Het ei van Columbus (Or: B2 Dutch course #9)

We had an interesting expression in class last night – het ei van Columbus / the egg of Columbus (English | Dutch Wikipedia). Apparently it exists in English as well even though I had not heard of it before.

Regardless, one story goes that after Columbus’ journey to the Americas, he returned and dined with Spanish nobles. They told him that it was easy to discover America, and anyone could have done it. He retorted by placing an egg on the table and saying that no one could make the egg stand on its own without help or assistance but he could. Everyone tried to do this and failed. Afterwards, Columbus gently tapped it on the table to break it slightly, which allowed it to stand on its own. (Meaning: things always look easier after you know how to do it.)

In this class we covered the perfectum (ik heb gewerkt, ik ben daar gegaan), although I have covered that before in this blog. You need to use a helper verb (hebben or zijn, depending) with a participle like gewerkt or gegaan. In a normal sentence the helper verb stays close to the subject while the participle moves to the end of the phrase. Ik ben nooit naar Spanje geweest (I have never been to Spain). In a subordinate clause the helper verb moves to the back of the clause – either before or after the participle. Whether it’s before or after sometimes depends on the situation, or the flow of the sentence, or lots of little things that you’ll eventually get the hang of. It is not that clear cut.

But sometimes you can break the rule of “participle or helper verb always comes at the end of the clause” when you have a prepositional phrase.

Hij vertelt over de reis die:
…hij naar India heeft gemaakt
…hij heeft gemaakt naar India

He talked about the trip that he did (“made”) to India. In Dutch ‘to India’ can either come before or after the participle. In this case I would probably use the first one, as it is a short prepositional phrase and thus the participle isn’t that far back. But sometimes you need to stick the prepositional phrase after to not disrupt the flow of the sentence – too many prepositions can cause the listener/reader to lose the logic of your sentence and hearing the participle quickly is more important than the prepositional phrase.

And one final note about prepositional phrases – the little word om marks a different sort of phrase (also known as the om…te construction”). It’s hard to explain as it is not used in English anymore but it’s basically a short phrase which answers “why” the first part of the sentence happened.

Ik ga naar school om mijn huiswerk in te leveren.  I will go to school (why?) to turn in my homework.
Zij heeft met haar zusje gesproken om een goede oplossing te vinden. She has spoken with her little sister (why?) to find a good solution.

When you are using the om…te construction it always goes at the very end of the clause.

Hij vertelt over de reis die:
…hij naar India heeft gemaakt [om foto’s te maken]

but not: Hij vertelt over de reis die:
…hij naar India [om foto’s te maken] heeft gemaakt

Today’s “when to use de or het” lesson is for het words. You use het for:

– all singular diminutives or “small words”. het zusje (little sister), het hondje (little dog) and similar
– compass points: het noorden, het oosten, het zuiden, het westen
– all two syllable words that begin with ge normally (note: not participles)
het gebaar (the gesture), het gesprek (the meeting), het gevoel (the feeting)

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