About the logo

So, first off, it is a squid, not a kraken. This matters (well, to me it does) because the word kraken is Norse in origin, and Norse in mythology, and though it is by now also a common word in English (due, mostly, to jokes on the Internet) I felt it was the wrong animal to represent the English language.

Though the etymology is not clear, the word “squid” seems to be an old English word from the time of the Celts, as in Irish and Welsh it is a similar word, while in the other languages that English borrowed heavily from it sounds completely different. It may have something to do with the verb “to squirt” as it squirts ink, and the word “squirt” itself probably comes from the noise a squirting thing makes when it squirts.(The Germanic languages opted for the what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibleness of “ink fish” while in the Romance languages it is a variant of “calamar” which also refers to its ink as that comes from the word “pen” in Latin.)

Also, “squid” is a really funny word to say. “Squid”, “squid”. Hihi.

The fact that the squid squirts ink and has a name that means “pen” in Latin makes it a great animal to represent a language.

I chose to represent English as a many-tentacled beast rather than a British flag or some other English symbol like the Big Ben, a cup of tea or a red phone box, and I did so with good reason. Where some linguists that write about English choose to see British English or American English as the gold standard, I choose to see English as a world language. Variants like Indian English, Australian English and yes, even Dutch English, are legitimate forms of the language, too. Continuing to insist that British English is somehow better than all these other forms is favouritism, comes with a slew of problematic historical context like colonialism, and if you are British (like me!) it could also be seen as rather xenophobic.

So hence the monster with the tentacles; each tentacle has a slightly different colour to represent the different flavours of English – though there are far more than eight in reality – and I suppose the two spatula-floppy-thingies could be American and British English. The fact that the tentacles come from its mouth, which is, you know, also where language (usually*) comes from, is a fun bonus bit of symbolism.

So, in short, I went all-out on symbolism and for many reasons chose a majestic water beast to represent the English language. Then I chose to represent the Dutch language with…. a clog. A clog in the form of an itty bitty sailboat. I actually wanted it to be a pedal bike but that was too hard to draw.

The clog is squished into the squid, because that is what’s happening; Dutch and English have collided, or rather, are colliding, and little Dutch will just have to wait and see how far it is going to have to squish into English. Will it squish all the way inside and disappear? (Spoiler: it won’t. Dutch won’t die out in our or our children’s life time, don’t worry.)

Dutch isn’t the only language that has squished into the squid. If the squid in the picture were to roll over, you would see a u-boat in the shape of a bratwurst, a canoe in the shape of a baguette, an airplane in the shape of a kimono, and many other dirigibles and other vehicles all stuck in there.

*I was thinking of sign language. What were you thinking?

About “I wish you strength”

“Hey, strength!”

In the Netherlands, we have one go-to phrase that we use if another person is in, or will soon be in, a difficult situation: if someone close to you is ill, dying or dead, if you are ill or dying, if you are depressed about being single, depressed about not being single, if you have a new job, if you have a presentation or if you dropped your mother’s favourite vase and are going to have to tell her about it, if you are sick of your boss but have to go in to work again on Monday, if you have to spend a whole day with your boring in-laws, if you have to eat your best friends terrible cooking…

If there is anything happening in your life that you have to deal with, and it’s not happy, then the Dutch wish each other sterkte: strength. They don’t say “I wish you strength” they just say “strength!”*

That one little word does a whole lot of heavy lifting, and it is no wonder that my article on how to translate “sterkte” into English is my most popular article by far.

*If they are feeling especially generous, they might say Hee, sterkte ermee, he? “Hey, strength with that thing, yeah?”

So is it just “I wish you strength”?

I am half British and half Dutch, and I don’t know if it is my British English or if it is the fact that it just sounded too Dutch to me, but saying “I wish you strength” in English always sounded off to me. I even worried that perhaps people would feel the well-wisher was implying that they are not a strong person.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure, so I decided to crowdsource some language knowledge. I wanted to know if the phrase would sound “foreign” to a native English speaker, if it is a phrase that a native speaker would use. So I put up a questionnaire on Reddit, and asked the following question:

If you were going through a difficult period in your life, for example a death or serious illness in the family, and I sent you a card on which I wrote “I wish you strength”, how would you feel about that?

