch speakers' general excellence in English implies indifference to their own language."

    I didn't mean to imply that I was surprised that Dutch speakers are not indifferent to their own language, as opposed to other languages–I'm just impressed that Dutch speakers support and maintain a non-academic, popular organization and publication devoted to their language. I don't think there's anything similar in the English-speaking world.

  32. John Atkinson said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

    It seems, from what people have been saying here, that both "into the blue" (disappear) and "out of the blue" (appear from nowhere) are less familiar in some (USA?) varieties of English than they are here in Oz. I'm surprised — I would have thought they were in every English speaker's working lexicon..

    Since "into the blue" at least apparently occurs in all the Germanic languages (don't know about Icelandic) with somewhat similar meanings, it would be interesting to know which one it originated in, and which have it as a calque. Or does it come down to us all from Proto-germanic?

  33. Helma said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    German on Dutch tv: Certainly back when I grew up, you didn't need to tune into German channels to see German tv shows in Holland. Hill Street Blues and Derrick were on Dutch tv with subtitles (no dubbing ever except in children's shows). Much less French or Italian that I remember. Not sure Derrick or Tatort is still running, but Dutch tv has always exposed people to lots of German on Dutch broadcast channels. I tend to attribute any impressions of superior linguistic knowledge in Holland to that non-dubbing culture. Certainly my high school language classes weren't all that effective. Frans: When I am back for visits, I don't notice a lot of people using satellite dishes; in fact, I've heard verschoteld (dished) or some such used to describe neighborhoods which have seen an influx of immigrants — who, in contrast to the 'natives' (scare quotes, because obviously we're into a third generation of Turkish and Moroccan hyphenated Dutch by now) do use satellite dishes since the cable company doesn't offer a lot of Turkish/Arabic language stuff.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    @John Atkinson: I too think "out of the blue" is widely known, and I don't see what's making you think it isn't. "Into the blue", however, strikes me as unusual. But here's a citation:

    "Dear me!" he went on. "Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?"

    J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter I, as if you didn't know.

  35. michael farris said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    "I tend to attribute any impressions of superior linguistic knowledge in Holland to that non-dubbing culture."

    It's my impression (with no backing data!) that the superior linguistic knowledge in the Netherlands was mostly limited to English and German (when Netherlanders can be roused out of their historic antipathy), which also happen to be the major closest languages to Dutch. My impression in other exclusive subtitling countries (Romania, Portugal, Greece) was not impressive widespread fluency in English.

  36. michael farris said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 2:34 am

    I assumed that 'out of the blue' was widespread

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5KOGj1g5P0

    and maybe related conceptually to 'out of thin air'

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvHPVh7NsqA

    and/or 'fell from the sky' (in a non-literal sense).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPOLxMtFErU

    Just guessing.

    When I saw "ins Blaue hinein" I immediately though of the Polish expression '(odejść) w siną dal" (lit: (leave) into the blue distance, disappear without a trace) as featured in the old song:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OrKfps9fJs

    I wonder if the two are related and the current German usage reflects in shift in usage/

  37. peter said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 2:40 am

    In British English, there is also, "Vorsprung durch Technik", Audi's advertizing slogan. This was so common in the 1990s it was satirized by other advertizers, eg, McDonald's, "Vorsprung durch Tomato" and the regular adverts by a heavy equipment manufacturer in the Financial Times: "Vorsprung dirt Technik."

  38. Jen said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 3:41 am

    I don't know about Romanians' *fluency* in English, but I can confirm that most of my and my brother's generation (I'm 26, he's 24) learned a lot of our English from Cartoon Network and American movies. We are probably among the first generations to do that, since we were 6 and 4, respectively, when the Communist regime fell and we got access to foreign language channels. Cartoon Network aired undubbed (and unsubtitled) for years and, even though I don't remember *how* I learnt English, I suppose that at least part of it was from TV.

    I've always wondered if this is something that happens to most people or not… I've always been interested in languages, so I might not be the best example, but after a few years of watching subtitled Spanish soaps I could understand maybe 75% of what was said. Many more years of English TV would have the same result.

