I was reading Benjamin Moser’s LRB review of Amsterdam Stories by the Dutch writer Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh), translated by Damion Searls, and I was startled by this passage:

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/?


  1. I hesitate to comment on this, because my Dutch is a late acquisition, and my visits to the Netherlands not only few and far between, but limited to places where these kinds of questions are not much actively wrestled with. But:
    I don’t think it’s true that the Dutch are cut off from their literature by spelling reform gone haywire, at all. My Dutch sucks like a porn star, and I’m 500 pages into the 1882 Gutenberg project edition of Jules Verne’s Naar het Middelpunt der Aarde, without any problems whatsoever. They write ‘zoo’ instead of ‘zo’ and use ‘gij’ instead of ‘jij’ or ‘u’, along with a half-dozen other curiosities that are perfectly well-attested in other specimens of writing from the era, regularly seen on statues, buildings, in Biblical quotes, etc. Seriously, big whoop.
    It looks to me as if the writer is simply taking ‘werti’ and ‘datti’, which are visually the real oddities here, and flogging them for all they’re worth. But they’re only odd to the eye; as you read, they *sound* perfectly proper, just as the words are pronounced today (I immediately thought ‘werd-ie’ and ‘dat-ie’).
    I’m about as put out by this as I am by reading your average drunken text message, or comment on Yahoo!, and I can’t imagine any of the Nederlanders of my acquaintance being worse off than me in that respect.

  2. > Outside schools, the most commonly read book is probably Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, published in 1860, […]
    Can this possibly be true? There must be a missing word or something, right?

  3. Is it just a coincidence that the two Dutch authors mentioned have Latin pseudonyms, or was the practice widespread? (Nescio = ‘I don’t know’, Multa Tuli as two words = ‘I’ve suffered/endured/put up with many things’.) The only examples I can think of in English are much earlier: ‘Publius’ in the Federalist Papers, and . . . I thought there was a British political writer who called himself ‘Arator’ but can’t seem to confirm that, and other examples escape me at the moment. Can anyone help?

  4. We still don’t know who Junius was, though speculation is not lacking. The Federalist Papers are only a small selection from a huge amount of pseudonymous publication around the same time, much of which used Latin pseudonyms: notable anti-Federalists called themselves Cato, Brutus, and Centinel.

  5. I’m guessing that “most commonly read book” is a slip for “oldest book still commonly read” or something of the sort.

  6. Thanks. Junius was one of the ones I was semi-thinking of. On the non-political side, Kierkegaard used a bunch of pseudonyms, some of them Latin or Latinized Greek, including Victor Eremita, Johannes Climacus, and Nicolaus Notabene – the last a portmanteau name like Multatuli.

  7. marie-lucie says

    In Halifax (Nova Scotia) there is Agricola Street which commemorates John Young, an early 19C Scottish immigrant, a businessman and farmer who chose Agricola as his pseudonym to write articles in the form of letters which made him locally famous.
    Later, another Nova Scotian, William Alexander Smith, went West, first to the US where he became a Mormon and changed his name to Amor de Cosmos, then to British Columbia where he became a journalist and later the second premier of BC after this territory became a province. Who says Canadian history is dull!

  8. As someone interested in language families I may be predisposed to downplay differences between dialects, spelling deviations etc. BUT:
    I find it a bit unlikely that Dutch people, who can almost all read English and German when they need to, would freak out over reading slightly differently spelled Dutch.
    p.s. One German’s Greek pseudonym that will definitely live forever is Neander (he of the Thal. Or Tal. OH NO I’M CUT OFF FROM THE PAST BY THIS BIZARRE SPELLING!)

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I have read (but someone more knowledgeable can no doubt confirm it, or not) that the major problem when Dutch and Belgians get together to discuss spelling reform is that the main preoccupation of the Dutch is that it shouldn’t look like German, whereas the main preoccupation of the Belgians is that it shouldn’t look like French.

  10. …also (sorry for the multiple posts and I’m not a Dutch speaker so my opinion’s probably worthless), isn’t TS Eliot a really, really bizarre choice for an example of a “readable” writer in English?
    Surely whatever orthographical hurdles Nescio poses to the modern Dutch reader must pale in comparison to, say, “The Waste Land”, which would actually be impossible for anyone to read casually unless they spoke about 30 languages including flapper slang, Sanskrit, Wagnerian glossolalia and birdsong?

  11. dearieme says

    Whatever happened to Double Dutch?
    “Who says Canadian history is dull!” Lucky the land with a dull history.

  12. I tried learning Dutch for about 6 months back in 2007, and even I understood that sentence. Dude. Get some more credible sources.

  13. when Dutch and Belgians get together
    I have heard and retold this same wisecrack, but specialized to the word cultuur (Dutch version) / kultuur (Belgian version).

