When translating this sentence as "What is on them?" or "What does it say?" I am confused by two points.
1) When using "What does it say?" - is a generic question being asked, like when someone else mentions an interesting article in the paper, or something fascinating is on a billboard you just passed, or is it more of a question for something spoken out loud?
2) "What is on them?" and "What does it say?" clearly aren't even close in meaning to one another. Could someone far more sophisticated in their Dutch help me grasp this one?
When describing something, Dutch uses 'zitten', 'liggen' en 'staan' instead of 'zijn'. 'Liggen' en 'staan' are for horizontal and vertical things, 'zitten' for when the thing is in another (small) object.
(small disclaimer: this is a rule of thumb, you will likely encounter exceptions and other instances too where the above doesn't apply).
- 'De vaas staat op de tafel' : 'the vase is on the table'
- 'De broek ligt op de tafel' : 'the pants are on the table'
- 'De sleutels zitten in de zak' : 'the keys are in the pocket'
In this same way, when something is written on paper, on a billboard, on a traffic sign etc. the verb 'staan' is used:
- 'The sign says "come on" ' : 'er staat "kom op" het bord'
- 'It's on paper' : 'het staat op papier'
- 'What does it say on the poster?' : 'Wat staat er op de poster?'
For those who want to compare this to English, we also use "sitting" when we want to refer to objects on things, like "the bottle is sitting on the table" and "the wallet is sitting on the desk" (whether it's "standing" or "lying"). I'd say just saying "is" is probably more common, but we do use "sitting" in the same way too, I just never realized it until I learned German.
I'll try! In Dutch, if words or pictures are written/drawn/printed/painted, we say that they are "standing" on the paper (or whatever they are on). Some examples:
"Mijn foto staat in the krant" - "My photo is (printed) in the newspaper"
"Ik sta op de lijst" - "I am (written) on the list"
"Er staat graffiti op de muur" - "There is graffiti (painted) on the wall"
"Wat staat er op het bord?" - "What is (written) on the sign?" or less awkwardly in English: "What does the sign say?"
As the last example shows, "Wat staat erop" can mean "What does it say" in reference to written words or pictures. But it can also mean "What is on it/them?", referring either to words or pictures (sometimes slightly awkward-sounding in English) or to things literally standing on top of other things:
"Wat staat er op de tafel?" - "What is (standing) on the table?"
Thanks for that awesome explanation above and for the very useful link. That's really helpful! :) I have a question though. For this exercise, the answer was "wat staat erop?" In your examples, you gave "wat staat er op de tafel?" en "wat staat er op het bord?" So my question is, when do we use "erop" and "er op"?
That's a good question. In this exercise, "er" refers to the thing that something is written on, so the object that the preposition "op" belongs to. That's why it must be written as one word here.
In my examples, "er" serves a more complicated purpose and it's optional in those sentences. Essentially you can add "er" when the subject is unknown or not defined (like in those questions with "wat"). It has nothing to do with the preposition.
After thinking about it a while I figured out, that it might be like in German for which I can explain it. Literally I would translate it to "what does stand on it?" And if you think of a sign or a paper and try is instead of stands you can come to "what is (written) on it" and finally to "what does it say?". Disclaimer: I'm a German and still have no clue about the meaning of "er".
Keep in mind that it is the English that is strange here. In English, we say: It says to do ... in the book. The sign says 'Keep out'. The card says 'Happy Birthday'. And so on. But actually books and paper cannot talk - they cannot 'say' anything. So in other languages it is not surprising that they do not use this English idiom or expression. Here, 'wat' means 'what'; 'erop' means 'on it'; and 'staat' is from the verb 'staan' 'to stand', or, more generally, 'to be located'. 'Wat staat erop?' means 'What stands on it?' or 'What is on it?' By extension, or in context, it asks what is written on something. So if you see a sign, you can ask, in English, 'What does it say?', which will be 'Wat staat erop?' in Dutch.
I wrote that when I was at the beginning of the Tree. Kai, Simius and Lavinaie, the Dutch course moderators are wonders and I'm deeply appreciative of everything that they do. They have asked for feedback and I try to give it in a supportive and respectful way- not problem with that I think. I still think for something as tricky as the "er" construction more context/support/explanation is needed- maybe not in the sentence but possibly in the notes. They might for example refer to a sentence to explain the context in which it could be used as Simius has done in one of his answers. Hope you're enjoying the course. The Facebook group is a great community.