With the answer options:

That’s nice, and it’s good English

That’s nice, but it’s not good English

Are you saying I’m not a strong person?

Other:

I expected my survey to be filled in by 20, maybe 30 people, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to making it perfect. In the event, though, it was filled in by almost 2000 (!) people. The age skewed young (because Reddit!); a breakdown of the participants can be found in this article.

Results

Here are the results:

Clearly, I was completely off the mark thinking that people might feel that the strength wisher is insinuating they are not a strong person, with only 2% agreeing with me.

There was a reasonable 22% that agreed with me that it sounded “off” (“it’s not good English”), but lots of people responded that they felt the English was fine.

Next time…

I thought that by wording it “that’s good English” or “that’s not good English” I succinctly summarised the idea of “that’s what a native speaker would say”, but after seeing the results of the survey and reading some of the remarks, I realised that my wording wasn’t optimal.

I had used the same wording in a previous question about “to think along with“, a phrase that is much more clearly “odd English”, the “think” and the “along” not really matching. But “to wish someone strength” is grammatically correct, so perhaps I should have phrased the question differently.

Then again, this might just be me making excuses for the fact that my hypothesis is being disproved… The only way of knowing will be to ask this question again with different wording. Which is something I do think I’ll do because my article about this phrase gets a few hundred hits a day…

I should perhaps better have asked something like “is this something you would say?” or “If someone is going through a tough time, what would you say or write to them?”

If anybody reading this article has a good idea on how I should word the question, please let me know in a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

Also, when I ask the question again, I will also make sure that I do program the question where I asked people about their language background correctly, because I would love to know if there is a difference between American and British English!

Open responses

Because I like to be thorough, and I am very grateful to everyone who filled in my survey, and because I think Dutch people reading this might find some of the remarks helpful, here are some remarks from people who answered “other”:

I appreciate it, and it’s good English; but I absolutely would not use it myself if I were sending a card, because yes, I worry that the recipient can interpret it as saying they aren’t strong.

It’s good English, but maybe a bit archaic

It’s nice and it’s dated English

The sentiment is nice, but it could be misinterpreted and isn’t something someone would often say in English.

Doesn’t feel right, but it’s good English

That’s nice, and it’s good English, but it feels foreign if someone said that to an American

it’s good English but it’s trite

I would understand but I would think you are not a native speaker of English

it’s good English grammatically but isn’t a commonly used phrase. It’s weird, not wrong.

It’s become good enough English over the past 20 or so years.

Its a nice sentiment, but I would prefer if it elaborated — like, “I wish you strength to deal with your grief”.

It’s fine English tbh even if it might not make 100% sense

The english is fine, but on it’s own the statement lacks clarity in that situation.

Givrs me the “thoughts and prayers”-vibe. But sounds like good english 🙂

It’s not a common English phrase but it isn’t necessarily bad, and I would appreciate it.

as a linguist i’m having a hard time with this survey saying “good” and “bad” English, i would say it makes sense as it’s meaning is understanable

Fine english, but overly trite and a little demeaning.

That’s nice and it’s grammatically correct but doesn’t flow well

It seems like the classic “just be positive!” mindsets that ultimately ignore the true struggles and feelings of the person; nothing matters except to be mentally strong.

I get the jist, but it isn’t a common turn of phrase

That’s cheesy but fine enough English

That’s some empty platitudes, but fine English

It’s fine, but sounds kinda dated/archaic

It’s fine, it’s just a weird thing to say.

The english is fine, it’s an unusual thing to say unless you are very religious

That’s nice; English is malleable enough that, while it’s not PROPER English, it’s still fine.

It’s good English, but it feels awkward

Nice, but abnormal. Not necessarily bad English, but maybe from a different culture.

That’s nice, good English but uncommon.

it’s fine English, but a little rude

That’s nice, fine English, little unusual though

I dislike the sentiment, but I think it’s ok English

This might be more appropriate to say to someone going through a challenging endeavor that ultimately is their responsibility. Saying it to someone who is going through a hard time might come off as distant and unsupportive (ie. “I can’t do anything for you but I wish you strength to get through it.”) I’d avoid using this phrase in those situations.