    Anyway, to wrap it up: a lot of Romanians did learn English from TV. (Young Romanians, that is.) But *fluent* English… I'm not sure. It's a common misconception here that we are very good English speakers, but that's not true. Let's say that most people under 40 know conversational English and leave it at that :)

  39. David Cantor said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    Even outside Bern, there is still some language friction in Switzerland. The kind of asymmetry you mentioned for Belgium also exists here. German-speaking Swiss are far more likely to be able to operate comfortably in French, than French-speaking people are able to manage German. Many people in my Kanton of Luzern were horrified when Kanton Zürich decided to teach English in elementary school before French.

    But this is definitely the exception. Most (especially young people) just accept it as natural and economically beneficial to be multilingual. I would guess that at least half of the under-40 employees in my company have gone on extended (3-12 month) trips to other countries specifically to improve language skills through immersion.

    Another factor is the lack of a written form of Swiss German. In order to read and write, the first thing a child has to learn in school is a foreign language. Many Swiss, by the way prefer to call this "Schriftdeutsch" rather than "Hochdeutsch," since the latter seems to denigrate Swiss German. ("Written German" vs. "High German")

  40. Wouter said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    Subtitled original TV shows must be of some importance. My experience is that the knowledge of English in Greece is much better than in Spain or Italy, simply because of this exposure to the language.
    But there is more to it. The tradition of fluency in other languages (well, relatively at least, and often with a heavy Dutch accent) in the Netherlands is older than TV. There must be a history of an international attitude, good education and high literacy since at least the 17th century. And Dutch has never been a lingua franca, like French in the 18th century and in the upper class, German as a scientific language in the 19th century and generally English from the 20th century. If you wanted to get anywhere, you simply had to learn one or more foreign languages.

  41. Wilma van den Akker said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 6:05 am

    re: complaining about trains not being on the dot: one of our national hobbies is complaining! About the weather (too wet, too cold or too hot), public transport, traffic jam and dog shit. I remember myself complaining about missing a train because it left on time. 'Why isn't the train late now, when I just missed it?' You see? We always find something to complain about…

  42. peter said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    Wouter said (May 26, 2010 @ 5:56 am)

    "There must be a history of an international attitude, good education and high literacy since at least the 17th century. And Dutch has never been a lingua franca, . . . If you wanted to get anywhere, you simply had to learn one or more foreign languages."

    There was also Dutch colonialism, including the successful military invasion and political takeover of England in 1688.

  43. Frans said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    @Helma:

    Frans: When I am back for visits, I don't notice a lot of people using satellite dishes; in fact, I've heard verschoteld (dished) or some such used to describe neighborhoods which have seen an influx of immigrants — who, in contrast to the 'natives' (scare quotes, because obviously we're into a third generation of Turkish and Moroccan hyphenated Dutch by now) do use satellite dishes since the cable company doesn't offer a lot of Turkish/Arabic language stuff.

    The cable companies don't offer much of anything. Whether that's Turkish, German, French, British, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Dutch regional TV or anything else you can receive through satellite in ample quantity is completely irrelevant. And that's merely the many hundreds of television channels. I haven't even mentioned the thousands of radio channels yet. You might think the price of the dish and receiver is an issue, but after less than a couple of years (or even less depending on which channels interest you) you'd have broken even compared to a €30/month cable subscription. From then on you'd be saving tons of money in comparison to cable. People who say that are either racist or (hopefully) ignorant.

    Anyway, I said I imagine that most people who watch (comparatively) much German TV do so utilizing a dish, not that most people watch much German TV.
    @Jen:

    I've always wondered if this is something that happens to most people or not… I've always been interested in languages, so I might not be the best example, but after a few years of watching subtitled Spanish soaps I could understand maybe 75% of what was said. Many more years of English TV would have the same result.

    I learned quite a bit of German that way. English I mostly learned through computer games and reading books (and asking my mother a LOT at first). High school didn't teach me much, language-wise.

  44. Jorre said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    Mark Liberman said (May 25, 2010 @ 9:49 am)

    "Thus in the Flemish- (i.e. Dutch-) speaking regions of Belgium, there's an on-going argument about whether the French-speaking linguistic minority should be made to learn Dutch in order to deal with the local government, to send their children to school in Dutch, and so on, despite the fact that Belgium is officially a bilingual country. In fairness to the Flemish, I gather that they feel that the situation is asymmetrical, in that a larger proportion of native Flemish speakers are competent in French."

