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Dunglish (portmanteau of Dutch and English; in Dutch steenkolenengels, literally: "coal-English") is a popular term for mistakes native Dutch speakers make when trying to speak English.[1] The term's usage is loosely connected to that of other English language corruptions, such as Engrish.

English instruction in the Netherlands begins in elementary school or secondary school, and Dutch-speaking Belgians are usually taught English from the age of twelve. In addition, like all foreign-language films, English-spoken movies are subtitled rather than being dubbed in the Netherlands and in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

The Dutch word for the poorest form of Dunglish, steenkolenengels ("Coal English"), goes back to the early 20th century when Dutch port workers used a rudimentary form of English to communicate with the personnel of English coal ships.[1]

Errors occur mainly in pronunciation, word order, and the meaning of words, so-called false friends and false cognates. Former Dutch ambassador and prime minister Dries van Agt supposedly once said "I can stand my little man" (translation of ik kan mijn mannetje staan, a Dutch idiom meaning roughly "I can stand up for myself"). The former leader of the Dutch Liberal Party, Frits Bolkestein, repeatedly referred to economic prospects as "golden showers", unaware of the term's sexual connotation.[2]

Incorrect meaning of words[edit]

Errors often occur because of the false friend or false cognate possibility: words are incorrectly translated for understandable reasons. Examples are:

  • Former prime minister Joop den Uyl once remarked that "the Dutch are a nation of undertakers". The Dutch verb ondernemen is literally the English undertake (as onder is under, and nemen is take). The noun ondernemer is thus literally undertaker; however the idiomatic English usage is instead the French loanword entrepreneur.[2] (Dutch uses the more specific begrafenisondernemer for a funeral director.)
  • Former prime minister Pieter Sjoerds Gerbrandy had a meeting with Winston Churchill in London. Gerbrandy entered the room and shook Churchill's hand, saying: "Good-day!" Churchill responded: "This is the shortest meeting I have ever had". Gerbrandy had looked up the English translation of goedendag, which in Dutch is often used as a formal greeting, yet "good day" is most often used as valediction in Britain (as opposed to "good morning" or "good afternoon").
  • The Dutch word "actueel" means "current" (whereas "actual" in English means "genuine"). A Dutch person unfamiliar with the English word might therefore be confused if he or she were asked about the "actual time" an appointment was supposed to start.
  • The Dutch verb solliciteren means to apply for a job, which can lead to an embarrassing situation if someone claims that they have come to solicit.
  • The word eventueel in Dutch means potentially (like éventuel in French, eventuell in German, eventual in Spanish, eventuale in Italian, eventual in Portuguese, eventuell in Swedish) and not eventually, which is uiteindelijk in Dutch. This mistake caused a row between the Scottish and Belgian football associations when the Belgian football association invited delegates from various associations over for the "eventual qualification of the Belgian national football team" before the play-offs against Scotland started. While the Scottish federation accused the Belgians of sheer arrogance, the Belgian association had actually meant to hold the drink after a "possible qualification".[2]

Word order[edit]

Two typical Dutch mistakes in English – wrong order for noun adjuncts ("meeting point caves" instead of "Meeting point for caves" or "Cave meeting point") and compound nouns written as one word ("meetingpoint")

Some Dutch speakers may use Dutch syntax inappropriately when using English, creating errors such as What mean you? instead of What do you mean?

This is because English and Dutch do not follow exactly the same word order. English has a subject–verb–object word order, but this is shared only partially by Dutch, which has a verb-second order, causing the subject to follow the verb if another constituent already precedes it; e.g., Hij is daar ("He is there"), but Daar is hij; literally "There is he".

Also, Dutch places perfect participles towards the end of a clause while the auxiliary remains at the verb-second position, allowing for the two to be separated and for many other elements to stand in between; e.g. Ik heb dat gisteren [meteen na de lunch toen ik aankwam etc.] gedaan; literally "I have that yesterday [immediately after the lunch when I arrived etc.] done".

In questions, English employs periphrastic constructions involving the verb to do, a rare feature crosslinguistically. Dutch does not use this construction, but instead utilizes a VSO word order, inverting the subject and verb.

