The Dutch 'mee': Let’s stick together now
When I told my husband that I wanted to write down my thoughts about the Dutch word 'mee', he looked baffled. “What is there to write about?” he said. Sueli Brodin finds plenty to write about this little word.
When I told my husband that I wanted to write down my thoughts about the Dutch word 'mee', he looked baffled. “What is there to write about?” he wondered out loud.
My sister in Paris was just as puzzled: “How am I supposed to pronounce this 'mee' anyway? To be honest, it sort of reminds me of a flock of sheep!”
Well funnily enough, after living sixteen years in the Netherlands, I have come to view this small and perhaps inconspicuous 'mee' as one of the most important words in the Dutch language. I even think that learning to use it has helped me understand some typical aspects of the Dutch way of life!
It is difficult to grammatically define the word 'mee'. Sometimes it is an apposition (either a preposition or a postposition), other times an adverb. It can also be used as the adverbial form of 'met' ('with'). And it creeps into many idiomatic expressions too. 'Mee' can generally be translated as 'with' or 'together with'.
I clearly remember the first time I heard it. I had not been in the Netherlands for more than a few days and had decided to go shopping on my own, without my Dutch husband-to-be. I wasn’t expecting any particular surprise. I had shopped in many different countries before and expected things to go pretty straight forward here as well: after selecting the items I wanted to buy, I would simply have to go to the cashier, pay and leave.
Gaat het zo mee?
But as I was putting the change back into my wallet, the cashier girl looked at me and asked me something. I had no idea what she meant. Feeling a bit self conscious, I shook my head, quickly said “No, no”, collected my groceries and promptly left the shop.
The problem is that this was not an isolated event. It kept happening each time I went shopping. And each time, the cashier would give me a startled look as I would walk out of the door.
So one day I asked my boyfriend about it. He started laughing: “Why, they’re simply asking you if you need a bag! But what they actually say is: 'Gaat het zo mee?' (“Is it OK like this?”). So when you answer “No”, they’re astonished to see you dash off before they’ve even had time to hand you a plastic bag!”
As my Dutch improved, I started noticing how many expressions contained the word 'mee': 'Hoe gaat het ermee?' (How are you?), 'Daar spreekt u mee' (Speaking), 'Ik ben het niet mee eens' (I don’t agree). For a long time however I struggled to use these expressions correctly. I would prefer to say 'Hoe gaat het met jou?' instead of 'Hoe gaat het ermee?' Whenever I did try to use the word 'mee', I would often put it at the wrong place in the sentence or simply omit it altogether. That’s probably because we don’t have the equivalent word in French, at least not in the French we speak in France.
Tu viens avec?
But apparently it exists as a 'Dutchism' in the French-speaking Belgian province of Wallonia. In the comic book 'Astérix chez les Belges', a French speaking Belgian child asks Astérix the Gaul: “Tu viens avec?” (lit. 'Are you coming with?'). It is obviously a direct translation of the Dutch 'Kom je mee?' and sounds very amusing. As a matter of fact, when French people tell Belgian jokes, they not only imitate the Belgian accent but they also add the word 'avec' (with) after every verb, to poke fun at this Dutchism in Belgian French.
My own children, who speak Dutch among themselves, use the word all the time: 'Mag ik mee?' (Can I join you?), 'Ik wil mee!' (I want to go with you!), 'Doe je mee?' (Do you want to join us?), 'Houd ermee op!' (Stop it!).
My husband, who rides his bicycle to work every day, uses it too. When he is home earlier than usual, he explains that he "had wind mee": he had the wind “with him”, or tail wind.
Het valt mee
As for me, I have noticed that the Dutch are very fond of the expression 'Het valt mee' (It’s not so bad). They use it a lot, especially when they want to avoid complaining about something. It is customary here to try to see things in a positive way.
I first heard this expression about four or five months into my stay. It was already springtime but we had not enjoyed any proper sunny day yet. When a Dutch colleague casually asked me how I liked it here in the Netherlands, I gave her my usual answer: “Oh I like it very much, everybody’s really friendly.” But for some reason that day I added: “But the weather is not so good here”. I immediately saw that I shouldn’t have complained. She was piqued and retorted: 'Het valt toch mee!'(It’s not that bad!).
My Dutch level was not good enough yet to understand her actual words but her intonation was unmistakable. After that I never dared to complain too much about the Dutch weather anymore, or about anything else, at least not to strangers.