    This is typical for people interpreting the Belgian situation, so here's a short reply on what the text says:
    - The Belgian Law defines how the language in the different Regions is to be used: about 60% Dutch-speaking (=Flanders, including Brussels), rest is French speaking (Wallonia and Brussels) and a minority is German speaking (Eastern kantons); the Flemish have always respected the other languages, then is it too much asked that guests, living in Flanders, make at least a little effort, even when they origin from the same country? Besides, Belgium only exists since 1830.
    - Belgium is NOT bilingual, but its capital, surrounded by 18 other communities, form together the Brussels Capital Region and is officially bilingual French-Dutch (of which only a minority speaks Dutch, even though Brussels is the capital of Flanders).
    - This minority in this country wants Flanders to become bilingual, and the rest of the country to remain as it is (French speaking).
    - It's a good living in Flanders, so people move from the other (poorer)Regions to Flanders and call themselves a minority to be protected, while they should comply with the Belgian Law. It's a bit like saying: I'm immigrated from Mexico to Chicago, and even though I'm a minority I want the government to forget about English and speak only my language.
    - Flemish people are competent in many languages, French, German, English, Spanish, which is quite normal seen with respect to history.

    [(myl) Thanks for the correction. Your explanation corresponds roughly to what I thought the situation to be, except that I misleadingly described the legal situation of different official languages in different areas of the same country as "bilingual". I would only note that the main area of friction these days seems to be in the capital (which is also the home of many European Community institutions) and its surrounding bedroom communities, where the immigration of non-Dutch-speakers is arguable not due to better economic conditions, but rather simply because of their role in government- and EC-related activities.

    As for the analogy to the U.S., which is why I brought it up in the first place, the anti-immigrant groups typically do caricature immigrants as exactly saying "I'm immigrated from Mexico to Chicago, and even though I'm a minority I want the government to forget about English and speak only my language". In the long term, this is not true -- immigrant communities continue to assimilate linguistically in the U.S. within a generation or two -- but in the short term, there's no question that Spanish-speaking immigrants (and also Chinese, Korean, etc.) are often entitled to deal with the government in their own language.]

  45. Steven said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    All these words are except German words, also rather frequently used loanwords in Dutch. Only the last word is adepted to the Dutch spelling, but still these words are also all Dutch words now. So the question could better have been: "What is your favorite German loanword?". Or the question was understood as above.

  46. [links] Link salad sleeps like the undead | jlake.com said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    [...] Fingerspitzengefühl — Language Log on the Netherlands, Switzerland and language integration. [...]

  47. Bas Bijpost said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    What makes me smile is the fact that Stichting Onze Taal (the organization publishing the glossy) was founded in 1931 by a group of people worried about the influence of foreign languages on Dutch, in particularly the German language.

    We've come a long way :)

  48. Frans said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    Steven, the question was "what is your favorite German word in our language?" as far as I understand the article about the results. It doesn't seem to repeat the question literally, but it does frequently say "the nicest German word of our language is…," "The Goethe-Institute searched for … the nicest German word in over a hundred countries … but not necessarily in the own language [of said countries] like in this research," etc.

  49. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    @Frans: Actually, the number of Belgian members of Onze Taal is surprisingly small. The Belgians have had their own, similar organization, but this was not as successful. And the question really was just a frivolous part of a theme issue on the current relation between the Dutch and German language. So not much attention was paid to a methodologically sound experimental design. The editors chose the words on the basis of their own fingerspitzengefühl only.

