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Column: ‘I am having my first period’31 January 2010 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
People from the UK have one big advantage: they speak rather good English, although we can make an exception for people from remote Yorkshire valleys. English, the language, is the most important product exported from the UK.
Looking at it from a different angle, if only they spoke English in Germany, it would be the leading industrial nation. At present the United States fulfils this role, so actually you could argue that Americans are really just Germans who speak English.
Once The Netherlands ruled the seas, so it nearly might have been Dutch that was spoken everywhere. However the influence of The Netherlands diminished from that point onwards. However nowadays Dutch isn’t one of the smaller languages, in fact it is about the 37th most spoken language in the world, out of a total of around 6000 languages.
Putting this differently we’re located just behind Tai and ahead of Uzbek, which is good to know, though it doesn't help with the communication problems that begin on the ferry to England.
Once I found myself on the Hook of Holland to Harwich ferry and I couldn’t help overhearing two neatly dressed Dutch ladies ordering a cup of coffee. They solemnly expressed their order in Dutch to the English speaking waitress: ‘Twee kopjes koffie, alstublieft’ (‘Two coffees, please’).
The poor girl had probably just started the job and didn’t know what to make of it. The two ladies, in the spirit of the Dutch ruling the seas, persevered with Dutch but were now speaking much more slowly and with excellent pronunciation: ‘Twee... kopjes... koffie..., alstublieft!’ Unfortunately this didn’t provoke any reaction from the waitress.
Whereas, if two English ladies on a ferry to a Greek island had ordered ‘Two coffees, please’, they would have been served immediately.
It used to be the case that as long as you were British, you could make your break in any American film by playing the villain. This has changed. These days when hearing a British accent, Americans think it sounds very charming.
So when you’re British you can get away with quite a lot; this was very cleverly demonstrated by Ricky Gervais during the Golden Globes award ceremony.
We will never find out if Germany harbours the equivalent of a Ricky Gervais because the German Ricky Gervais cannot cross the (language) border.
So yes, there is a special relationship between the US and the UK, but it mainly rests on the shared language. However it is taking this too far when one addresses Tony Blair as Tony Bush, which one hapless reporter managed to do twice this week.
When English is your mother tongue, you have a head start in life, there is no doubt about it. People in all areas of society are favoured by this simple fact: politicians, diplomats, scientists, the military, writers, pop musicians, the list goes on.
If you were to translate an English pop song into Dutch, its meaning would all but disappear. It sounds much better in English anyway and it is understood just about anywhere in the world.
Non-English speaking countries bravely attempt to speak the English language, a very good example are ABBA’s lyrics. I have read somewhere that these lyrics have been translated in Hindi, this must have resulted in a feast for linguists.
The French have gone through a very difficult time. They love their language and so couldn’t understand why one would need English until they realized that no one could read their scientific papers. At that point they had to admit defeat.
The fact remains that when English is your second language, you have a handicap. Certainly when writing literature, the rule for Dutchmen is: write it in Dutch and engage a good translator, never try to write the English text yourself. I think there is a pearl of wisdom for politicians in this statement.
A female Dutch junior minister once proclaimed: ‘I am having my first period.’ She had just wanted to make it known that this was her first term as junior minister, she had not meant to announce that she was having her first menstruation.
The great thing about the English is that they take this in their stride and just reply: ‘Interesting.’ Unfortunately, these incidents do not advance the Dutch politicians on the international scene.
We are now getting worried about the growing influence of China because Chinese is more widely spoken than English. I’m not worried; English is the world’s language and this has been given its seal of approval by the rising use of the internet.
Learning English is a big thing for the Chinese, but I think the number of English speakers learning Chinese is not growing anywhere near as rapidly.
When English is your mother tongue, the world is your oyster, while the rest of us just muddle along. Luckily this particular piece has been translated.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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