  14. Sounds like my suspicions were correct!

  15. David Bauwens says

    Nescio is pronounced nay-ski-oh. He was very much influenced by Multatuli, perhaps even to the point of adopting a Latin pseudonym; but it’s not a common phenomenon, at least it wasn’t anymore in those days.
    And as a native Flemish speaker, I’d say some of the statements in that article are a bit exaggerated. Spellings like werti and datti are typical for this specific author, because he is trying to make his lines sound like spoken language. And the change of duplicated vowels to single ones in open syllables, along with for instance -sch- > -s- in many instances, like Nederlands(ch), are only slight changes in orthography that you hardly notice anymore after a couple of lines. Besides, comparing my 2nd edition of Gerard Reve’s ‘De Avonden’ (1947) to some later ones, I notice that these kinds of changes have been silently made at some point along the way.
    I’m afraid that if people feel ‘cut off’ from much of their own literature from a few generations back, that is much more a matter of taste than any reading difficulties.

  16. David Bauwens says

    It is true, however, that spelling reforms have been so frequent, that practically everyone is left feeling insecure about some or other feature, such as:
    – the use of ‘s (apostrophe s), to form plurals or ‘genitives’
    – the use of -n- in between two words that make up a compound
    – the use of a hyphen, again in compounds
    – the use of capital letters
    – the conjugation of verbs that have been imported and Dutchified: for instance updaten, ik update, jij updatet, hij updatet; ik heb geüpdatet, etc.
    (OK, the last one is a bad example, because this is not something that has been changed, but the general feeling is that these forms look very awkward)

  17. Dutch and Belgians
    I guess you mean Dutch and Flemings. I’m curious to know how much interaction there is between Dutch and Flemish speakers.
    Wikipedia is interesting.
    1. In 2009 a Dutch dictionary was published that for the first time distinguished between the two natiolectic varieties “Nederlands Nederlands” (or “Netherlandish Dutch”) and “Belgisch Nederlands” (“Belgian Dutch”) and treated both variations as equally correct.
    Professor Willy Martin, one of the Flemish editors, claimed that the latter expressions are “just as correct” as the former. This formed a break with the previous lexicologists’ custom to comment on a Flemish word that it is mainly used in Flanders, while the specific use in Holland of its Dutch-Dutch equivalent had remained unmentioned. Thus it had appeared as if the Flemish word was somehow aberrant Dutch.
    2. The differences between Dutch in the Netherlands and Flemish are significant enough for Flemish and Dutch television shows with rather informal speech customarily to become subtitled for the other country in the standard language.
    3. In November 2012 the Belgian radio channel Radio 1 wrote a text with many Flemish words and asked several Dutch speaking people to “translate” it into general Dutch. Almost no inhabitant of The Netherlands was able to make a correct translation, whereas almost all Flemings succeeded.
    All in all it gives the unfortunate impression that being outside the “official standard homeland” of a language leaves you with second-class linguistic status.

  18. I’m sure Disraeli or Wilkes or someone used a Latin name, of which the Internet has no record. Nescio is becoming well known, meanwhile, Michael Foot et al are publishing Guilty Men as ‘Cato’.

  19. – languagehat
    I’ve gone back and pawed through my physical library (a depressingly rare occurrence these days) to find my earliest proto-Dutch text: the Trojeroman by Segher Diengotgaf, from Amsterdam University Press. Here we go:
    Seghers werc gaet hyer nu an
    mer dat prologhe dat hy began
    en heeft dat Walsche boet niet inne.
    Dat seit hy in syn beghynne.
    Dies is leden menghen dach
    dat grote heer voer Troyen lach.
    Een deel van dien dat dar gescinde.
    hebben ghehoert veel lude,
    mer diet Romans maecten ende screef,
    hy vergat – ic en weet niet waert bleef –
    een deel der beter aventueren,
    Um… I think that’s from around 1250, and it’s pretty clearly more-or-less legible in modern Dutch. The changes that English has gone through in the meantime make this look like child’s play to read. This whole Dutch orthography angle is being way overplayed if you ask me. Sorry to anyone on the “Ach, poor Dutch! Such orthographic stress!” side.

  20. …* boet = boec, *beter = bester – sorry, was typing fast. Is there a more reliable online source for this text than my hamfisted mistyping?

  21. There’s an 1892 edition at Google Books which is freely available, at least to me.

  22. – John Cowan
    That’s it! I think the spellings in that version are not quite the same as my version, but since my argument was that spelling doesn’t matter, I can hardly quibble… thanks