    However, even with a sloppy choice of words, such a clear winner is surprising. In one of the older issues, Dutch linguist Marc van Oostendorp speculated about a phonetic reason for the fact that in favorite word polls often the most labio-dental words win. Here is a link to Marc's article: http://www.onzetaal.nl/nieuws/mooiewoorden.php

  50. Alen Mathewson said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    You may be interested in this segment from today's Onze Taal subscribers email bulletin:

    3. Extra: fingerspitzengefühl
    De Amerikaanse taalkundigen van het fameuze Language Log zijn verbaasd. Een tijdje geleden publiceerde Onze Taal de resultaten van een enquête over het mooiste Duitse woord (pdf). De verbazing van de Amerikanen betreft niet eens zozeer de uitkomst van de enquête als wel het feit dat een Nederlandse organisatie op het idee is gekomen zo'n onderzoek uit te voeren: "Er is geen glossy populair blad in het Engels dat in de verte lijkt op Onze Taal. Maar zelfs al was het er, dan nog zou je je moeilijk kunnen voorstellen dat de redacteuren lezers om hun favoriete woorden in een buurtaal – Spaans, Frans, Nederlands, enz. – vragen. En het is nog moeilijker voorstelbaar dat ze zo veel antwoorden zouden krijgen."

  51. Caitilin said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Wouldn't "ins Blaue hinein" be most like "into the wild blue yonder?" That's the phrase that struck me as most similar, though the citation from Tolkien was lovely.

  52. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    Jorre's assertion that "Brussels is the capital of Flanders" is disingenuous. It is factually correct only because the Flemish Region (Vlaams Gewest), which does NOT include Brussels, has chosen to merge its political institutions with those of the Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap), which represents all the Dutch-speakers of Belgium and whose seat is in Brussels (as is that of the French Community, administratively separate from the Walloon Region whose capital is Namur). The Flemish Parliament has some competences that apply to all Flemings and others that apply only to the Flanders Region.

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    If Professor Bickerton thinks English-language ability is simply a proxy for white skin, perhaps he is the one who is the bigot. Or at least someone who apparently has spent much of his life in Hawaii, which claims to be "diverse" but has notably few Anglophone immigrants of South Asian or West Indian origin, as well as notably few Anglophone black residents whose families have been in the U.S. for generations (and perhaps notably few whites who are not native Anglophones? – less and less diversity the more you think about it). It's actually not inconceivable that the median native-Anglophone resident of New York City has darker skin than the median native-other-language resident.

  54. Guido Bernsdorff said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Re: ins Blaue hinein.
    I shall never forget that day in 1990 when I was standing on a jetty in Swakopmund, a largely German-speaking city of what was then called South West Africa. As I watched a teenager boy throwing back into the ocean a fish he had just hooked, I said, as an introductory remark, "Ins Blaue hinein…" I was referring to the bright blue surface of the sea. His reaction was immediate and to the point. "Nein, in die weite Welt hinein!" His father, who was sitting on the same bench, explained: My boy is right. Ins Blaue hinein means that one is doing something without a plan or preparation. One could 'reden' (talk) ins Blaue hinein, 'fragen' (ask) ins Blaue hinein, or even 'bauen' (build) ins Blaue hinein. However, as his son had been setting free a fish that he could not, at that time of year, legally catch and keep, the expression was not applicable.
    @Tim and Frans: It may be correct that the original poll was about German loan words in Dutch. However, that sparked off a lively thread on favourite German words in general, and those contributions are by no means limited to loan words. One poster pointed out that he or she prefers austriacisms – words specific to Standard German as spoken in Austria and Italy.
    Re: the linguistic situation in Switzerland. Though the Jura Canton split off from largely German-speaking Bern mainly in order to end a linguistic feud, there were economic reasons as well. More important is the fact that, even before that secession, language boundaries had been fixed by law for a long time, meaning that no amount of migration could alter the linguistic status of a municipality. Thus there were (and are) a small number of villages that for historical reasons continue to use French or Italian for all legal purposes, even though they have become largely or even completely German-speaking in recent times. The reverse may well be true in other cases. I think one should bear this in mind when judging the situation in Belgium, see next item
    Re: linguistic situation in Belgium. The constitution has fixed its language boundaries in the sixties, leaving small minorities on the ' wrong side' of the border in certain mixed areas. It is important to realize that the areas which devolved to Wallonia had originally been fully Dutch speaking, their mixed character having been the result of frenchifying policies of the State up to the second half of the twentieth century. Even by 1960 some of these municipalities had a Dutch speaking majority. Conversely, not a single originally Walloon-speaking area has been attached to Flanders. Bilingualism in these regions had come about by immigration of speakers of French only, and in many of these villages, this immigration was fairly recent. Allowances ('faciliteiten') were granted, but never implemented, for the speakers of Dutch who ended up in Wallonia. Consequently, as even schooling in their native language has been denied, their children are now gradually forced to become speakers of French. On the other hand, French-speaking minorities in Flanders have aggressively tried to institutionalize and even amplify 'facilities' that were intended originally to allow for a smooth integration into the local community.
    One may well ask how such a lopsided situation could have come about. Let me first state that I am not a Belgian. Born of a Dutch mother and a Franco-Austrian father, I grew up in the then Belgian Congo and I am fluent in all of my grandparents' languages. I studied medicine in Leuven and, later, in the (then independent) Congo-Kinshasa. When I went to Leuven this city still had a bilingual university and I opted for the Dutch courses. When I introduced myself at the hostel, I was told "Ici à Louvain les gens bien parlent français " (In this town, decent/respectable people speak French). Back to Kinshasa after four years, I continued my training in French. When I came late at a lecture on surgery, the teacher (a Walloon Belgian) called me 'sale cochon de flamand' (dirty Flemish hog). After I had complained to the rector, the surgeon added insult to injury: "I have been instructed to apologize. I didn't know you have a Dutch passport." I rarely go to Belgium these days, but, as one reads their papers, it would seem that much the same mentality prevails amongst its French-speaking minority today. Their attitude toward the speakers of German in the east of the country ('ces boches') is no different, and they likewise try to impose French on them whenever they settle in that area. Remarkably, such insolence and disdain are lacking in neighbouring France, to which the Walloons are linguistically and ethnically related.
    The undisguised contempt of these Walloons for their Dutch-speaking fellow-countrymen explains, in my humble opinion, much of the resentment displayed by the Flemish. Their disdain, and the unbalanced interpretation of 'facilities' certainly justifies the Flemish' reluctance to grant any more 'facilities' to speakers of French.

