Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Question of Language

Tomorrow, June 13th, Belgians head to the polls to vote in the first national election since 2007. Recent articles by international commentators, such as the Economist or the Wall Street Journal, have for the first time begun to recognize that the core of the issue is of course language. Understanding the roots and origin of a language of course, is integral to understanding the path of a people.

Flemish immigrants to this country have assimilated well. Too well in fact. Their language contributions have often slid to the background as other, more assertive tribes, have leapt to the fore in making their claim. Thankfully for us, the study of language - called philology - still permits a scientific sleuthing to uncover the real contributors to a language. Things such as pronunciation, syntax, spelling, and the actual usages of words provide signposts that philologists follow to the ultimate source of that part of the language.
One hundred years ago, in 1910, an American philologist by the name of John Dyneley Prince, published a now out-of-print study of "Jersey Dutch". At that time, there were still pockets of descendants who lived mainly in isolated communities of upstate New York and northern New Jersey, that spoke only or primarily a Dutch dialect. Like their Flemish Protestant forefathers, they farmed, attended the Dutch Reformed Church, and otherwise were able to avoid assimilation into broader American society. The below text are select excerpts of the study by Professor Prince, as presented in the 1910 issue of "Dialect Notes". My warm thanks to Paul Belien, Matthias Storme and Dirk Musschoot for independently bringing this to my attention.

"'Jersey' or "Bergen County Dutch" is the usual name for the vernacular of the descendants of the original [New] Netherland[s] settlers in old Bergen County, N.J., now subdivided into Bergen and Passaic Counties. Up to thirty years ago [circa 1880], this was the common idiom of many rural districts in northern New Jersey, employed alike by Dutch, English, German and French settlers. It has, during the past three decades, been driven from its former territory by the advent of the public schools, and now survives only in the memories of some two hundred old persons, nearly all of whom are over seventy years of age. The younger generations have preserved, however, the curious jerky intonation, unclear diction and the marked singsong tone of voice, which were characteristics of the parent speech. The Jersey Dutch is obsolescent, but it has undoubtedly left its mark on the modern English of both Bergen and Passaic Counties."
"It must not be supposed that Jersey Dutch had anything in common, other than a kindred ancient ancestry, with the so-called "Pennsylvania Dutch," which is merely the Pfalz dialect of German mixed with English. The Jersey Dutch was originally the South Holland or Flemish language, which, in the course of centuries (ca 1630-1880), became mixed with and partially influenced by English, having borrowed also from the Minsi (Lenape-Delaware) Indian language a few animal and plant names. This Dutch has suffered little or nothing from modern Holland or Flemish immigration, although Patterson (the county seat of Passaic County) has at present a large Netherland [sic] population. The old country people hold themselves strictly aloof from these foreigners and say, when they are questioned as to the difference between the idioms: "Oiize tdl dz lex dtiuts en hcelliz dz Hol-ldns; kwdit dddfrent." ["Our language is low Dutch and theirs is Holland Dutch; quite different."]."

"An intelligent Fleming or South Hollander with a knowledge of English can make a shift at following a conversation of this Americanized Dutch, but the converse is not true, as the Jersey Dutch speaking countryman is quite helpless, if his interlocutor makes the slightest deviation from the accepted pronunciation or idiom of the dialect. As old Mrs. Bartholf of Paterson [New Jersey] remarked to the writer, when questioned as to how much she could grasp of a conversation in Netherlands Dutch: "En parti kan ak kwait xtit verstdne, mdr en parti kein dk nit." ["Part of it I can understand quite well, but a part of it I cannot."]."

"The object of the present paper is to set forth a phonetic and grammatical sketch of this curious and dying dialect with a glossary of its most important and characteristic words still in use....So far as I know, no other philological treatise has appeared on this subject....It should be added that during the past eighteen years [1891-1909], I have heard many persons use thislast echo of an almost forgotten period....I have been particularly careful not to draw material from people who had any intercourse with Hollanders or Flemings, so that my sources may be looked upon as representing the unadulterated Jersey Dutch idiom, so far as it survives today [1910]."
What followed was an exhaustive list of words, terms, forms of pronunciation and possible etymological sources. Needless to say, the backup emphasized Dr. Prince's key point: the language of the settlers of New Netherlands (Nieuw Nederland ofte Nova Belgica) was heavily influenced by Flemish. Today's Flemings - and especially the Flemish government - rightly need to reclaim jurisdiction over this point of history.

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. No reproduction in any form permitted without my express, prior, written consent.

No comments:

Post a Comment