  23. Belgian Dutch words and usage can be reported at the Taalmeldpunt.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Clicking Amsterdam Stories above gets you to Amazon, where I read a few pages (with “Surprise me”) and regretted not being able to read more. The sense of the Dutch landscape is magical. There is a review that praises the author highly, and another comment which says that the NRB reviewer completely missed the subtle character of the stories.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, my impression is that Flemish nationalists/separatists these days (when writing in English, at least) refer to their language pretty uniformly as “Dutch” rather than “Flemish.” That is obviously not inconsistent with the existence of multiple varieties of the Dutch language or even with the language being “pluricentric” in terms of the standard (just as we would not say these days that AmEng is a mere regional variant of BrEng or vice versa), but I find it interesting that they seem NOT to think that characterizing the local variety as if it were a distinct and freestanding language (a reasonably common practice for nationalist/separatist groups) is the rhetorical stance they want to strike. Although of course it’s not impossible that there are factional differences on this issue within Flemish separatist/nationalist circles and my exposure has not been evenly balanced by faction.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    Just on the 13th century text: works of English literature more than, say three centuries old are quite commonly republished with modernized/normalized spelling and it is sometimes difficult to find an original-spelling reprint. Now, when you get back to Middle English rather than the early 17th century, you’re actually more likely to get an original-spelling (or at least semi-original / they may not deal with edhs and yoghs and whatnot consistently) edition, but when dealing with Early Modernish texts I would not even assume that a typical edition would always be explicit about what had been done with orthography. (There are some exceptions – e.g. for reasons that escape me it is traditional for modern editions of the poetry of Spenser to track original orthography in a way that is not as commonly done for his contemporaries.)
    Thus (at least without knowing a whole lot about the conventions of the Dutch publishing industry over time), I would not start with the assumption that any printed version of a 13th century Dutch text has orthography that tracks some 13th century source MS letter for letter as opposed to being normalized to what some editor in some subsequent century thought appropriate (which might have been the usage of his day which is now in turn somewhat out of date, or might have been his sense of what would seem sorta archaic/medieval-flavored without being authentically so).

  27. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    WIW, my impression is that Flemish nationalists/separatists these days (when writing in English, at least) refer to their language pretty uniformly as “Dutch” rather than “Flemish.”
    and when writing in Dutch don’t they also refer to their language pretty uniformly as Nederlands rather than Vlaams? That’s my impression, anyway.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Sorry – should have said, although the English convention is to be more likely to use original spelling for Chaucer than Shakespeare (b/c there there has simply been so much other lexical/syntactic change that a more original spelling is consistent with the distance of the text from anything approximating our current language), if in fact 21st century Dutch is less dramatically distinctive from 13th century Dutch than 21st century English is from 13th century English that might paradoxically (generalizing from Anglophone publishing practice) increase rather than decrease the odds that the medieval Dutch text is reprinted with modernized (as of the date of the reprint, of course . . .) spelling.

  29. marie-lucie says

    Athel: Flemish writers: when writing in Dutch don’t they also refer to their language pretty uniformly as Nederlands rather than Vlaams?
    Perhaps because using the word Vlaams would give the impression that the work is too narrowly Belgian in topic as well as language to appeal to Dutch readers.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s the longest paragraph from the opening couple pages of a century-old AmEng novel written in fairly elevated style (Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country):
    Mrs. Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing-rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg
    rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing-room walls, above their wainscoting of highly-varnished mahogany, were hung with
    salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the centre of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of “The Hound of the
    Baskervilles” which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs. Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a wax figure in a show-window. Her attire was fashionable enough to justify such a post, and her pale soft-cheeked face, with
    puffy eye-lids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially-melted wax figure which had run to double-chin.
    Maybe the whole diction and some of the references and lexical choices are a bit antique, but on purely orthographic grounds, the only changes I would make are: a) “center” for “centre” (but “centre” is a variant that modern AmEng readers will be fully familiar with); b) no hyphen in “drawing-room” (but the hyphenation creates no puzzlement or confusion for me); and possibly c) I don’t know if “Looey” is intended as some sort of eye-dialect for “the way Americans think the French say Louis” (which if so I might handle differently today) but since in context it’s a proper noun whose referent is not entirely clear to me I can’t be certain.
    It’s certainly possible that there would be substantially more small changes than this in an equivalent paragraph from a 1913 Dutch novel, even if individually or collectively they did not actually impair comprehension by a well-educated modern reader.

  31. des von bladet says

    A pronunciation of “Nescio”, which is also how I would pronounce it, although I actually never have.
    I was around for the last spelling reform – set out in the “Green Book” of the Nederlandse Taalunie – and promptly chose to side with the dissidents’ rival “White Book”. (The Countess is a university lecturer and therefore a civil servant and therefore required to follow the Green Book.)
    In practice, I don’t think anyone is really all that bothered and I certainly had no trouble with the quoted Nescio passage. But I might be tempted to make the case that a fairly regular spelling makes deviations more perturbing than they would be for native sufferers of English orthography.
    (Incidentally, my native informant is of the opinion that Max Havelaar is actually a pretty dull book, and I do not think that is a particularly anomalous view.)

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    Looking at my earlier post on Wharton’s orthography and consulting the American English google books subcorpus via the n-gram viewer, “center” first passed “centre” in AmEng only in 1906, so Wharton (subject to more fine-grained analysis as to possible differences as to which variant predominated in which context) was not particularly far behind the curve and “drawing room” did not consistently outscore “drawing-room” until the 1970’s with the hyphenated version an order of magnitude more popular in Wharton’s day. Finally, Wharton seems to have been the only person (other than those quoting her work) in the history of google books AmEng subcorpus to have used the bigram “Looey suites.”

