Tracks and Traces: The extinction of Jersey Dutch

Article by Tom Bijvoet
Old Dutch cemetery in Paterson, New Jersey (photo: Ryan Vaarsi)

Old Dutch cemetery in Paterson, New Jersey (photo: Ryan Vaarsi)

Like animal and plant species, languages are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Although we cannot blame that on global warming, the trappings of modern society are clearly responsible. Globalization of communications, ever increasing international trade volumes and worldwide mobility of people have made English the undisputed lingua franca of the modern world. The aspirations of the idealists behind artificial world languages such as Esperanto and Volapük for a truly global language seem closer than ever. The only thing is… the idealists wanted a neutral language that would give no one an unfair advantage either because they were native speakers, or affiliated with a particular country or region. After all, as Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich famously remarked: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Approximately once every three months, somewhere in the world a language becomes extinct – and quite literally, that means that the last speaker of that language dies. Because most of these languages are practically undocumented, we can only feel sad that another unique expression and view of the world is lost forever. Even though we should appreciate the positive aspects of the convergence of the world on a single language for the purpose of international communications, we can’t help but mourn the death of an entire culture that is embedded in a language. Many bemoan the ‘Americanization’ of world culture as being at the root of this decline in linguistic diversity. And there is some truth in that.

Languages are vulnerable. If all the native speakers of a language stop teaching it to their children (for whatever reasons – economic expediency, political pressure, autocratic dictate), a language can become extinct in a single generation. Looking for instance at the Dutch Reformed communities that sprung up in Canada in the 1950s as a result of the big post-war emigration wave, we see that a very conscious effort was made by their leaders to create faith-based communities and institutions, including schools, colleges, retirement homes, newspapers, labor unions, youth clubs, credit unions and so on, coupled with an equally conscious decision to let go of the Dutch language in worship as well as in public and private life. Yet, as is the case for example among Mennonites, Orthodox Jews, the Doukhobors or the Amish, where the language survived, Dutch could have remained as a viable defining group language.

As we know, however, it did not. Yet that is not inevitable. Languages can also be extremely resilient. Until very recently, some, now alas extinct, native varieties of Dutch were spoken in the eastern United States. It can almost be said that the Jersey Dutch and Albany Dutch dialects (no army and navy, remember) go against all that has been said in the first few paragraphs of this article. If there is any place in the world where one would expect ‘Americanization’ to have taken firm root, it would be within twenty or thirty miles of Wall Street, the very center of the global expansion of the American way of life. Yet it is exactly there that until well into the 20th century people still spoke a dialect that had been brought to America some three hundred years earlier.

New Netherland, centered on Manhattan, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, had been a Dutch possession for a mere half century, but Dutch, despite the onslaught of English, remained the predominant language of the region for a remarkably long time. In some areas it was the only language spoken widely until the War of Independence, and it was only after 1776 that the language was gradually replaced virtually everywhere by English. The other remarkable thing (in comparison to more recent practices as mentioned above) is that it was exactly the allegiance to the Dutch Reformed faith that acted as a conserving influence, rather than as an agent of change. Theodore Roosevelt, who was born in New York City in 1858, remembered that his grandfather’s church had still used Dutch exclusively in its services, although all he knew in Dutch was a nursery rhyme ‘Trippe Trappe Troontjes’ that his grandfather had taught him. A church in Kingston, in the Hudson Valley, used Dutch in its services for the last time in 1809 – some 160 years after the church had been established.

It is not surprising that the Dutch language would give way in New York City first, where the Industrial Revolution and the influx of new immigrants made itself felt much more than in the countryside around Albany and in northern New Jersey. There, Dutch remained the common language in the villages, where social life centered on a Dutch church and an associated Dutch school for several more generations.

The eighth president of the United States, Martin van Buren, had the distinction of being the first president to have been born a US citizen, but he was also the first, and thus far the only, president whose native language was not English. He was born in 1782 in Kinderhook, New York, twenty-five miles south of Albany, in a tight-knit Dutch community that had been named Kinderhoek (Children’s Corner) by Henry Hudson in 1609, because of the Native American children he had seen playing in the area. Van Buren, who could trace his ancestry back to a Cornelis Maessen van Buren (who had arrived in New Netherland in 1631), continued to speak Dutch with his wife Hannah Hoes for the rest of their marriage. Both the president and his wife are reputed to have had a marked Dutch accent when speaking English.