I wouldn’t say it’s poor english, necessarily, but it’s definitely unusually worded

It’s good English but a cliché sentiment.

I would think Buddha or Asian culture

I understand the sentiment, but the wording is awkward enough that I could see it being used as backhanded in some petty instances. Awkward word choice.

That’s nice, but you’re either toxicly positive or haven’t ever dealt with a close death yourself

And here are some remarks people made at the end of the survey:

Here are some responses from English speakers about the term “I wish you strength”:

If someone wished me strength in a letter I would think it unusual and it would depend on the sender, but I might think that they’ve spent time on this letter choosing words carefully, and that in such a sense strength is a good word. It can suggest their support whilst implying that you are capable yourself of succeeding.

Wishing someone strength is idiomatic English, but not formal English. It is something you might hear someone say, but generally would not see written down.

I think it’s common for English folks to wish one another strength.

For “I wish you strength”; as a native English speaker I would consider it “good English” but would assume that the person does not speak English as a first language or heard the saying from someone who doesn’t speak it as a first language. It sounds a bit foreign in a way I just can’t describe. Normally, I think “I hope you can stay strong” or something similar would be used.

“I wish you strength” sounds perfect but is more suited for someone about to go through a hard time rather than someone who has just been through one. Probably a better translation would be “stay strong.”

I think wishing someone strength in trying times is fine if you follow it up wtih something. For example: “I wish you find strength to perservere in these trying times. I will be here to help you find that strength should you need it.” With no other context it would do nothing but confuse/insult the recipient of the sentiment and even with the context it could still come off as odd.

Wishing people strength is definitely something that happens in English.

I think saying you wish someone strength is a normal expression in hard times, at least in the US.

Wishing each other strength isn’t a common thing to do in English, but grammatically it’s perfectly fine.

“I wish you strength” makes perfect sense and is good English, but may sound somewhat religious or New Age-y. It seems to be a more popular phrase in the Wellness community in the USA for instance

“On the “wish you strength” question, I said “nice but not good English”. I couldn’t answer “good English” because you made me think about it, but if I got such a card I would not notice the slightly improper English.

In the suburban / semi-rural midwest US, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear “wishing you strength and comfort in this difficult time”. I didn’t find that phrasing of at all.

The strength phrase may vary in understanding based on how religious or mystical the listener is. But the phrase “give me strength” is known and used widely.

“I wish you strength” sounds very much like something I would hear at my (very non-traditional) synagogue — they often translate Hebrew in ways that feel like this, both unusual sounding due to the directness of the translation and also surprisingly poetic and powerful.

Generally phrases like “I wish you strength” are followed up with some context, like “I wish you strength in this trying time”.

I think “I wish you strength” makes total Sense in English, it’s just not super common to hear but I have heard it.

I’m super interested in the topic as I’m learning Dutch as a second language and funnily enough, immediately recognized it was relating to Dutch when you mentioned “strength”.

I thought “I wish you strength” was unusual but sweet.

I don’t wish “strength” for others, but I do tell some people to “stay strong”.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

About “meedenken” and “to think along with”

What is “meedenken”?

The Netherlands is famously a culture of teamwork and compromise, and as such the word “meedenken” is one that is often used. When one person asks another “kun je even met me meedenken?” (literally: Can you ‘think with me’ for a moment?), what they want to do is explain a problem they are having to the other person, and then brainstorm possible solutions together.

Translating “meedenken”

In recent years, I have noticed that translators (both human and AI) are choosing to translate the word “meedenken” as “to think along with”. So the question above would be translated as “Can you think along with me for a moment?”.

I grew up speaking both Dutch and English, and sometimes that leads to problems as a translator, because English phrases and Dutch phrases get mixed up in my brain. When it comes to “think along with” I was unsure of two things: is it actually a phrase that people would understand, or would it just confuse them? And if yes, does it actually mean the same thing as “meedenken”?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to questions like this. One school of thought (prescriptive, for the linguists among us) says that you should look it up in a dictionary or ask a specialist. The other one (descriptive) says you should find out how real people speak and understand this phrase. I am firmly in the second camp. So I put out a Survey on Reddit.

