By Thijs Porck, researcher in the English Language and Culture Department at Leiden University
In 1879, G.J.P.J. Bolland (1854-1922), an assistant teacher at the Openbare School in Katwijk aan Zee, sent a list of linguistic observations to Leiden professor Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840-1899). His observations provide a unique insight into the late-nineteenth century Katwijk dialect and demonstrate the value of scholarly correspondence for studying the history of linguistics.
Peculiarities of the Katwijk dialect: vowels, pronunciations and vocabulary
Bolland’s letter largely consists of word lists in which the Katwijk pronunciation differs from that of Standard Dutch. His first observations relate in particular to the vowels, such as the list of words that makes clear that the inhabitants of Katwijk say /ɑu/ where Dutch has /u:/ before the consonants k, p, g and f: “boukwait”, “roupe”, “genouge” and “oufene” instead of boekweit ‘buckwheat’, roepen ‘call’, genoegen ‘pleasure’ and oefenen ‘practise’. Bolland’s lists also make clear that, whereas Standard Dutch no longer distinguishes between the pronunciation for words spelled with ou and au, this was still the case in the Katwijk dialect: “báwe” (for bouwen ‘to build’) and “bráwe” (for brouwen ‘to brew’), but “bláew” (for blauw ‘blue’) and “gráew” (for grauw ‘bleak’).
In addition to the distinctive vowels, Bolland also reported on peculiar Katwijk pronunciations of words like “dekkeles” (for deksel ‘cover’), “eider-ende-iën” (for iedereen ‘everyone’) and “nelleboog” (for elleboog ‘elbow’). The last pronunciation is the result of the linguistic phenomenon ‘reanalysis’: een elleboog is interpreted as een nelleboog. Apparently, this happened more often in the Katwijk dialect: Bolland also reported the existence of “nemmer” (<een emmer ‘bucket’) and “narm” (<een arm ‘arm’). In addition, Bolland listed some typical Katwijk words such as “garnt” (‘shrimp’), “bennetje” (‘basket’), “breels” (‘floating nets’) and “bakkeràm” (‘a slice of bread fried in oil’).
But who was this G.J.P.J. Bolland and why did he have an interest in the Katwijk dialect?
From peddler’s son to professor of philosophy: The bizarre life of G.J.P.J. Bolland
G.J.P.J. Bolland had an unfortunate youth. Born to a family of peddlers in Groningen, Bolland lost his father at a young age, which forced his mother to make a living as a prostitute. As a young man of 14 or 15 years old and having enjoyed little education, he joined the army in 1868. Bolland proved to be a problematic recruit: he was convicted for cursing and foul language on several occasions, as well as for singing illicit songs. In May 1872, he spent a fortnight in jail, because he had sold his underpants and lied about this to his commanding officer. In January the following year, he physically assaulted a high-ranking sergeant and was arrested for insubordination: the Groningen-born Bolland would spend the next three years in a Leiden jail-house.
His jail-time in Leiden proved to be a turn-around in Bolland’s life: he began reading books and, following his release from prison, studied hard to become a teacher. As a schoolmaster, first in Groningen, then in Katwijk, Bolland became interested in the study of older languages (Gothic, Old English, Old High German) – his Katwijk students called him ‘Meester Sanskretans’ (‘Master Sanskrit’), because he would occasionally teach them about Sanskrit! Bolland became acquainted with P.J. Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Germanic Philology at Leiden University and a specialist in the field of Old English. Encouraged by Cosijn, Bolland continued his studies of Old English. He spent close to a year in London and a brief period in Jena, Germany, developing his expertise.
Bolland showed great promise as a Germanic philologist, but a series of events led to his departure for Batavia, where he became a teacher once more. Upon his return to the Netherlands in 1896, Bolland was made a professor of Philosophy at Leiden University and he would never return to the study of Old Germanic languages. For the next twenty-five years, Bolland would be one of the Netherlands’ most prominent and influential philosophers. In Leiden he was also reunited with his former teacher, Cosijn, with whom Bolland had corresponded since his time in Katwijk. After Bolland’s appointment to the chair of Philosophy, Cosijn wrote to Bolland: “You did not dream of this as an assistant teacher in Katwijk! That’s how it goes!”
“Aren’t there many interesting Saxon things in the Katwijk dialect?”
One of the first letters that Bolland sent to Cosijn came from the time Bolland was an assistant teacher in Katwijk and concerned the Katwijk dialect. Bolland’s interest in the Katwijk dialect stemmed from the relationship between this local dialect and Old English or Anglo-Saxon. Bolland noticed, for instance, that the Katwijkers pronounced Standard Dutch zweep ‘whip’ as “zwíp”, with a long i, as they did in early medieval England: Old English swípa ‘whip’. He correctly realized that the study of Dutch dialects like Katwijks could be a good basis for studying older language phases: the conservative Katwijks contains a number of influences from Ingveonic, a distant ancestor of the Germanic languages spoken around the North Sea, among which Old English. The characteristic Katwijk pronunciation of Dutch water ‘water’, with a bilabial or ‘English’ w and a ‘bleating’ aa, corresponds, for example, to the Old English form of the word: wæter. Bolland closed his letter to Cosijn with “Aren’t there many interesting Saxon things in the Katwijk dialect?”
Bolland’s letter is valuable because it is a very early attempt to gather data on the Katwijk dialect in a semi-systematic way. The first comprehensive linguistic description of this dialect appeared only in 1940 (De volkstaal van Katwijk aan Zee by G.S. Overdiep and C. Varkevisser); Bolland’s letter is about seventy years older. By placing Bolland’s observations beside those of Overdiep and Varkevisser, we might learn something about the development of the Katwijk dialect. For example, Overdiep and Varkevisser write: “Ook schijnt men vroeger ieder als ijder te hebben gesproken; het woord is thans onbekend” [Apparently, people used to pronounce ieder (‘every’; with a long /i:/) as ijder (with a diphthong /ɛi/); the word is now unknown] (p. 85)”; their suspicions are confirmed by Bolland, who included the form “ijder-ende-iën” for Dutch iedereen (‘everyone’) in his letter to Cosijn.
In the end, nothing seems to have happened to Bolland’s observations about Katwijks. He sent his findings to Cosijn, who simply wrote back: “I thank you for your efforts, which will serve me in due course; I will treat them with necessary caution, since, of course, you have exaggerated what you have found.” Whether Bolland really exaggerated his finds is debatable – many of his observations are similar to those of Overdiep and Varkevisser. Bolland’s letter, tucked away in an archive and ignored for the last 128 years, is a good example of how early scholarly correspondence can still contain unique and welcome insights into linguistic phenomena. Moreover, these letters between scholars, students and professors provide a unique view into the history of the scholarly study of linguistics.
A Symposium on Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature (17 November, 2017, Leiden University)
On Friday 17 November 2017, Leiden University will host a symposium dealing with scholarly correspondence (prior to 1945) within the field of medieval Germanic language and literature. Topics range from Old English manuscripts to Old Icelandic scholarship, Anglo-Saxon lexicography and medieval manuscripts in the Low Countries. The symposium features ten papers, by speakers from all over the world (Leiden, The Hague, Amsterdam, Berlin, Jena, Oxford, Glasgow and Moscow). In addition to the papers, the symposium will also provide an opportunity for attendees to see actual manuscripts and letters housed at the Leiden University Library. Because these manuscripts and letters all pertain in some way to the papers that will be presented at the symposium, the topics are sure to come to life!