“Hey, what are you making, and can I make it with you?”
My Danish friend and I, back then, not particularly known for our high levels of seriousness, would greet each other often with these seemingly bizarre questions.
We were not interested in what the other was physically constructing; it was our way of saying “hello, how do you do?” Keen to get our daily dose of giggles, we often turned to a bit of Steenkolen Engels to get us through the day.
(Not quite) a history of the Dutch language
Geographically speaking, the Netherlands is a funny old place where about a third of the country is located below sea level; technically, it should not exist. Thanks to savvy water management and 50-odd dyke rings, the country is home to a multicultural society where Dutch is the official language. It is also spoken in places as far-flung as Canada, South Africa, and some South American countries.
In terms of contact with foreign languages like English, most Dutch people learn them in primary and secondary school. Coupled with the ubiquity of American and British television shows that are subtitled in Dutch, this means that quite a number of natives have a solid command of English as a second language.
Steenkolen Engels (SE), or Coal English, can be considered as a kind of interlanguage—that is, a version of English typically produced by a native Dutch speaker. The term comes from the basic form of English used by Dutch port workers in the early 1900s to communicate with English-speaking employees from British coal ships. SE is mainly comprised of the mistakes that native Dutch speakers make when speaking English, and as such can shed light on the Dutch worldview in particular, and the English language one in general. For example, the social structures of British and Dutch societies differ in that the former tends to be more hierarchical and formal than the latter.
Learning the Dutch language can be somewhat tricky for English speakers, what with all the palaver about ’t kofschip for example—it’s a mnemonic for inflecting Dutch verbs for tense: if a verb ends in any of the consonants in the term “t kofschip”, then the past tense form of the verb should end with “-te”; for any other verb ending, the past tense form ends with “-de”. Before I did an Internet search on the topic, I assumed ’t kofschip had something to do with the plural forms of verbs. Thank God for technological advancement.
Coal English is a bit more accessible, and lots of fun. The main aim of this article is to show how some basic SE sentences are constructed, with the intention of helping readers come up with some of their own.
How it works
False friends and mercurial word order appear to be the bedrock of the formation of SE.
On the Indo-European family tree, both Dutch and English fall under the West Germanic branch of languages. This means in terms of sentence structure, word order and vocabulary there are quite a few similarities. However, particularly with vocabulary, there is the danger of false friends and cognates. Cognates are words like ‘milk’ and ‘melk’ that have the same linguistic parent; while, false friends are words that sound the same in two languages, but have different meanings.
For example, hoor means ‘hear’ in Dutch, and is used often for emphatic effect or as a minimal response—the same way one would say ‘mmm-hmm’ in English to show one is listening attentively. However, to English ears it sounds very much like the word used to describe ‘a lady of the evening’. If you spend enough time casually listening to the Dutch conversations of native speakers, you will hear hoor a lot.
For example, Dat kan je niet maken, hoor! – You can’t do that!
The word may sound offensive, but in use it works like an intensifier—emphasising the speaker’s point. In this case, the speaker wants it to be clear that you really cannot do that.
Mistakes are also made in terms of sentence structure. English follows a word order of subject-verb-object as in: Audrey goes to the market. While this is the same in Dutch, there are often instances where verbs are placed at the end of a sentence.
For example, Audrey gaat daar werken (literally, ‘Audrey goes there working’).
This information, coupled with missteps native Dutch speakers make when it comes to translating compound words into English, was enough fodder for the Dane and I to get to work on our very own glossary of adapted SE terms.
The first entry celebrates its sixth birthday this year and still cracks me up to no end: “Nailpants”.
Nailpants and Sledhaks
To make a basic SE word, all you need to do is take individual Dutch words and translate them as literally as possible into English.
For example, spijkerbroek is a compound word in Dutch meaning ‘jeans’. It is made up of “spijker” (which means, ‘nail’) and “broek” (which means, ‘trousers/pants’). So, the SE version of jeans would be the delightful “nailpants”.
Sample sentence – ‘Are you too tight inside your nailpants?’
This question expresses genuine concern on the speaker’s part, wondering if your jeans are perhaps too tight.
Many SE words can be made from just looking around your environment—food, clothes, interior decoration; nothing is exempt from being transformed into an SE term. For example, the Dutch word for ‘ashtray’ is asbak, which is made up of “as” (which means, ‘ash’) and “bak” (which means, ‘tray’). We have a false friend lurking here vis-à-vis the morpheme “bak” in asbak—it sounds like the English ‘back’ but has a different meaning. In Dutch, “bak” when fronted with “as” means ‘tray’. For the sake of auditory harmony, the SE version becomes ‘ashback’.