  55. michael farris said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    When I was in Brussels (about a week) I hardly ever heard Dutch on the street or anywhere (except at the Dutch speaking institution I was visiting and the commuter train station next to it). I was told that most Dutch speakers had moved out and those who work or study there mostly commute in and out every day.

    The languages I heard were:

    French, the language the city seenms to be run in now.

    Arabic (probably Moroccan) my hotel was in an immigrant neighborhood but it was in lots of places.

    English may have been a distant third, but even around EU institutions I didn't hear it much.

  56. Bill Walderman said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    Does "fameuze" mean "famous" or "infamous"?

  57. Joke (Moormann-)Close said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Your german word "Heimwee" does'nt exist. In german "Weh" means something like "Schmerz" "Wee" is a dutch version /translation.

  58. Mark P said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    @Coby Lubliner – I had never heard of the place name Namur except in relation to the tiny island of Roi-Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll. The island used to be two islands, Roi and Namur, but they were joined by filling the narrow and shallow opening between them. It was the site of some pretty fierce fighting during WW II and has the remains of many Japanese facilities. I don't know the history of the names.

  59. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    @Bill Walderman: 'fameuze' in the quote means "famous," but it has a slightly weakened meaning (in fact, it could be interpreted ironically, but it is probably not meant so). The point is that the neutral form 'beroemd' would sound far too enthusiastic for the even Dutch mind, whereas the weaker 'bekend' ("well-known") would have been possible but it was probably considered too flat.

  60. Frans said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 5:54 am

    @Peter-Arno:

    @Frans: Actually, the number of Belgian members of Onze Taal is surprisingly small.

    I would (anecdotally) say the interest of Belgians in what they call northern Dutch is surprisingly small as well. It stings a little to hear them say things like "when Dutch people say 'record' [as in sports] or 'garage' they think they can speak French." Then again, I spoke to a girl in Utrecht last year who was apparently oblivious of the location of Antwerp, which is conceivably far worse.

    @Guido:

    @Tim and Frans: It may be correct that the original poll was about German loan words in Dutch. However, that sparked off a lively thread on favourite German words in general, and those contributions are by no means limited to loan words. One poster pointed out that he or she prefers austriacisms – words specific to Standard German as spoken in Austria and Italy.

    Thanks for the info.

    @Bill, Peter-Arno: I'd probably translate "fameus" as "renowned."

