When I was a child I believed my dolls would come alive at night and talk to each other. I imagined they would complain about the way they had been treated by me, or not, depending on how well I had taken care of them. My parents thought it was funny but a bit strange for a child past the age of 4. Even now I think it’s perfectly normal to believe that some objects have some sort of life and a soul. I don’t think I can go as far as to say I am a follower of Animism, it’s not a religion, but it is part of me and of my language. Yes, it’s in the way I think and in the way I like to speak.
Now, here’s the rub. It’s fine if you speak Dutch to refer to objects using ‘he’ or ‘she’, but in English that’s just not done. Everything that is not a person or an animal is a cold, neuter, blank, boring ‘it’. Of course there are exceptions, like using ‘she’ when you refer to a ship, but I hear even that is disappearing. The English speakers stopped using gender distinctions for objects hundreds of years ago and they are still in the process of eliminating them from the language. It’s like killing weeds. Unnecessary elements are exterminated.
When I was learning English this never bothered me. I was too determined to get it right so I never made the mistake of saying: “Oh, no! I forgot to charge my phone and now his battery is almost dead!” I knew that although batteries can die in English they are not treated like people and neither are phones. Your phone maybe closer to you than some of your friends but it is still an ‘it’. But now that I am teaching Dutch people English I don’t have the same determination. I don’t like to teach people to stop thinking about objects as a possible ‘he’ or ‘she’. It goes deeper than just applying a grammar rule or not. It’s about your view of the world. My phone is dear to me and he deserves to be treated with respect. Referring to him as ‘it’ just doesn’t feel right. When I speak or write English I can’t express that I think of my phone as more than just an inanimate thing. It’s as if I have to hide that part of me in order to blend in.
I’ve learned to do that long ago but I don’t want to be the one to tell my students to do it. They may never have believed their dolls had feelings but at least they said ‘he’ or ‘she’ when talking about them and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I know there are books about funny mistakes Dutch people make when speaking or writing English. I promis this blog will be a little different and I won't steal any stories from others. I would, however, like contributions from others and hope to have a bit of fun discussing what we have 'leathered'.