Friday, 17 October 2014

Damon's Dutch Diary 2

Returning to Dutch class was fun but challenging this week. After a brief recap of previous topics covered, we dived straight in. Things this week slipped rapidly into full gear. We have a lot of vocabulary to learn, and I can see that it might prove difficult unless one applies oneself diligently.

Culturally we discussed the Dutch Royal family, and looked at Amsterdam's liberal outlook on certain issues that are illegal in numerous other countries. A very interesting debate. One thing mentioned in passing is that if you're caught pissing into a canal, you can be fined approximately €200. Of course I had no plans to do this, but definitely now have no plans to do this in Amsterdam.

Where things really got interesting was the approach to verbs. I'm making comprehensive notes here to help myself, breaking it down to understand it better, then making notes as I build the form of the verb. If anyone else finds them useful, all the better.

One of the most daunting things about verbs is that they might seem so different. Lots of endings, what do they all mean! ARGH!!! However, there's really nothing to worry about. There is a fair bit to learn in one night, but the thing is, Dutch is one of the closest linguistic relatives to English, and so a lot of rules we find in English for grammar are just the same or similar in Dutch.

Before we go further, this below all applies to what are known as regular, or weak verbs. Rules for apply generally with weak verbs, they're not irregular or strong verbs. Strong verbs have got the strength to stand up and say “NO! I'm not falling into line and following the rules”, but we'll come onto them another day. Weak verbs are regular, they're not strong enough to try and break the rules.


We need to firstly get out heads round how we deal with verbs in the present tense.

Let's look first at an English verb in the present tense:

I work
thou workest
he/she/it works

we work
you work
they work

You're probably wondering why I'm inclduing THOU. Thou is not used in Modern English, but I'm including it here as a reminder that there was once more than one form of YOU in English.

Now let's look at it in Dutch:

ik werk – I work
jij werkt – you work (informal)
u werkt – you work (formal)
hij/zij/het werkt – he/she/it works

wij werken – we work
jullie werken – you work(informal plural)
zij werken – they work

Okay, to recap, we have the first person, I, or we. Looking out into the world, don't we always put ourselves first? Yes, we do, at least grammatically. If you don't put yourself first, you're probably Mother Theresa or the Pope or something.

The second person: you. You're probably wondering, why does the Dutch have three words for you? Well, English used to have three words too, back in the days of Old English (Anglo-Saxon, before 1066 AD), but English became less precise, reducing down to "Thou" and "You" in Shakespeare's time, and now down to just "You". English is simply less precise when it comes to you, unless you're from Texas, y'all.

With the third person, he, she, it, or they. Take particular note of the ending here. English went with a s in the singular, Dutch went with a T, but you can link the two in your head if you think of the King James Bible "He speaketh the word of the Lord". For our purposes, TH is a sound sort of between the S on the end of works and the T on the end of werkt for example. Just nod your head and say yes/ja, please.

Hang on, let's just go back through that list: what's going on here? There's two lots of zij here:

Zij werkt – she works
Zij werken – they work

Well, zij (she) and zij (they) in this instance are homonyms, words that sound the same. After all, we have homonyms in English, because HEAR and HERE sound the same.

Okay, so that clarifies making the weak/regular verb in the present tense.


Let's move on to the past participle. The past participle is, in English, when we use the perfect tense, so named because it's perfect for driving you mad when you have studied so much! The past participle is the bit that usually takes the -ed in such a sentence. In English, the past participle occurs in constructions such as "I have worked", "I've worked", "she has worked", and with other verbs like "We have wanted". Simple, so far. It's the bit that goes at the end with “-ed” such as "I have X-ed" in English.

So what's all this about with the GE at the beginning, then? In English, if you say it quietly enough, you might drop the have. "I worked it through the grapevine". worked in this instance is the past tense. There we go again, English being problematic and being ambiguous! "worked" can either grammatically be past participle form "I have worked" or past tense "I worked".

Dutch however, likes to be more precise, and rightfully so. British English unfortunately revels in ambiguity, compared with Dutch. We'll come back to the past tense shortly, so let's focus on the past participle. Whereas English is ambiguous, and we can't tell the difference if presented with the word "worked" on its own if it grammatically means "I have worked" (past participle) or "I worked" (past tense), Dutch is helpful, and has a clear marker on regular verbs for the past participle: it sticks a ge- in front. Nice pretty marker to tell you it's come after a have. Now the verb to have is irregular in Dutch, so we won't go into it yet, but you know what the past participle is.

So, how does this relate to English? Well, the fact is, if you go back a thousand years, English verbs often has ge- at the beginning of past participles too! The only difference is, in Old English, the g was often sounded like a y, so softened and died out, and as I understand it, it survived in only a few English dialects such as in the following example:

"I've a-heard you're still rustling cattle," said the Sheriff to Texas Pete.

That "a-heard" is possibly the remnant of the ge- past participle marker we once had in Anglo-Saxon.


Now we move on to making the past participle in Dutch.

We begin by taking the verb in the infinitive (the dictionary form, the "to work" form in this instance) to begin with: werken.

Then we strip it back to the stam (to use the Dutch word), or the root (as it's known in English). We drop off the -en. We now have werk-.

Now we pop on the ge- at the beginning, and need to look for the ending, to finish it off. In English, it finishes with -ED, but n Dutch, it can take either T or D on the end of the past participle.

Building up so far, we have gewerk-, but we still don't have the ending!

Let's look at the last letter of the stem/root. It's an S in this case. We check it against the mnemonic 'T KOFSCHIP - there's an K there in the magic phrase, so JA, we take the T, producing the past participle gewerkt. If it didn't have one of those letters, it would end in -D.


So, we've got the gewerkd past participle. In order to make the past tense, namely “I worked”, let's drop the GE from the beginning. In the singular, we add an E to the end: ik werkde, and in the plural, we add EN. I worked.

And that's it! Simples really. There are sometimes sound changes which can change the root a little, but perhaps that's for another post on this site, as I'm still trying to get my head around it myself. Ik woon comes from wonen (I live, to live), for example.

Join us next week on this site, when I explore deeper into the world of the language and culture of the Netherlands!