Martin Langeveld, an occasional LH commenter, has started a blog for papers presented at the Monday Evening Club of Pittsfield, Massachusetts (where I lived for a couple of years before moving east to Hadley), and his essay “Why we don’t all speak Dutch: Language extinction and language survival” has now been posted. He starts off talking about the Dutch of New Amsterdam and the odd persistence of their language:
The Dutch lost control of their colony in 1664, when the English took over, without firing a shot, during one of the periodic Anglo-Dutch wars of that century. However, the Dutch did not go away after the English takeover, nor did their culture fade away. In fact, despite the fact that only a tiny minority of immigrants to the New York region after 1664 came from the Netherlands, the Dutch language continued to be widely spoken in the New York region for over 200 years. Not until 1764 was English used to preach in New York’s Dutch Reformed churches. President Martin Van Buren (born in 1782 not far from here in Kinderhook and elected in 1836) spoke Dutch at home with his wife. The first 20th century president, Theodore Roosevelt, grew up hearing his grandparents speak Dutch at the dinner table in New York City in the 1860s. Sojourner Truth, the anti-slavery orator and associate of Frederick Douglass, was born as a slave in Ulster County, New York about 1797, and grew up speaking nothing but Dutch until she was eleven years old. Dutch was spoken in parts of Brooklyn into the mid 1800s and is quite likely the origin of the so-called Brooklyn accent.
Closer to the present, the Jackson Whites, a clan of mixed black, Indian and Dutch heritage still live in the Ramapo Hills of New Jersey. They spoke a bastardized form of Dutch, which still had some 200 speakers in 1910. This Jersey Dutch died out sometime between the 1920s and 1950s, although some Dutch-derived expressions apparently survive among their elders. Researchers in 1910 as well as in recent years found that some of them still knew a nursery rhyme called Trippe Trappe Troontjes, which was also mentioned by Teddy Roosevelt as the one piece of Dutch he remembered learnning from his grandmother; and on one of his African trips Roosevelt discovered that it was also known by the South African boers who had carried it there from Holland 300 years before.
In the early 20th century, Dutch researchers found other surviving pockets of Dutch descended directly from that of the colonial settlers of New Amsterdam, in the Hudson Valley as far north as Schenectady. I have found at least anecdotal evidence of families in the Catskills who spoke Dutch on a daily basis into the 1940s or 50s. So the language survived nearly three full centuries after the end of Dutch influence in North America. And who knows, it seems quite likely that somewhere in New York or New Jersey, there still lives a geezer or two who learned, on their mother’s knee, a smattering of that colonial Dutch.
Although it eventually died out, the survival of Dutch over such long time against all odds raises some interesting questions. Why did Dutch hang on, when the languages of other immigrants, like the Germans, Italians and Poles, typically disappear within a generation or two?
He discusses the issue in the light of the linguistic situation of Papua New Guinea; in the process he remarks that “as a child I also learned a Dutch dialect that is virtually extinct today. Official Dutch is really an artificial amalgam, codified in the 19th century, that bridges most of the dialects spoken in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium. The dialect I learned is virtually useless outside the old-age homes on the island of Texel, and Dutch itself is a language that’s pretty useless outside of the Netherlands.” Much food for thought there.