Language of the remote

As the Dutch language became ever more isolated in smaller rural pockets, its decline accelerated. Where Van Buren, and Theodore Roosevelt’s grandfather Cornelius, who were contemporaries, still spoke Dutch, their grandchildren had pretty much lost the language. And so Dutch became increasingly the language of the elderly and the remote. The Dutch speakers of New Jersey, in particular the rural counties of Passaic and Bergen, were cut off from those in the countryside around Albany. Two distinct dialects, which had already been emerging over time, grew farther apart and gave us the terms Jersey Dutch and Albany Dutch. A distinct variant was spoken until at least the 1930s by the Ramapough Mountain Indians. They were recognized as a Native American tribe by the state of New Jersey in 1980, although the federal government has not extended its recognition to the group. The Ramapough are said to be of Dutch, African American and Native American ancestry, but because of their desire for federal recognition they have been reluctant to acknowledge that mixed origin. Tribe members carry names such as Van Dunk, De Groat and De Freece.

So when did Albany Dutch and Jersey Dutch become extinct? H.L. Mencken wrote in his seminal work The American Language in 1921: “Jersey, or Bergen County Dutch, [..] is spoken by the descendants of seventeenth century Dutch settlers in Bergen and Passaic counties, New Jersey. In New York, as everyone knows, Dutch completely disappeared many years ago, but in these Jersey counties it still survives, though apparently obsolescent, and is spoken by many persons who are not of Dutch blood, including a few negroes.” Interestingly, he also goes on to quote a 1910 study on the language, which notes that these descendants of the original Dutch settlers did not mingle with the recent influx of new immigrants to Paterson, the county seat of neighboring Passaic County (for an article on the Dutch legacy of Paterson see DUTCH, the magazine, Issue number 8, November/December 2012).

In 1958, William Z. Shetter of the University of Wisconsin wrote in the linguistic journal American Speech: “The Dutch of seventeenth-century New Netherland seems only in the last dozen years or so to have become finally a matter of the past.” One of the last speakers of Jersey Dutch, J.B.H. Storms, was interviewed extensively in 1938 and 1941, and some field notes were made on his recollection of the language. Unfortunately, no one seems to have had the foresight (or possibly the means) to record Storms, who was eighty years old in 1941. We don’t know of course how fluent Storms was and whether he had spoken Jersey Dutch on a daily basis in his early years, or whether he recalled details of how his elders had spoken it. Yet, based on the detail of information he gave, it appears that he did have an extensive command of the language. Based on the 1910, 1938 and 1941 descriptions, several distinct features become apparent. Jersey Dutch vocabulary had been influenced by English – although it is not clear to what extent this may have been idiosyncratic usage by Storms after decades of speaking mainly English – and had also retained some archaic Dutch words. Other words had undergone a semantic shift, for example Dutch ‘touw’ (rope) had changed in meaning to ‘reins’, and ‘vallei’ (valley) to ‘meadow’. It is also interesting to note that, as with Afrikaans, Jersey Dutch had lost the distinction between the masculine/feminine and neutral definite articles ‘de’ and ‘het’, and that all nouns took ‘de’. A fairly extensive vowel shift seems to have taken place, for example from ‘i’ to ‘e’ so that ‘schil’ (peel) became ‘schel’ and ‘e’ to ‘ae’ ‘zes’ (six) to ‘zaes’. Another more remarkable change, possibly under the influence of English, was that final consonants could be voiced, whereas in Dutch they are always unvoiced. So words such as ‘vijf’ (five), ‘pad’ (toad) and ‘kaas’ (cheese) would have a voiced final consonant, which is consistent with their usage in plural: ‘vijven’, ‘padden’ and ‘kazen’.

Who knows…

Reading this, one wonders… if only we had that elusive recording. Is it possible that this extinct language has left some traces, somewhere? An accidental couple of sentences on an otherwise unrelated recording made in the 1940s or 50s? That would be comparable to the accidental 1932 discovery of the sentence ‘Hebban olla uogala nestas hagunnan hinase hi(c) (a)nda thu uuat unbidan uue nu’ scribbled on the flyleaf of a Latin manuscript by an 11th century monk to try out his quill. It is one of the few remaining examples of Old Dutch. Or is there an octogenarian somewhere in Bergen County or the Hudson Valley who, like Theodore Roosevelt, remembers a nursery rhyme or a few sentences a grandparent taught him? The last remnants of an otherwise extinct language. Who knows…

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Posted by on Jan 2 2014. Filed under History, Language, North America. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Tracks and Traces: The extinction of Jersey Dutch”

  1. William Vanbaalen

    That’s an interesting comment by Jennifer. Standard Dutch for head is kop. Only for animals, though. For humans the word is hoofd. Duuk in modern Dutch is doek.

  2. jennifer westhoven

    my dad’s parents came from paterson and were dutch reformed. i only have a few children’s words in my memory like duuk for washcloth, cuppe for head, but im pretty sure he knows a lot of them.

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