Choosing which responses to include

I got a whopping 1990 (!!) responses. (This is the power of Reddit. I highly recommend it to any university student trying to get responses for their thesis.)

To my regret, I had to take away 830 responses for this particular question, because I had made an important omission in my answer options, and the responses via Reddit were so fast that by the time I had noticed and rectified it, all those people had already started filling in the survey. (Lesson learned: always do a pilot survey with just a few participants, so you can pick up on omissions!)

Of those left, I had to remove 126 people who had not filled in the whole survey. I also took away everybody under the age of 21 (a whopping 375 people; see here the downside of doing research via Reddit), because I wanted the answers to reflect the kinds of people that might potentially do business with Dutch people. Then I took away everybody who spoke Dutch, German or Afrikaans (71 people), because I wanted to know what people thought who had never heard the term “meedenken” (or the very similar German “mitdenken”).

For all of the people that filled in my survey but weren’t included: I will be using your other answers, so your time wasn’t completely wasted!

Results

I was left with 584 responses to work with.

First, I asked:

Here are the responses:

So there is quite a big group (62.4%) who are of the opinion that the phrase “is not good English”.

Then I asked:

Here are the responses to that one:

When a Dutch person uses the phrase “please think along with me”, they are asking their conversation partner to brainstorm on a problem with them. These results suggest that that is not how they would be understood.

The 5 people who replied “other” all said that they thought it was a combination of the two most popular answers.

Some extra remarks people made

In my survey I gave people a chance to add remarks at the end if they had any. Here are some remarks people had about “to think along with”:

When I hear “think along with me”, it sounds like something an elementary school teacher (of ages 5-7) might say to their students, not something that adults would use with each other.

I would use “put our heads together,” a common phrase for that. Doing anything “along with” someone implies that they’re the expert and you’re keeping up, like “cooking along with” might mean watching a video while you try to make the same dish.

The “along with me” construction in English implies that the speaker is leading and the other person is being invited to follow; I would not expect a collaboration.

Conclusion

The term “meedenken” is used very often in Dutch to mean brainstorming a solution to a problem together. Many people translate this with “to think along with”, but when a Dutch person asks “Could you think along with me?” they are very likely to be misunderstood, as the majority of non-Dutch people over the age of 21 feel that this would mean that the Dutch person wants them to follow their train of thought, to listen to them while they explain their reasoning.

Is this a huge breakdown in communication? Probably not, the meanings are very similar, and when two people are talking together and one of them uses this phrase, it will probably sort itself out.

When a Dutch person is speaking, they would do well to say something like “Do you have a minute to brainstorm solutions for this problem I am having?” or “Can I pick your brain for a second?”

More importantly, when a translator (such as myself) is translating a Dutch text into English, “meedenken” should NOT be translated as “to think along with”.

Stuff I should have done better

As noted above, I should have done a pilot study. The problem with Reddit is that there is no option to get e.g. only 20 people to answer, but there are ways to work around that and I’m definitely going to, next time!

A number of people disapproved of the fact that I asked people if something was “good English” or not. They felt I should have written something like “it is not natural-sounding English”. The reason I asked the question the way I did was because 1) I wanted to keep things simple and 2) I am interested in how Dutch people would be perceived if they were interacting with English speakers and then the perception of “is it good English” is more important than “is it natural English”. But I am happy to debate about that 😉

There were 4 people who replied “other” and noted that their problem was that I had written down the answer options incorrectly, and their answer would have been “I want you to follow my train of thought, to listen to me while I explain my reasoning”. They were, of course, completely correct – my answer options did not fit my question properly. Luckily it appears most people weren’t phased by my bad English, and for those 4 people I took the liberty of assuming they would have answered the “train of thought” answer if I had written it down correctly, so they have now been included in that category.

Is this important?

You might wonder: all this trouble for just one word? And then the conclusion is that very often it doesn’t really matter? Well, in the grand scheme of things, I guess this was not one of the biggest problems in the world. But on my site www.hoezegjeinhetEngels.nl, the entry for “meedenken” is quite popular, getting a dozen or so hits every day. I wanted to give those people a proper answer 🙂

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.