  33. I suspect that there indeed is a link between the multiple spelling reforms Dutch underwent over the past hundred years or so and the fact that the Dutch as a whole do not read their pre-modern literature. But my guess is that the spelling reforms didn’t make pre-modern literature illegible (as so many posters above have nicely shown): rather, I suspect that lack of interest in Dutch pre-modern literature is what made it possible for various spelling reforms to be implemented.
    It is a guess, but not a wholly uninformed one: I have Dutch relatives, and have been repeatedly surprised by their ignorance of and indifference to earlier Dutch history and literature: yet they certainly knew a good deal of the histories and older literatures of the United States, Britain, and to a lesser degree France and Germany. My sense is that the traditional Dutch openness to the outside world has yielded a local inferiority complex that is very oddly reminescent of what is found in recently decolonized countries.

  34. bruessel says

    I have to agree that Max Havelaar is a pretty dull book. I certainly wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t been obliged to do so for my Dutch course.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    None of the Nobel laureates from the Netherlands are in literature and the only winner in that category from Belgium (1911 – and not a household name in my household at least . . .) wrote in French. I suspect that Dutch may be the European language with the largest number of speakers (or at least the largest number among the subset of European languages that avoided ending up on the wrong side of the iron curtain) whose literature is still scoreless in the Nobel sweepstakes. So if they have an inferiority complex about their own literature the Swedes aren’t helping them out with it.
    At one point on the internet a year or two back (I don’t think it was here?) I was having a debate about which Dutch-language writers had sufficient international recognition that well-educated Anglophones might have heard of them and perhaps even read them in translation. My nominees were Anne Frank, Johan Huizinga (a household name in a reasonably select group of households . . .), and, at least for those of a certain age, the Dr. van de Velde of sex-manual fame (although I wonder if he’s the one suffering the potential indignity of being called “a doctor with a German name” in the Richard Thompson song “Read About Love”). In some ecclesiastical circles, the committee of Dutch-speaking Calvinists whose views prevailed at the Synod of Dort remain quite important and influential almost four centuries later but at least one internet source suggests that the original and canonical version (as it were) of the so-called Canons of Dort was issued in Latin (perhaps precisely so it could have international impact).

  36. marie-lucie says

    the Looey suites
    The room described contains portraits of Marie-Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe, the two highest-ranking women in France before the Revolution, before becoming its victims. It is likely that the other suites also have portraits of royals and near-royals from the times of the famous “Looeys”, kings of France: Louis XVI, Louis XV and Louis XIV in particular. My guess is that the spelling “Looey” is meant to reproduce the hotel staff’s pronunciation (since those people would be presumed to be ignorant of French history and spelling), also heard in the song Meet me in Saint-Loui, Louie.

  37. marie-lucie says

    Looeys (suite)
    So Looey would be a case of “eye dialect”, a spelling which suggests substandard speech while the pronunciation is the same as in standard speech.

  38. Spenser’s language is precisely “sorta archaic/medieval-flavored without being authentically so”, which is why it tends to be preserved even in student editions: it’s not just the ordinary English of his day. The same is true of Milton (“Hee for God only, Shee for God in him”, e.g.)
    In Tolkien’s “Valedictory Address”, he is bemoaning the artificial and unnatural division between the study of the English language (“Lang”) and the study of English literature (“Lit”) at Oxford:

    Medieval spelling remains just a dull department of Lang. Milton’s spelling seems now to have become part of Lit. Almost the whole of the introduction in the Everyman edition of his poems, which is recommended to the students for our Preliminary, is devoted to it. But even if not all of those who deal with this facet of Milton criticism show an expert grasp of the history of English sounds and spelling, enquiry into his orthography and its relation to his metre remains just Lang, though it may be employed in the service of criticism.
    ‘Candidates for Courses I and II [which were mostly Lang] may be required to answer questions on language’! […] What kind of question can it mean which no candidate of Course III [almost entirely Lit] need ever touch? Is it wicked to enquire, in paper or viva voce, what here or there Chaucer really meant, by word or form, or idiom? Is metre and verse-technique of no concern to sensitive literary minds? Must nothing in any way related to Chaucer’s medium of expression be ever allowed to disturb the cotton wool of poor Course III? […]
    The logical result of this attitude, indeed its only rational expression, would be this direction: ‘Courses I and II may be expected to show knowledge of Chaucer in the original; Course III will use a translation into contemporary English’. But, if this translation, as may well happen, should at any point be erroneous, this may not be mentioned. That would be ‘language’.

    Later, Tolkien adds: “Grammar is for all (intelligent persons), though not all may rise to star-spangled grammar” (i.e. hypothetical reconstruction), and finishes with this marvelous peroration, which I quote for its splendor rather than its immediate relevance:

    But now when I survey with eye or mind those who may be called my pupils (though rather in the sense ‘the apples of my eyes’): those who have taught me much (not least trawþe, that is fidelity), who have gone on to a learning to which I have not attained; or when I see how many scholars could more than worthily have succeeded me; then I perceive with gladness that the duguð has not yet fallen by the wall, and the dréam is not yet silenced.