  61. Bill Walderman said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    Thanks, Frans and Peter-Arno, for explicating "fameus" or "fameuze" (which is probably the form used with the definite article, like the "weak" forms of adjectives in German?). My question was a bit of a joke–if I'm not mistaken, the French word "fameux" has ironic connotations and is closer to English "notorious" than "famous." I don't know Dutch, but I find that between English and some German I can follow Alen's quotation by undoing the second sound shift.

  62. Frans said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    It's not about definite or indefinite article, and you'd have to go to Middle Dutch to truly find notions as weak and strong in that sense (although there are remnants if you know where to look). It's generally about attributive vs. predicative, although I might be overlooking something. "Language Log is een fameuze blog" would work just fine, whereas you'd use "fameus" in something like "Language Log is fameus." I think the latter would usually be followed by some explanation of why someone of something is fameus whereas the former would imply shared knowledge with the audience. Of course you could also interpret it ironically as "infamous," "notorious" or some such, but I think that'd have to come from context and not from some inherent, more prevalent, negative meaning.

    Btw, if the little knowledge I maintained about French in high school doesn't betray me, wouldn't fameux vin be famous wine whereas vin fameux would be notorious wine? (uh yes, sorry, wine and baguettes were the first thing to come to mind when thinking about the French — stereotypes galore)

  63. Martin van de Logt said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    The reason überhaupt is so popular – you hear it a lot – is that it's thought to mean 'onverhoopt' (possibly, in case), but it doesn't!
    My number 1 German word is Treppenwitz – the smart remark you should have made minutes ago.
    By the way, words like Weltschmerz or Einzalgänger should be spelled with a capital first letter. (not überhaupt and sowieso)
    The Dutch are now using words like optie (for option) and impact (for gevolg), or missie (for mission) in military jargon, which I hate. These are also incorrect translation like überhapt/onverhoopt. Use them and you sound smart, but you aren't really.

  64. Sili said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    Treppenwitz

    L'ésprit d'éscalier?

    "Famøs" in Danish means "notorious" as well.

    A personal favourite is "selbstverständlich", but that may be due to a fondness for Pinnochio's Ashes.

  65. Frans said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    The reason überhaupt is so popular – you hear it a lot – is that it's thought to mean 'onverhoopt' (possibly, in case), but it doesn't!

    Huh? O_o I've never heard that. Besides, I mean… compare "als ik onverhoopt niet kom" with "ik kom überhaupt niet" or something like that. Those words are practically the opposite in meaning in any sentence where they might be more or less exhangeable.

    By the way, words like Weltschmerz or Einzalgänger should be spelled with a capital first letter. (not überhaupt and sowieso)

    Then so should Fingerspitzengefühl, Aha-Erlebnis, Quatsch, and Heimweh. It's Dutch, not German. :)

    The Dutch are now using words like optie (for option) and impact (for gevolg), or missie (for mission) in military jargon, which I hate.

    Military jargon? Btw, isn't impact more like effect or invloed than gevolg? All I can say is that I use those words and I'm almost wholly ignorant of military jargon.

    L'ésprit d'éscalier?

    Yup.

  66. aelise said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 5:31 am

    To my experience it is a widespread misunderstanding that the Dutch speak any language fluently. But other than our neighbours we at least do an effort and try to talk with them in their own language. For some people this is speaking dutch with a german or english accent.
    Older people had to learn french, english and german in school; this did not mean that they could speak these languages. These days only one foreign language is obligatory. But our youngsters learn english through television and popmusic. They can very well imitated the accents of their favorite stars through karaoke and playback. Via cable we receive many channels from Europe and some of the U.S. More over we are so lucky that dutch television does not dub foreign films and television productions (once you have seen a Woody Allen movie in german……. you know what I mean), so our children are exposed to foreign languages from very early on. A foreign language is not "strange" to them. Many dutch songwriters write english texts, our advertising media use english, our daily life is imbibed with foreign
    influences.

  67. Fred said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:03 am

    My favorite German word in English is "Spatzi" (i.e. Spatz). None of the natives (I'm not native to the area) realize that it's a German word. They're convinced it's English. (I live near St. Louis)

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