Sample sentence – ‘Please use the ashback when smoking outside.’
Compounds make up about two thirds of our glossary, so in order to avoid replicating the whole thing, here’s a sample conversation with some lovely SE terms.
Me: ‘Hey, what are you making?’
The Dane: ‘Not much. I have pain.’
Me: ‘What is the earcase of your problem?’
TD: ‘Well, my new nailhaks are hurting my feet’
Me: ‘Change to sledhaks; so much more comfortable, hoor.’
The “I have pain” construction comes from an expressional error; “Ik heb pijn” is acceptable in Dutch, and ought to be translated as ‘I’m in pain’ or something to that effect in English. Bearing in mind that SE terms are based on literal translations, by responding with ‘I have pain’ the Dane showcases an exemplary mastery of the interlanguage.
“Earcase” comes from oorzaak, a compound made up of Dutch “oor” (which means, ‘ear’) and “zaak” (which means, ‘case’), which means ‘cause’ in English. Similarly, “nailhaks” comes from spijkerhakken, a compound of “spijker” (which means, ‘nail’) and “hakken” (which means, ‘heels’); this means ‘high heels/stilettos’ in English. Alternatively, ‘high heels’ could also be expressed as “needleheels” from the SE term “naaldhakken”, which is a compound of Dutch “naald” (which means, ‘needle’) and “hakken”.
Sledhaks, which means ‘wedge shoes’, is a favourite because “slee” (which means, ‘sled’) fits the form of the shoes as nicely as the English word ‘wedges’ does. The Dutch word sleehakken is composed of “slee” and “hakken” which we now know means heels. Both a ‘wedge’ and a ‘sled’ are very vivid words that describe what I feel to be the most comfortable and flattering shoes made for womankind.
And of course the conversation ends with the ubiquitous hoor (cue childish snigger).
A few more standout glossary entries are:
Learn it out of the head
Leer het uit je hoofd is the Dutch way of saying ‘memorise it’. So the SE version is a literal translation of each word, and maintains the Dutch word order to amusing result.
Take a deep bread
This is perfectly fine grammatically, it only suffers from a slight pronunciation problem with the last word. You might have guessed that ‘bread’ should be replaced with the English ‘breath’. If you did, well done! If you didn’t, don’t worry about it.
Listen keenly and you will find that native Dutch speakers have difficulty pronouncing /th/ sounds, like in the words ‘though’ ‘Thursday’ and ‘breadth’. This is because the dental fricative sound /th/ does not exist in Dutch, so /d/ is used instead leading to mispronunciations like ‘dough’ for ‘though’, ‘breed’ for ‘breathe’, and in this case ‘bread’ for ‘breath’.
I did it with express
Ik deed het expres is how a Dutch speaker would let you know they’ve done something intentionally, on purpose. We have a false friend here in the last word—expres. Directly translated into the English language, “I did it express” could mean ‘I did it quickly’ or ‘I did it on purpose’.
Proverbs and other real life examples
The listed glossary items may sound completely fictional, which is why below there are some actual Dutch sentences that anyone can use to create SE terms of their own.
Proverbs are a great resource for making your own sentences. For example:
Dutch – Hij is niet op zijn achterhoofd gevallen.
SE – He didn’t fall on the back of his head.
English – He is not stupid.
Dutch – Het is koek en ei tussen die twee.
SE – It’s biscuit and egg between those two.
English – Those two are getting along well.
Novels in any language have been a continuing source of joy and relaxation for me, and Dutch translations are an abundant source of Dutch-in-use. Some examples from ‘De Eetclub’ and ‘Terug naar de kust’ (both by Saskia Noort):
Dutch – Hoe hou je het allemaal vol, Babette?
SE – How do you keep it all full, Babette?
English – How do you manage to hold it all together, Babette?
Dutch – Merel zei niks, ze zat nog steeds te mokken…
SE – Merel said nothing, she sat still mugging…
English – Merel said nothing, she was still sulking…
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and are inspired to learn a little Dutch so you can start making sentences of your own in Steenkolen Engels. “Make that the cat wise” is a nifty app for aspiring speakers of SE to generate some phrases of their own, and the website learndutch.org has a respectable catalogue of proverbs to further tickle your funny bones.