It is also thanks to the word 'mee' that I have learned that the Dutch work structure is not as hierarchical as in France. In one of my first jobs as an office secretary here, my direct colleagues caught me by surprise by inviting the managers to come and have lunch with us at the canteen. “Gaan jullie mee?” they simply asked. (Are you joining us?) And indeed we all had lunch together!
One day my French father, who grew up in New York, was watching an American television series in Paris. Somehow it was not dubbed in French and at one point the main character, a high school girl, enthusiastically said to her friends: “Let’s do something together!” My father thought it was a brilliant line, because it sounded so American. “In France people would just laugh at you if you said something like that!” he exclaimed.
I think that my father’s remark applies to the Netherlands too. Dutch people love doing things together. Going back to the word 'mee', we simply need to look at the amount of words, mostly verbs, which start with it: meedoen (join in), meedrinken (drink together), mee-eten (eat together), meegaan (go together), meelezen (read together), meenemen (bring along), meerijden (ride together), meespelen (play together), meevoelen (sympathise with)…and so the list goes on.
And given the fact that 'mee' derives from 'mede', we can easily add to those verbs all the nouns and adjectives beginning with mede; for instance medebestuurder (co-manager), medebewoner (co-inhabitant), medeleerling (fellow pupil), medewerker (employee), medelijden (compassion).
In my opinion, the concept of togetherness can be found just about everywhere in the Dutch language and in the Dutch way of life. It is here that I have learned to answer the phone with the words: “Met Sueli” (with Sueli) instead of the anonymous French “Allo?” At family birthday parties, we all sit in a circle so that everyone feels included in the group. Most of my friends and acquaintances are members of clubs and associations and engage in volunteer work.
As if to confirm my observations, a recent survey by the independent Dutch advertising council SIRE showed that “a large majority of Dutch people contribute to civil society in one way or another. Almost three quarters of the people surveyed said they donated money to charity. Around thirty percent do voluntary care work and half do volunteering of some kind. And only three percent of the participants said they had ever taken part in a demonstration.” (source: Radio Netherlands, 15 August 2007).
Speaking about Dutch society, it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that the Dutch word for it is 'samenleving' (or 'living together'). Again the same theme of togetherness!
Back to the polder model
I’ve been thinking that maybe this is all related to the famous Dutch polder model, which my husband once explained to me: “In France, you are used to going on strike about everything. That’s the only way authorities will pay attention to you. Here strikes are very rare because people make decisions together. All parties agree on the fact that strikes are bad for society, so they discuss matters over until a consensus is reached and everybody feels that they can live with the final agreement.”
Maybe it is also because the Netherlands are a small country, threatened by the sea, where people have learned to stick and work together for the common good.
Samen spelen, samen delen
From their earliest age Dutch children learn the motto 'samen spelen = samen delen'. (playing together = sharing together). And when they grow up, they are encouraged to “meedoen, meedenken, meebeslissen” (participate, help think, help decide). My town’s website features a category entitled “Meedenken”, where citizens are invited to share their thoughts about ongoing issues.
Of course, there are divisive voices, including in Parliament, and the Netherlands are not exempt from social tensions among certain groups. But I still believe that the majority of the Dutch have a sincere and deep-rooted desire to make things work and to ‘keep things together’, as Amsterdam’s Mayor Job Cohen once famously said (“de boel bij elkaar houden”).
Samen werken, samen leven
Not surprisingly, the new Dutch government’s slogan echoes this idea: 'Samen werken, samen leven' (working together, living together). The previous policy slogan was not much different: 'Meedoen, meer werk, minder regels' (lit. ‘Get involved, more work, less rules’). As a matter of fact, the entire European Union has become inspired by the same theme. Its 50th anniversary logo features in bright letters the word “Together”!
Het valt reuze mee
To be honest, I used to find all this togetherness a bit too much in the beginning. I couldn’t help feeling that there was some form of social pressure attached to it. But, just like with everything else, it’s a matter of give and take; and now, believe it or not, one of my favourite expressions in Dutch is 'Het valt mee' or even 'Het valt reuze mee!': It’s actually quite fine!
17 August 2007
Sueli Brodin / Expatica
Sueli Brodin is the editor of Crossroads, a web magazine for expatriates in Maastricht. www.ejc.nl/crossroads
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.