  39. @ John Cowan –
    Point well taken; in my zeal to dig up an “Old High Low Country” text (which was more or less off-topic anyway, sorry everyone) I didn’t think about how edited it might have been compared to the original MS. I’m always amazed to see what they do to Shakespeare’s spelling.
    In the Wharton paragraph, one word which struck me as odd was “gilt”. Is it just the repetition that got to me, or is that not in current US? Do we tend to say “gilded” more often now, or are both just… well, not as used as they used to be, simply because we don’t sit around thinking about putting gold on ornamental objects as much as we used to?

  40. As for Max Havelaar, I’ve only read the first few dozen pages, several times. I think the part I keep re-reading (before falling asleep from boredom) is all frame narrative about a man wearing a shawl going to some office in Amsterdam (? “de Sjaalman”? I never looked this up, it could be anything but I pretend it’s a shawl) and I never get to the part where anything happens, if there is one. But I can at least say I tried!?

  41. marie-lucie says

    gilt vs gilded: In the centre of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow
    I think that a “gilt” object is one made of a “gilded” material such as wood or metal covered with gold leaf or gold applied through some other process. So a “gilt table” must be a table made of gilded wood or metal (even though the table must have been made first before being subjected to the gilding process). This phrase, together with the period in which the text was written, also suggest to me that the “gilt table” is a somewhat delicate one in spite of supporting a (presumably small) potted palm, and similarly the “gilt basket” could be an open-work one made of something like gold wire (with the palm in a pot inside the basket). But I am not an expert on historical decoration, especially the lavish decoration typical of the period. Perhaps AJP would be the person to ask.

  42. @ marie-lucie – But is there an agreed-upon difference between “gilt” and “gilded”, or are they interchangeable? Notice that the Wikipedia page claims paradoxically that “A gilded object is described as “gilt””, then proceeds to ignore that definition in favor of “gilded” half the time.

  43. The OED says that gilded and gilt have both been in use since the 15th century.

  44. marie-lucie says

    AG, let’s wait for AJP to come by and we’ll ask him. Perhaps he will tell us how to describe his crown. Or perhaps someone else has an unsuspected familiarity with these words in their technical sense.

  45. I’m very far from being expert in 17C-18C French furniture techniques but I agree with you m-l (and apparently with Wikipedia) that a gilt table is gilded. So I suppose you’d be more likely to say “gilded cage” than “gilt cage” because gilt is a mere surface, the cage itself being made of something stronger.
    “Louie”, by the way, is Italian. I think I’ve mentioned before taking phone messages in New York from people I thought were called Louis or Rousseau who turned out to be Louie or Russo, common Italian-American names (certainly in New York). Louie can’t be mispronounced as “Lewis”, so that’s an advantage if you’re living among English speakers.

  46. When I started learning Dutch 30 years ago, I was loaned a copy of the “Camera Obscura” (a collection of stories by Nicolas Beets writing under the pseudonym of “Hildwbrand”) by Dutch friends of my parents, introduced by them as “a classic that everybody knows”. It first appeared in the 1830s and still seems to have a readership that at least justifies a new edition about every 10 years. The issue I now own (not the one I was loaned – I tend to return loaned books!) seems to have the modern orthography, as far as I can tell. So I would doubt both assertions – that orthography reform makes older Dutch works inacessible and that no books older than “Max Havelaar” are commonly read.

  47. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, n-gram viewer says “gilt table” has been more common than “gilded table” since c. 1900. By contrast “gilded cage” has been and remains more common than “gilt cage,” but that may be because the former is a fixed phrase used in an extended metaphorical sense.

  48. I’m sure you’re right, JW, now I think about it.

  49. Another such fixed phrase is “gilt-edged bond” for a really solid investment. I haven’t bothered to look, but I assume that “gilded-edged bond” would be extremely rare or nonexistent.

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    “Gilts” is standard financial-journalism shorthand for bonds issued by the UK government. Opinions may vary as to whether they are a really solid investment (as compared to what under what set of circumstances, the question will always be), but within the specific universe of fixed-coupon debt instruments denominated in sterling they’re probably as low-risk as any alternative on offer.

  51. …and they’re more easily traded than guilt-edged bonds.

  52. bruessel says

    Of course! Camera Obscura by Hildebrand. I was trying to remember the other boring books I had to read. There was also De stille kracht (1900) by Louis Couperus.

  53. marie-lucie says

    To me, “gilded-edged bond” would refer to an actual piece of paper edged with an actual gold border. A “gilt-edged bond” is a metaphor: a bond as financially secure as if its paper was actually edged with gold.

  54. People used to write letters to the newspaper signed with names such as Pro Bono Publico. I saw a letter in (as I remember) The Irish Times about 10 years ago or so, advocating the legalization of marijuana, and signed Pro Stono Publico.