In English noun adjuncts, such as Schiphol in the phrase Schiphol Meeting Point, the modifying noun comes before the other noun. In Dutch this is the reverse, giving rise to errors like "Meeting Point Schiphol".

Compound nouns written as one word[edit]

Dutch compound noun error in English "boardingpass" instead of "boarding pass", as seen on KLM sign at Schiphol Airport, 2013

In English, only certain compound nouns (such as "schoolteacher") can be written as one word, whereas in Dutch the default is to write compound nouns as a single word.[3] This is witnessed in errors in English texts on signs – at Schiphol Airport alone one can see signs for "meetingpoint", "boardingpass" and "traintickets". In some cases the English compound noun spelled as two words in English has been officially absorbed by the Dutch language – as is the case with creditcard (credit card) and jetlag (jet lag).

Verb conjugation[edit]

English and Dutch are both West Germanic languages, with many cognate verbs with identical or nearly identical meanings. This similarity between verbs may cause speakers of Dutch to conjugate English verbs according to Dutch grammar.

  • We kisse(n) her. (Dutch kussen means and is cognate with English to kiss. In Dutch grammar, verbs with plural subjects take a form identical to the infinitive, which in most cases has an en suffix.)
  • What do you now? for What are you doing right now? (In Dutch, Wat doe je nu?)
  • How goes it now? for How are you doing now? (The phrase is used particularly after someone has had a bad spell. A similarly constructed phrase is found in Shakespeare, carrying a slightly different meaning, which underlines the even closer similarities between English and Dutch historically.)

Errors in pronunciation[edit]

  • Words like third and the are commonly mispronounced by Dutch speakers as turd and duh, replacing the dental fricative consonants that are not present in Dutch with dental plosives, the nearest equivalent.
  • Many Dutch speakers have trouble distinguishing between bat, bad, bet and bed or between back, bag, beck and beg for that reason. This is because Dutch devoices obstruents at the end of a word, and also because Dutch does not distinguish between [æ] and [ɛ].
  • Some pronounce the word idea (in Dutch: idee) without the ending sound, making "Do you have an idea?" and "Do you have an ID?" sound the same.
  • Most Dutch speakers mispronounce the english v, being particularly evident when this is the starting letter of a word. For example, many Dutch would pronounce /ˈfɪdiəʊ/ for the word video instead of /ˈvɪdiəʊ/, or /fæn/ instead of /væn/ for the word van.

Other clues[edit]

  • Using greetings (often abbreviated to grtz) to end an email or an SMS as a literal translation of (met vriendelijke) groeten (reinforced by German (mit freundlichen) Grüßen) - in English however a greeting is usually to describe the start of an exchange and it is odd to use it at the end. Note also that greeting is generally used in English only to describe the act of welcoming someone into your house, usage in text as a form of salutation is restricted to Christmas cards (Season's Greetings) and would always be used at the start (never at the end).
  • Using possessive forms like that is the Lamborghini of Patrick instead of the use of an apostrophe to indicate possession. Saying that Lamborghini is Patrick's is a marked improvement, and a native English speaker would say that's Patrick's Lamborghini.
  • Concatenation of words like officemanager is a common Dutch habit that sometimes also creates unintended mondegreens.
  • Excessive and incorrect use of the apostrophe particularly when using acronyms in the plural form. Note, however, that this is quite common in many countries, especially in America.

Use in media[edit]


Dutch author Maarten H. Rijkens has written two books on the subject for Dutch readers: "I always get my sin" and "We always get our sin too".[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Steenkolen Engels", by Tope Adebola, February 12, 2015
  2. ^ a b c White, C.; Boucke, L. (2011). The Undutchables. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Nijgh and Van Ditmar. ISBN 9789038894324. 
  3. ^ Bruce Donaldson (2012). Colloquial Dutch: A Complete Language Course. Routledge. p. 171. ISBN 978-1-136-68299-5. 
  4. ^ "Eneco commercial - 'From the wind, we can not live'". Youtube.com. 2009-11-11. Retrieved 2013-12-10. 
  5. ^ Maarten H. Rijkens (Author) (2006-01-01). "I always get my sin". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-12-10.