The apparently laudable movement to reform Dutch spelling – never particularly complicated, compared to English or French – resulted in chaos that continues to this day. There were official language reforms in 1934, 1947, 1955, 1996 and 2006, along with all kinds of minor alterations: by socialists, by Belgians, by South Africans, by the Association for Scientific Spelling. The reasons for these reforms are complex, but their results have been straightforward. It’s far harder for a Dutch-speaker today to read a book written a hundred years ago than it is for us to read T.S. Eliot or Henry James. This is particularly the case with a writer like Nescio, who was committed to reformed spelling, including reforms that never took root. To take a sentence at random from ‘Little Poet’:
En toen werti zoo kwaad op alle levende en doode dingen, datti z’n eindelooze erotiek onderbrak en een grimmig boek schreef, dat ‘m in eens beroemd maakte.
In Searls’s translation:
And then he got so enraged at everything, living and dead, that he interrupted his endless eroticism and wrote a grim and bitter little book that made him famous right away.
The Dutch presents two problems. The first is to do with words whose then standard spellings have been reformed: zoo, doode and eindelooze. The second is the deliberate misspelling that is a hallmark of Nescio’s style: werti and datti, ‘he became’ and ‘that he’. These would normally be written werd hij and dat hij but pronounced as Nescio writes them. Today, informally, they could be written werd-ie and dat-ie. The sentence is entirely comprehensible, especially when read aloud. But, on the page, the presence of five irregularly spelled words in a single sentence – a typical number – is distracting, and Nescio’s updates, daring in 1909, seem tiresome.
The cumulative effect of a century’s reforms has been to cut the Dutch off from their literature. Outside schools, the most commonly read book is probably Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, published in 1860, the same year as The Woman in White. Beyond that is the realm of specialists. Except for the most hardily aspirational reader, literature begins in the second third of the 20th century.
Does anybody know if that’s a fair statement of the facts, as regards the effect of the spelling reforms in general and the readability of Nescio’s work in particular? Also, how do you say “Nescio” in Dutch: /nesio/?