  55. I was trying to remember the other boring books I had to read
    That is obviously why they teach Afrikaans literature in Dutch schools 🙂

  56. The changes in the official spelling of Dutch do not make it impossible for a modern reader to read pre-WWII literature, but it most certainly discourages it; especially younger readers are very much put off. For Über-literati (such as the people who comment on blogs like this one) it does not much matter. For those who are very much interested it is not exceedingly difficult to acquire the ability to read 19th-century literature. But the extremely literate and the fanatically interested are a very small group. You might as well call them specialists.

    A modern Dutch teen-ager will hardly be able to access any of the older books, where Nescio (circa 1920) is probably the most antique book he will be able to “decipher” on his own… The peculiarities of Nescio’s spelling are not very hard to get used to, and he Nescio wrote in a narrative style that is easy to follow.

    The most famous classics from the 19th century are re-issued in modern spelling, more and more often they are even kind of “translated” into a more contemporary idiom.

    These most classic writers would be Hildebrand and Multatuli (already mentioned here) and Louis Couperus.

    Oh, I’d like to ask those who found “Max Havelaar” BORING, whether they would also be bored by Tristram Shandy, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Henry Melville, or Henry James.

    Most young people in Holland find Max Havelaar boring (it is one of the very few books that may still be forced upon the young during Dutch classes in school), but their problem is -I think- that the whole of 19th century literature is imply too -eh- SLOW for them. All those descriptions, oh!

    A deplorable effect of modernizing spelling is that a young person, seeing “droomen” instead of “dromen”, seeing “mensch tusschen visschen” instead of “mens tussen vissen”, will automatically think: “…oh….old…antiquated…not hip….boring!!!”

  57. Thanks, it’s useful to be reminded that not everyone is, as you say, one of the Über-literati. I guess Moser wasn’t overstating the case as wildly as some commenters implied.

  58. I am indeed desperately bored by Henry James (who writes fiction, Oscar said, as if it were a painful duty), and by the Melville of Moby-Dick, though not at all by his earlier works. I’ve never read “the celebrated Thacker” (“What’s he done?” “Damned if I know!”), but the other two I like.

  59. marie-lucie says

    Tristram Shandy [Laurence Sterne], Jane Austen, Thackeray, Henry [Herman] Melville, or Henry James.
    Having taken courses in English and American literatures, I have read some parts of the work of all those people, and more. Thackeray is a satirist of 19C England, full of irony under a straight facade, somewhat like Jane Austen. I read Vanity Fair years ago and should probably reread it as I would appreciate it more now (with a much better understanding of the language and of the historical background), and more recently The Egotist, which somehow fell into my hands at an idle moment and which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would, since I did not have high expectations to begin with.

  60. m-l: Do you by any chance mean The Egoist by George Meredith? I can’t find any such work by Thackeray.
    I have never read Meredith either, except for the poem “Love in the Valley” (more for its meter than its matter), but I cherish another of Oscar’s remarks: “Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.”

  61. Beaten to it by John: Henry James is boring. It’s a well-known fact.
    Ø is very keen on Moby Dick. He was so enthusiastic that I almost gave it a second chance.
    One thing about this Dutch spelling reform: how does it affect translation dictionaries or Google Translate? Do they have dozens of spellings of the same word or only the most up-to-date version?
    The unspoken moral is that spelling so-called ‘reform’ is a very bad thing. I agree. I loathe the very idea of busybodies messing about with language as if it were a matter of state, like a nation’s tax code. In phase II they probably put you in prison for using old spellings.

  62. marie-lucie says

    JC: Do you by any chance mean The Egoist by George Meredith?
    Oops, sorry, that shows you how long it is that I have read Victorian literature, even most recently. You are right, it is Meredith not Thackeray. Then I only know Thackeray through Vanity Fair. About Meredith and Browning: I have read some Browning, but Meredith’s novel did not remind me of him at all. Perhaps he wrote other works which justified the quip. But the social situations in that novel are sort of Austen-like.

  63. Dear connoisseurs of Dutch, I humbly wish to get myself enlightened on a point that interested me long ago: when did the removal of case declension happen? How come such dramatic a revision does not seem to be much discussed now? Does that affect younglings’ ability to grok older writings?

  64. Absolute Zero, I’d say that it’s the same phenomenon we see in English or the Scandinavian languages: phonological decay leads to grammatical decay. In Dutch, the death of the accusative and dative goes back four hundred years, except in set phrases and in the use of ten and ter, the fused forms of te den and te der ‘at the’ (in a figurative sense only, saith Wikipedia). The dative /-n/, like all other /-n/, ceased to be pronounced, and all distinction between the nominative and the accusative was lost in the common gender (of course, no IE language distinguishes them in neuter). The same explanation applies to the collapse (not yet complete, especially in Flanders) of the masculine and feminine genders into the common gender, again parallel to all the Germanic languages except the very conservative Standard German and insular North Germanic.
    But really, funky endings don’t so much interfere with reading comprehension, if you are willing to take a sporting run at it. We anglophones can read
         And smale fowles maken melodye,
         That slepen al the night with open [e]ye,
         (So priketh hem nature in hir [= their] corages)
        Than [= then] longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
    despite the -(e)n and -eth endings on the verbs, simply by ignoring them.

