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Learn Dutch: Small words, little meaning?

Small words. The Dutch language is riddled with them and often they can be omitted without drastically changing the meaning of the sentence, in which they occur. It makes you wonder then, whether we really need these words; personally I think we do. In this blog I will look at some of these words and the reasons why they’re not so disposable after all.

‘Chameleons’: ‘toch’ and ‘nog’

Some words can have more than one meaning. The word ‘bark’ for instance can refer to both the outer layer of a tree and the sound a dog makes. ‘Chameleon words’ are like that and yet they are not quite the same. They partially derive their meaning from context and they can be combined with other words. In Dutch, ‘toch’ and ‘nog’ are such words, as you will see in the examples below:


‘Jij komt vanavond ook, toch?’ – ‘You will also be there tonight, right?’
‘Ik ben moe, maar ik kom toch.’ – ‘I’m tired, but I’ll still be there.’


‘Ik heb nog vijf minuten om de bus te halen.’ – ‘I still have five minutes to catch the bus.’
‘Ik heb nog niet gegeten.’ – ‘I haven’t eaten yet.’
‘Kun je dat nog een keer doen?’ – ‘Can you do that one more time?’

‘Softeners’: ‘maar’, ‘eens’, ‘even’

If there’s one bit of language that does need toning down (or softening) then it’s the imperative form. Whether you like it or not , when you use the imperative form you are giving someone else an order, so you should try to do it in the nicest way possible. That’s why, in Dutch, the words ‘maar’, ‘eens’ and ‘even’ come in handy: they make your imperative form sound more like a suggestion/invitation and less like a direct command. For instance, ‘kom hier’ is something that you would say to a dog, whereas it is perfectly acceptable to say to another person ‘kom eens hier’. You can also combine these words in several ways for added politeness.

‘Tone modifiers’: ‘wel’ and ‘eigenlijk’

There are also words that can change the tone of what you’re saying. In Dutch, the words ‘wel’ and ‘eigenlijk’ are used in this way. ‘Eigenlijk’ literally means ‘actually’ or ‘in fact’, but just like its English counterpart it isn’t always used literally. Sometimes it’s added to a sentence to make it sound more informal, or to create a warm atmosphere. In the following example, the word ‘eigenlijk’ makes it sound like an exception has been made just for you, whereas without it, it would sound more matter-of-fact: ‘Ik heb (eigenlijk) geen tijd, maar ik kan je straks helpen.’ (‘I don’t have time, but I can help you later.’)

The word ‘wel’ is a bit more difficult to grasp. It has no real meaning of its own, but is often used to add emphasis or to make a sentence sound more friendly. Please take a look at the examples below:

‘Ik heb tijd.’ – ‘I have time.’
‘Ik heb wel tijd.’ – ‘I DO have time.’ (Or simply ‘I have time.’ pronounced in a cheerful way.)

These were just a few examples of ‘small words’ in Dutch that add nuance and subtlety to the language. Hopefully this blog has sparked your curiosity into finding out what else these words can ‘do’, and that the next time you see them you will be tempted to try to figure out how they are used.

Vika Lukina
Vika Lukina
Vika werkt als NT2-trainer voor Language Partners. Ze is gespecialiseerd in de branches ICT, onderwijs en voeding.

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