This is not my mother tongue

Before I start this post I would like to warn any Jane Austen lovers to not bother with the slice of boredom that is Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James. Personally I feel the urge to wash it from my mind by reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies next.

Anyway, onwards to today’s post, which I promised would be on the experience of writing a book in a foreign language. So, to clarify this to anyone who didn’t already know this: I am Dutch. I was born in the Netherlands, lived there until I was 25 and until age 10 I spoke no other language. However, since very few non-Dutchmen speak our language, it is pretty much standard to learn foreign languages in school. Back when I was a child this meant that from age 12 you would be educated in English, French and German as standard, and only after you started ‘specialising’ your education could you drop any of these languages. It’s more complicated than that, but I’m not here to explain the Dutch education system, nor do I have any idea whether it is still the same as when I was a child. Suffice to say that I attended one of the few primary schools that started educating children in English, which is why I started at 10 rather than 12, and that until age 16 I received regular education in three foreign languages.

For most people that would be it, really. You received a few years of formal education in those languages, which would give you enough to get by when going on holiday, and anything else you might pick up from television. I would personally say that television is the main reason why the Dutch have a reputation for speaking English so well, since all foreign programmes are subtitled, and exposure is therefore a given, even if you choose not to pay attention to the spoken word. My mother speaks English pretty well, but has never had any formal education in it – she has learnt everything she knows from watching TV.

For me personally, languages are a thing of beauty, endlessly fascinating and never boring. Some are more interesting than others (I don’t speak an awful lot of French, nor does that bother me much), but on the whole I love finding out things about languages and how they are connected. I also have a knack for them. I won’t say that learning a language is easy, but it has always been easier for me than for many other people, and I have the fortunate talent that my pronunciation is generally close to native-sounding. I could talk for hours on the subject of languages, and have probably bored people to tears with it when I got going.

In addition to this general love of languages, I very quickly also developed a love for all things British. (As an aside, twenty years ago I would have said all things English, but thirteen years of living in Britain will quite thoroughly cure you of saying English when you mean British.) I’m not certain what sparked it – possibly watching the TV-series Robin of Sherwood, which introduced me to both the legend of Robin Hood as well as the most handsome man I have ever seen. (Michael Praed. He’s gone grey quite early, unfortunately, but as Robin Hood he was – and still is – pretty much my ideal man in looks.)

It may seem shallow that a handsome man caused me to love an entire country, but it is a fairly well-known fact among my friends that I’m a sucker for a pretty face, and that handsome men can convince me to do many things that I wouldn’t normally do. I should add that the TV-series Blackadder also contributed in a large part, mainly because of its copious use of sarcasm. I am also a sucker for sarcasm, and the Brits are very, very good at it.

So, my love for all things British started in my teenage years, and ensured that in school I did my absolute best in English class. My teacher was a lovely man who also adored Britain and would happily regale us with tales of his holidays over there, and he added further fuel to my growing adulation of the country and its language. When I finished secondary school, all my classmates expected me to study English at university.

What I did instead was study Slavonic languages. Russian mainly, but my second language was Czech.

This may tell you a third thing about me, which is that I’m very contrary. Everyone was expecting me to study English, which is one reason why I didn’t. The other reason was that by that point I had already had eight years of education in English, as well as a lot of exposure to English-spoken TV and film, so I already spoke the language pretty well. Not fluently, but better than most people my age, and well enough that I drew admiration from native English speakers whenever I spoke with them. Still, at that age most people would be expected to speak a fair bit of English, and as such the university curriculum was likely to concentrate more on literature than on linguistics, and my interest in languages has always been purely linguistical. I love to read, but I have never cared much for ‘literature’, so the prospect of four years of labouring over such marvels as Wuthering Heights or Animal Farm or The Canterbury Tales didn’t appeal to me at all. I may have been completely wrong in my assumptions of course, but there you have it – I went and studied Russian instead, since this was a new and exciting language I didn’t yet know.

It was a mistake, but unless anyone is really interested I won’t go into the reasons why. Suffice to say that during my university years my love for Britain continued to grow, and via a very convoluted route I got to know a lovely Englishman. Fate would have it that he hailed from Nottingham, which was of course home to Robin Hood, thereby neatly closing the circle. We fell in love, and after two years of maintaining a long-distance relationship via the Internet, I finally graduated from university and promptly moved to England to go and live with him. That was in the summer of 1999.

I got myself a job in February 2000, and it was in customer services. Up until then I thought my English was pretty good, but having to deal with enquiries and complaints on the phone all day made me realise that I had a long way to go still, especially if I got a native Glaswegian on the phone. It was a very steep learning curve, but it did wonders for my knowledge of English, and especially the colloquialisms in everyday language that you simply do not get exposed to unless you live and work among native speakers. Add that to my inherent ability and desire to soak up anything language-related, and I can confidently say that my English is as fluent as my Dutch. In a way it may even be better than my Dutch, since I speak English all day, and speak Dutch only when talking to my family. My colleagues also often say that I speak better English than they do, and they are only half joking. I certainly can spell better than many of them. This may sound arrogant, but it is mainly pride – a pride which many other foreigners who speak English have confessed to. Like them, I dread misspelling words (even if it is just a simple typo), because people may think that I don’t know the correct way of spelling it, and that’s not a thought I could live with.

