Rational history of the Dutch language

The Dutch are a blunt and practical people. Their words are simple and functional to the point of childishness. A statue is simply a stand-image. Gloves are hand shoes. A restaurant is an eat house, a theatre is a looking-castle. Beautiful people are literally toward-pulling rather than attractive. A romance language it is not, in any sense of the word.

Of course toward-pulling is the literal meaning of attractive in the Latin. Most European languages are happy to simply incorporate etymologically Latin word such as “attractive” into their own vocabulary. But not the Dutch. They insist on translating everything into a Germanic equivalent, which gives everything a very concrete flavour. Thus revised editions of books are “again-seen”, and the sources listed in their footnotes are “wells”, i.e., the place where one draws water in the most concrete sense of the word. Mathematics concerns not quantity but “how-much-ness”. And in geometry (or “measuring-knowledge” as the Dutch call it) we do not have abstract perpendiculars but rather very tangible “plumb lines”, nor tangent lines but “touch-lines”, and when light passes from one medium to another it is not refracted but literally “broken”.

This aspect of the Dutch language served me well when I moved to the Netherlands for my Ph.D. and found myself studying Dutch and Latin simultaneously. But apparently I needed some distance to see the obvious underlying logic of it. Ironically, my epiphany for understanding the Dutch occurred while I was on holiday in Poland. At an exhibition about the Ottoman empire at the National Museum in Kraków, I came across a medallion reading “Liver Turcx dan Pavs”---”Rather Turkish than Papal”---an expression of the Dutch aversion to the Catholic church and the greater religious tolerance of the Ottoman empire. In this context the Dutch insistence on purging their language of etymologically Latin words makes perfect sense: they simply did not want to soil their mouths with the language of the Catholic church.