  65. des von bladet says

    Oh, I’d like to ask those who found “Max Havelaar” BORING, whether they would also be bored by Tristram Shandy, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Henry Melville, or Henry James.
    I’ve certainly been bored by some of those! But I’m not in your target group. My wife, who is, is a great admirer of Austen and quite keen on Thackeray.
    You could love Sterne – for it was he! – and yet lack any urgent desire to read Trollope, isn’t it?

  66. “”Dear connoisseurs of Dutch, I humbly wish to get myself enlightened on a point that interested me long ago: when did the removal of case declension happen? How come such dramatic a revision does not seem to be much discussed now? Does that affect younglings’ ability to grok older writings?””

    Texts older than the 18th century are difficult for most, but case endings are the least of their troubles. Case-endings did give trouble before 1934, not for grokking, but for productive writing. A short history:

    The most far-reaching spelling reform in Holland was a spelling law from 1934. They dropped oo and ee in open syllables, and silent “-sch” at the end of many (but not all) words. In that same law case endings were made OPTIONAL.(Actually the only important change concerned the -n at the end of articles and adjectives for dative and accusative masculine)

    So instead of “voor den grooten man” one was allowed to write “voor de grote man” [for the big man], which was a blessing for pupils of primary and secondary schools (and everybody else -in written texts these endings used to be obligatory, but they were always silent), because now it was no longer necessary to memorize whether words were masculine or feminine.
    Those case-ending “-n’s” had not been pronounced for generations. (Official speeches were exceptions; I recently heard a recording of some official speech during the war, in which “voor deN oorlog” [before the war] was clearly articulated.)

    The new 1934 rules were originally only for the schools, at a later date they would become universal. When the Germans invaded in 1940 the old spelling was still in use, so everything from the period of the German occupation is still in the old spelling. The new spelling was officially adopted in 1948 (i.e. compulsory for all official documents), when a committee was created to decide some issues in words of foreign origin. It was a Belgian-Dutch committee, and the Flemish wanted to replace as many c’s with k’s as possible. This led to some peculiar compromises, and for unresolved issues even to two spellings (one ‘preferred” and one “also allowed” with the proviso the the government and the schools had to use “preferred”.

    This result was achieved (and put into law) in 1954. (One day all primary-school pupils were expected to write “vakantie in juni”, instead of “vacantie in Juni”.)

    So in the fifties people gradually got used to the new spelling and only a few diehards kept putting optional “-n’s” for masc 3+4. Since those case-endings were always silent in the spoken language, most people could not easily do it correctly anyway.

    Not being a specialist in the history of Dutch, I do not know when the case-endings had ceased to be pronounced, but I do know (Multatuli wrote about it) that in 19th century they had disappeared from ordinary speech.

    By the way in southern varieties of spoken Dutch (including in Flemish but not exclusively so,) the masculine “n” survives to distinguish the masculine, but it’s not a case-ending since it’s also there in the nominative. (In this matter I’m no specialist either. So don’t ask.)

    By the way, I very much agree with AJP Crown that it is not right for governments to decree spelling rules. It is especially galling when politically appointed committees of illiterates decree rules that are illogical and/or unetymological. (I know most of you hate prescriptivists; well, how about illiterate prescriptivists giving out false prescriptions?)

    Marie-Lucie, I apologize for sloppiness in my little list of classical works that might or might not be deemed boring. Of course, to be consistent, I should have put Sterne the author and not the title of his most famous book, and please forgive my “Henry Melville”…
    I simply threw some names and titles on the table which I had heard describe as boring at one time or another.
    I stand corrected. Probably I myself am less über-literate than I want to believe…

  67. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy has been described as “the greatest shaggy-dog story in the English language”. I take this to mean that it has a certain amount of tedium built in, but that this is for comic effect. I love it, but I have to be in the right mood.
    Henry James: I also have to be in the right mood to read him, but again I eat it up when I am.

  68. Jolly interesting (and a bit frightening), Frans Koppenol. Thanks!

  69. Ø is very keen on Moby Dick.
    So am I, if that helps. But as with Tristram Shandy, you have to be in the right mood. Also, it may be best to dip in and out until you find a chapter that suits your mood than try to read the whole thing straight through; after all, we all know the story by now.

  70. Am I keen on Moby Dick? I sometimes say I am, but I haven’t read it for decades.

  71. I never make it past a certain point in Moby-Dick. I’m not exactly sure what point that is, because what happens is that I fall asleep over it.

  72. I just want to revive this old topic to add that Nescio was really a great writer. Some quotes from his stories have become very famous in Dutch literature. His stories are very melancholic, but the real magic is in the language. The odd spelling also forces you to read slow, which is a pace that suits the poetic language well. He is possibly my favourite writer in my own language, together with W.F. Hermans and J.J. Voskuil.

