A Stranger in a strange language

Cataloging in a language I know nothing about has been an interesting experience. In addition to having no formal training in Dutch, I came to this with no knowledge of Dutch history outside of their contributions to the field of horticulture (thanks to a graduate school class that took place at the Chicago Botanic Garden). From a purely quantitative perspective, that means that cataloging these Dutch pamphlets, as similar as they are content-wise to the French Revolution Collection, is significantly more time consuming.

C.G. Allen’s Manual of European languages for librarians has been an invaluable resource. Less because of the vocabulary featured therein, but for its explanation of how Dutch orthography has changed over the centuries. The Dutch language underwent a major spelling reform in the 19th century.  Since only the first few items cataloged post-date those reforms, looking up unknown words (i.e., most of them) in a modern dictionary would be nigh impossible without the background presented there.

Of course, things have improved – I have now cataloged 16 volumes of Dutch pamphlets, and no-longer have to look up every every word. Being a Germanic language, there are enough similarities for me to muddle through, and the wholesale borrowing of many words from Latin and French (sometimes even retaining their traditional Latin declensions, much to the consternation of second-language Dutch learners everywhere, I’m sure) makes figuring out the meaning behind things much easier for those of us with formal training in both French and Latin.

Sometimes, a pamphlet comes along where the title is so glaringly similar to English (if you squint) that your humble cataloger immediately becomes wary of false friends. In the case of today’s special pamphlet, that fear was unjustified, but a closer look was still necessary.

F 46 .655 v. 36 no. 2 title page

The pamphlet in question is titled Groot A/B/C boek (Call no.  F 46 .655 v. 36 no. 2). For those readers not fluent with Dutch, yes, the title literally translates to “Great ABC book”.  So far so good. Unfortunately, this pamphlet is not actually an alphabet book, as the name would imply. To the author’s credit, the alphabet is present. The first page of the pamphlet presents the alphabet in six different typefaces: upper and lower case fraktur-style typefaces, upper and lower case italic typefaces, and upper and lower case roman typefaces. The author then helpfully points out the five vowels and gives a brief explanation of each before giving up on this whole “alphabet book” conceit entirely. The final ten pages of this pamphlet are, of course, political satire.  Not only that, but they consist entirely of parodies of religious writings: the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and a “sermon” on Bentink LXII, 5  (a reference to Willem Bentinck, a diplomat in the court of the stadtholder William IV.

F 46 .655 v. 36 no. 2 alphabet

F 46 .655 v. 36 no. 2 - the alphabet

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working on so many 18th century pamphlets, it’s that no topic is to obscure to be turned into a political satire. Of course, it seems like the author of this one ran out of ideas on how to turn an alphabet book without any illustrations into a political satire pretty quickly, so went for the easy controversy by creating a religiously-themed satire, drawing parallels between supporters of the house of Orange-Nassau and the devoutly religious (and thus, implicitly criticizing the supporters who viewed the superiority of the stadtholders as obvious, gospel truth). The pamphlet even goes so far as to utilize the then-archaic blackletter typeface for the entire text.

F 46 .655 v. 36 no. 2 Het Willem onze

F 46 .655 v. 36 no. 2 - Het Willem onze

This pamphlet wasn’t complete without false friends – the parody of the Lord’s Prayer is entitled “Het Willem onze”, which my francophone brain immediately interpreted as “William XI” as opposed to the true Dutch meaning “Our William”, a parody of the “Our Father” (Cf. the German cognate Vaterunser , both from the Latin Pater noster). This has been one of the recurring difficulties for me in working with Dutch – not the English cognates, which almost universally mean exactly what they first appear to mean, but the numerous French cognates with completely different meanings. The most distracting has been the Dutch en, meaning “and” (and thus the Latin abbreviation etc. is commonly changed to enz.), which I continuously misinterpret as the French preposition.

Cataloging these materials in Dutch has definitely been a learning experience – not only from a linguistic perspective, but a historical one too. It also throws into sharp relief the amount of information available on the French Revolution – finding similar information on contemporary events in the Netherlands has been far more difficult, and the vast majority of sources are in Dutch as well.

For fans of unusual satire, this collection of Dutch pamphlets is really strong: later volumes (currently being cataloged) include a number of satires that take the form of auction catalogs and household inventories in addition to the more standard satirical poetry and drama. Keep an eye on this space for more exciting developments.

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