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February 15, 2012 | Dutch

Dutch New York!

I am reading about old New York and trying to figure out Dutch pronunciation.

I have an unread book on my shelves, Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, published in 2004. The book’s subtitle is “The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan & the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America.” I have been meaning to read it for years.

Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World

Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World

Upon beginning Dutch a few days ago, I got the book off my shelves and started acting on my longstanding intentions. I haven’t gotten very far in it yet, but the author starts out talking about the New Netherland Project and its director, Charles Gehring, a scholar who “received into his care in 1974 …twelve thousand sheets of rag paper covered with the crabbed, loopy script of seventeenth-century Dutch.” These were letters, business papers, court documents, etc., of the first Manhattanites.

In his thirties when he crossed paths with this archive, Gehring has since dedicated himself to translating these documents, producing a wealth of information about these early local residents and offering a fuller picture of our city’s origins. Sometimes people, through luck or diligence or both, cross paths with something that inspires an entire lifetime of happy and fulfilling work. I don’t know Gehring, but his sounds like such a story. It’s moving.

Shorto benefited in the writing of his book from these decades of translation labors, and I am excited to read more. As Shorto notes:

The Netherlands of this time was the melting pot of Europe. The Dutch Republic’s policy of tolerance made it a haven for everyone from Descartes and John Locke to exiled English royalty to peasants from across Europe. When this society founded a colony based on Manhattan Island, that colony had the same features of tolerance, openness, and free trade that existed in the home country. 

I find that very romantic. It sounds like the New York that inspired me to do this project to begin with: the polyglot, multicultural, humming, exploding open city I love.

Dutch differs from the other languages included in this project in that it is not these days spoken by all that many New Yorkers. Relatively speaking, I mean. 

According to the Modern Language Association’s Data Center, in 2005 there were 1,470 Dutch speakers in Manhattan. That puts Dutch squarely on the bottom of the list of languages for that borough. In comparison, the census of that year counted 364,115 Spanish speakers, 12,520 Japanese speakers, and 3,220 Hindi speakers.

But Dutch is where this all began. You can see Dutch influences all over the city in its place names: Brooklyn (after the Dutch town Breuckelen), Staten Island (Staten Eylandt), Coney Island (Conyne Eylandt, or “rabbit island”), Bushwick (Boswyck, or “woods district”), and more. WNET has a nifty interactive map of these and other place names, as well as a video on Dutch New York.

My early experiences with Dutch Pimsleur have taught me that a big challenge will be pronunciation. There are so many advantages to studying a language related to languages that are already familiar to you. Dutch is amazingly similar to German and English. All three are Germanic languages. 

In theory, knowing multiple languages in one family should make it much easier to absorb a new one from that family. And yet…it can be confusing when you try to speak it. Tongue-twisting. I had that experience with Italian, a brand new Romance language for me with many similarities to Spanish.

For me it was, and is, surprisingly difficult to switch a consonant or a vowel in an otherwise familiar word. The word “how,” for instance: come (pronounced roughly koh-may) in Italian, cómo in Spanish. I’ve known cómo since I was five years old, and my mouth was recalcitrant about switching the o to an e.

In Dutch, “I” is ik. In German it is ich. I have known ich since I was two years old. Comfortably saying ik when my brain wants to say ich is going to take some time.

Also strongly working against the interests of this hardworking, earnest little Dutch word is that it sounds exactly like ick in English. It feels silly to say ick. As though I am a three-year-old being made to eat some objectionable vegetable.

Comments (2)

Nick • Posted on Tue, March 27, 2012 - 11:32 am EST

So nice that you’ve started with Dutch! You will manage.
By the way, in the 17th century the the Dutch word for ‘I’ wasn’t ‘ik’ but ‘ick’. Pretty confusing ha?

Greetings from the Netherlands,

Nick

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, March 27, 2012 - 12:13 pm EST

So it was closer to the German “ich”! Interesting! Thank you for that information, Nick!

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