  73. That’s a high recommendation, thanks!

  74. Recently, in response to a post I put on Facebook concerning an article about languages of central Asian countries proposing to switch from Cyrillic to Latin letters, I received the following comment (to which I haven’t responded as yet):

    Ер нь хэл гэдэг бол бичиг биш л дээ. Ямар ч үсгээр тэмдэглэдэг байсан тухайн хэл байж л байна. Ханзаар бичсэн ч болышд хэрэв хүсвэл. Монголчууд эртнээс янз бүрийн үсэг хэрэглэж ирсэн. Тэглээ гээд Монгол хэл байж л байна.


    “Actually, language is not writing. Whatever letters are used, it’s still the same language. If you want you can even write it in Chinese characters. Mongolians have been using a variety of writing since ancient times. Despite this it’s still the Mongolian language.”

    To be honest, despite the linguist in me agreeing with the assertion that the writing system is not the language, I was unable to agree with this comment because it’s so manifestly simplistic. And, to be honest, I think it’s wrong.

    The old Mongolian script (Mongol bichig) is not a terribly good fit to any dialect of Mongolian. Despite this, it was used by the many different groups that call themselves Mongols — the Khalkha, the Chahar, the Buryats, the Khorchin… These dialects are often mutually unintelligible, at least without some kind of exposure to the other dialects. The Mongols in the West used a considerably modified version called Tod Bichig to write their languages. Other scripts have been used in the past, including Chinese characters for The Secret History. But policies on modern scripts have definitely had a major impact on the language or group of dialects known as “Mongolian”.

    Despite the fact that a Khorchin, a Khalkha, and a Buryat might have had difficulty understanding one another in speaking, they shared a writing system that allowed them to communicate without hindrance. When the Soviets had control over the northern and western Mongols, they deliberately adopted different orthographies for them. The result is that Cyrillic as used for writing “Mongolian” in Mongolia (more accurately described as “Khalkha”), in Buryatia, and in Kalmykia are quite different. The imposition of different scripts has gone hand-in-hand with drastically different terminological directions. Along with the fact that the Buryats of Russia have adopted vast swathes of Russian vocabulary, the adoption of a different writing system means that Buryats in Russia have been largely cut off from other Mongols, whereas those living in both China (where they still use the old script) and Mongolia (where Khalkha has been standardised) are not.

    China, on the other hand, has gone in the opposite direction. Mongol bichig has been imposed on all Mongols in China — the Oirats and other western Mongols are no longer taught Tod Bichig. The Chahar dialect (which is most similar to Khalkha) has been adopted as the “standard” Mongolian language in China. Mongols from these different areas still initially have difficulty understanding the spoken language of other areas (although this improves with contact and exposure), but they can read each other’s writing and have shared vocabulary as a result of language standardisation.

    Obviously it’s not just a matter of script, but the script used for writing these languages/dialects has manifestly had an impact on them. Pan-Mongols might describe Buryat or Kalmyk as varieties of “Mongolian”, and the commonalities are apparent upon exposure and inspection, but for practical purposes they are now different languages. One suspects that only a Khalkha-speaking Mongolian, who believes in the primacy of Khalkha as standard Mongolian, or a pan-Mongolist, who wants to bring Mongols together again, would blithely declare that it doesn’t matter what script is used.

    The much-maligned spelling of English plays a similar role in uniting English dialects. If Americans and Brits had reformed their spelling to reflect their own pronunciation, I suspect the forces of divergence would possibly have pushed them to become functionally different languages. Difficulty in reading each others’ writing seems a sure-fire way to push different varieties apart, not least because of the centrifugal impact on shared vocabulary and usage.

  75. Sort of like Hindi and Urdu, then.

  76. David Marjanović says

    Also not unlike Dutch and German. The border between the Netherlands and Germany lies at a right angle to almost all of the isoglosses of the region. If you can read one, you can’t fluently read the other unless you know some of the pretty different spelling rules and a sizable amount of historical linguistics.

    Also… Slavic. Proto-Slavic was spoken around the same time as the last common ancestor of all German (and Dutch) dialects.

    However, all this, plus Mongolian and English, shows that choices of writing systems interact with language standardization. The German dialects don’t share a writing system. Most of them are unwritten, period. Instead, everybody is reasonably familiar with Standard German; while there’s some variation within the standard (phonetics, vocabulary, some phonology, little bits of grammar here and there), nobody takes Standard German (Written German – Schriftsprache) and reads it as their dialect; that’s generally not even reasonably possible. It’s really the same in English, though you largely need to be on the island of Britain to notice; and it’s pretty much the same within the area of usage of each Mongolian standard.

  77. Totally agree with DM.

    However, orthography and standardisation are linked together in complex ways. In a lot of cases I suggest that it’s not possible to cleanly separate one from the other, especially as they are social/political aspects of language — aspects that are more amenable to external direction than the fluidities of the spoken language.

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