I’m not saying I never misspell words, but if I do I will at least misspell them consistently. For a long time I misspelled ecstasy as ecstacy, for instance. That I never noticed this is due to the fact that in general I refuse to use spellcheckers. A spellchecker does not know the difference between whether and weather, between past and passed, or between their and there, and until it does it’s pretty useless in my eyes. Still, I realised that it is impossible to write a book of more than 100,000 words and not miss any typos, so I grudgingly switched on the spellchecker and realised my error (and a few others which put a bit of a dent in my confidence of always knowing the correct spelling, or knowing when to check the dictionary). Still, I could confidently claim to know the spelling of supersede (from Latin super sedere – to sit above), even if three of my colleagues thought it was spelled supercede. But I digress.

I’m not entirely sure where I was going with all this, but I guess I’m trying to say that I am confident enough in my ability to speak and write English to be able to write an entire book in it, rather than in the language I have spoken from birth. That said, I do realise that there are parts of me which will always remain foreign, and will always treat English as a foreign language. Swearing is one aspect of that. In Britain, the f-word and the c-word are considered pretty harsh. Usage of the f-word tends to vary in frequency, depending on who you speak to (I know at least one person for whom it probably is every third or fourth word in anything she says), but the c-word is still pretty taboo, and some people are visibly upset when you use it. I, on the other hand, don’t particularly care, because it’s all foreign to me. In fact, the f-word especially I quite like. It’s versatile, and it has a good ring to it. I do understand people’s reactions though, because I react exactly the same to certain Dutch swearwords. But then, the Dutch tend to use diseases for swearing, which I find much more offensive than using genitalia, like the Brits do.

In addition to that there are certain constructions that I might not be familiar with. Recently I used ‘the crown on the creation’ in a draft, until my husband pointed out that in English it is ‘the crown of the creation’. Since this isn’t an expression often used in everyday conversation, I never knew this. My editor has on several occasions pointed out things to me which were simply wrong, and which were Dutchisms that had crept into my work. However, such things are rare (and on occasion they turned out to be Britishisms instead, which as an American she was unfamiliar with), and that is exactly why editors and beta-readers are so important to a writer.

So, with that established, the choice of whether to write in English or in Dutch was never really an issue. I speak English all day, which made it the logical language to write in. Added to that is the fact that there are many more speakers of English than of Dutch, so the reader audience is far more extensive. English also has an astonishing vocabulary, far greater than Dutch as far as I know. Or maybe both languages have the same inherent number of words, but English uses a much greater range far more frequently than Dutch does.

Let me try and illustrate. I have just opened my thesaurus at a random point, and came across the word reinforceSynonyms given include fortify and strengthen. That’s three words which mean more or less the same thing, and which can easily be used in a fairly everyday situation without anyone looking at you as if you’ve gone all Shakespeare on them. In Dutch, all three words are translated as one word: versterken. Dutch has no such word as fortificeren to use as an alternative.

Let’s take another example: slender. Synonyms in my (mini) thesaurus are slim, willowy, lean, thin, skinny, lissom and svelte. Now, let’s look at all those words. Personally, as a true synonym I would only consider slim, thin, skinny and possibly lean. Willowy and lissom to me add a note of gracefulness which isn’t necessarily inherent in slender, and svelte adds a further note of sophistication. (As an aside, svelte is an absolutely brilliant word, and I must find a way of somehow including it in one of my books. But I digress again.) Still, that’s eight words, six of which can easily be used in everyday conversation, depending on what kind of slender you want to talk about. Lissom and svelte are a little more highbrow, but most of my friends will have heard of these words and know what they mean, even if it is only approximately. In Dutch, I can think of only three words: slank (slender), mager (skinny) and dun (thin). Oh, and tenger, which adds a note of fragility. I’d say it probably means petite more than slender, even if slenderness is inherent when you are petite.

I could continue like this forever, but the point I’m trying to make is that English has a far wider range of words at its disposal, which a writer can use without sounding like they’re trying too hard. Dutch simply isn’t that versatile. Dutch is a great language for swearing in (as my cats could testify to, if they could speak), and there are certain things which are easier to say in Dutch than in English, but on the whole I find English much richer and more rewarding to work with.

Which brings me to the issue which always baffles my husband: I do not think that I could write the things I write in Dutch. Don’t get me wrong, Dutch is a wonderful language (though I am of course incapable of looking at it objectively), but it is not a language for writing Romance in, and certainly not a language for writing about sex. This is entirely my own personal opinion, but sex simply isn’t… well, sexy, in Dutch. If my book ever gets to the point of being a bestseller and it’s going to be translated into other languages, I wouldn’t touch the Dutch version with a barge pole, and I would let the translator get on with it quite happily. No, I really don’t need to get involved, thank you very much. (Plus, just because I speak two languages fluently doesn’t make me a qualified translator.)

To summarise, it may seem strange that I write in what is essentially a foreign language to me, but it hasn’t felt like a foreign language for a very long time now, so it’s just not an issue for me.

Next week I think I shall write a post about points of view in writing, and what made me choose the one I have used in The Ritual.

2 thoughts on “This is not my mother tongue

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    On Dutch not being a sexy language… Heh. At work we got a box of romance-novel donations and a couple of them I believe had Dutch protagonists…or somewhere in that area. Sorry, I can’t recall precisely. But anyway, just the names had us going ‘ohh that’s so not sexy’. We felt bad about it at the time, but if even a native speaker thinks it’s bad…

    1. theftandsorcery Post author

      Heh, you have me curious now as to what the names were! I was more talking about the language used to describe ‘the deed’, but yes, there are some very un-sexy Dutch names around for sure…


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