Are English words in the Dutch language a no-go?


With a deadly serious face, I heard my colleague, a programmer at heart, say: “That new user failed to edit that page during our meeting. That was really awkward.”

I suddenly got a cramp in my Eustachian tube. Is it because I have the hypersensitive nature of a copywriter? Or is there something inherently repulsive about this disfigured mixture of Dutch with superfluous English terms for which there are perfect alternatives? Today let’s talk about the ways website builders and marketers needlessly mix English into our language. And while we’re at it, we can also immediately discuss whether my ear cramps are justified or whether I should just not whine.

The words my colleagues mistreat my ears with

Believe me, it is not easy being a language lover surrounded by language butchers. Let me give you some examples of words that reach my ears in our office. Because I am a smart ass, I will also immediately show the Dutch alternatives:

This kind of antics are unfortunately not unique to the website and marketing industry. In the wider world, too, semi-idiotic English words are lavishly sprinkled:

You can see what terrifying results these kinds of words can lead to on the Facebook page Unnecessary English language use. What you notice very well in their examples is that companies regularly make fun of themselves by using unnecessary English. Why do you, as a Dutch-speaking customer of ABN Amro, need to receive a letter from their ‘Grid Owner Mortgages’? As a customer, how am I supposed to know what the hell a ‘grid owner’ can do for me?

I would also like to nuance my aversion by confirming that of course I do know that there are also many English loanwords that we all find very normal. Within my own work environment I use loanwords galore:

to download online leads
blog website crowdfunding
marketing storytelling e-learning
e-mail copywriting webdesign

The fact that these words are seen as normal by almost everyone (including me) confirms that there must be certain factors that determine whether we as a language community want to embrace a loanword. Time to see which factors those are!

When is it okay to use an English word?

Well, when is it okay? Apparently, borrowing English words isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even the word “okay” has been borrowed, but no one is uncomfortable hearing that word—not even me as a writer.

Taalunie, a knowledge and policy organization for the Dutch language, devoted the article ‘Why those English words in Dutch?‘ to the issue. Taalunie explains that it mainly depends on the following two factors whether a loanword also sticks in the long term:

  1. There is no Dutch word for it yet. From computer is a good example, but in the past, the mulled wine, the bureau, from piano and the macho came and stayed because they filled a gap in our language.
  2. It shows a different nuance than an existing Dutch word. perspire is just a little more distant than to sweat, café has a different character than pub of bar, An salesmanager has more prestige than a sales manager.

Words like garage (French), anyway (German), aquarium (Latin) and sugar (Arabic) roll out of my mouth effortlessly. That’s because they crept into Dutch before I was born to fill a linguistic gap and I grew up with it.

Perhaps, as an interim conclusion, it is safe to say that there is not so much a moral objection to the use of English words as it is a matter of habituation. Maybe I’ll find awkward in fifteen years not at all awkward anymore?

Not a moral objection, but a practical objection

Well, if there is nothing morally to be said against using English words in Dutch, then surely there must be practical objections? Conjugating an originally English verb is difficult to name.

There are a lot English loan verbs which are officially recognized as Dutch words, but which nevertheless feel a bit… weird. The blog article cites a few interesting examples:

  • The hour: I time – he times – he timed – timed
  • Backloaden: I backload – he backloads – he backloaded – backloaded
  • Breakdancen: I break dance – he break dance – he break dance – break dance
  • Courage: I mute – he mutes – he mutes – muted
  • Socializen: I socialize – he socializes – he socialized – socialized

The above verbs may be officially Dutch, but I’m sure everyone can see that there is something forced about it. Even people who are not language snoops have to acknowledge this.

These verbs represent one of the reasons why I’m hesitant to blindly accept English verbs in Dutch: you sometimes get conjugations that give you a headache. Foreign words are simply not made to be conjugated in Dutch, so you have to wriggle in strange turns to make it possible.

Moreover, this forced character is not limited to verbs. There are also many nouns that are not particularly tasty: human resource management, employee journey, kiss & ride, executive, cereal, teenager, advertising…

And what’s with that silly trend of suddenly calling peanut butter “peanut butter”? (Hipsters, I am addressing this message to you.)

The trick: don’t force either Dutch or English

My intuition and reason tell me that it is completely okay to introduce foreign words in Dutch, as long as that word does not sound forced:

  • It should not conflict with the pronunciation (this is why I prefer to say ‘human resources’ than the tongue-twisting ‘human resource management’).
  • It must be compatible with the Dutch language rules in a natural way.
  • There doesn’t have to be a perfect Dutch word for it.

This approach will have two major advantages for us, the users of the language:

  1. We keep the Dutch language flexible enough to integrate new, foreign-language concepts that will enrich our communication.
  2. We guarantee that even in twenty years’ time the Dutch language can still be pronounced and understood without crashing your tongue or brain. (Yes, crashing. I understand the irony.)

The users of a language determine whether a loanword may remain

If we’re honest, it doesn’t really matter what I think. Nor does it matter what other linguists say. The Taalunie puts it perfectly in their aforementioned article:

Either we find such an English newcomer quite normal after a while, or it disappears from our language. It is not the Taalunie that decides that, nor does it depend on the dictionary editors. They only collect and register the words that are in use. Whether a word remains, the users decide.

Perhaps we should also look more often at how other languages ​​deal with concepts and objects for which there is no word yet. Take African for example. Radio presenter Mischa Blok recently explained on her Twitter what a touchscreen is in that language: a caress panel. Beautiful right?

What do you think about English loanwords in Dutch?

I would like to hear what your opinion is. I am not only curious about the insights of fellow copywriters, but also those of website builders, butchers, bagpipers and bus drivers.

Tell me you think I’m a poser. Tell me you totally agree with me. Whatever you think: I am curious about your view on the use of English terms in the Dutch language.

Do you know of any funny or cringe-inducing examples that you hear people in your area say? Share your experiences below!


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