Some years ago I bought a copy of “Bizarre Books, a compendium of classic oddities” (New York, 2007). Books like that are not only fun to read but also very useful as a reference work when hunting for ‘bizarre books’. Books with funny titles, obscure topics and unusual stories, especially the older ones, make me curious and greedy. Most of them are hard to find though.
The first title I bought after reading ’Bizarre Books’ was a “Handbook on hanging” (London, 1928). Thanks to internet it came all the way from a little brick and mortar bookshop on Isle of Arran (of all places…) to my private library near Amsterdam. But the book that really caught my attention was “An Irishman's Difficulties with the Dutch Language” (Rotterdam, 1908) by ‘Cuey-na-Gael’.
This curious pen-name ‘Cuey-na-Gael’ used by the English Rev. John Irwin Brown (1858-1937) deserves a comment. It is a Gaelic phrase identifying a native speaker of Gaelic, a member of the Gaeltacht a language group that includes both Irish and Erse, the language of the Scottish Highlanders. 'Cuey-na-Gael' is perhaps best represented in translation as "Hugh the Scotchman", given Irwin Brown's devotion to all things Scots, or as he always put it, 'Scotch'. Brown was a well-known clergyman for the Scottish church in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and fluent Dutch speaker.
His book became very popular because he toured the Netherlands promoting it by giving lectures about funny situations caused by misunderstandings and misinterpretations while communicating in the two languages. Some years later Brown published a sequel; “The Further Adventures of O'Neill in Holland” (Rotterdam, 1910). Both are not illustrated, only the linen book covers show the main character with pipe in trench coat and the typical English bowler hat approaching locals (a woman with traditional Dutch cap and a baker’s boy) with presumably a dictionary in his hands. The bookbinder for the sequel was G.F.L. Ophof in Rotterdam, the drawing was signed by C. Eberle (the binding and drawing of the first book are anonymous). The books - especially the first - were reprinted several times (the last edited and annotated edition by Robert Druce was published in 2000!). Both titles are digitally available online but of course I am – like every bibliophile would be - much happier with the original paper copies in my library (a 7th edition of the first and a 2nd edition of the second book).
The main character in Brown’s books is an Irishman called Jack O’Neill. Now Jack may be Irish by birth but in his language he is definitely English since I could find no trace of typical Irish words in the text! O'Neill decides to spend his holidays in The Hague to get a good general acquaintance with Dutch Literature and – as promised to his friends - ‘to master the language in the first fortnight’. To accomplish this he buys some antiquarian Dutch-English/English-Dutch dictionaries, some grammar-exercises as well as phrase-books, one of those being: ‘Boyton and Brandnetel’.
That book was all O’Neill told us, and more. Printed on paper that seemed a cross between canvass and blot-sheet, it bore the date 1805. It was very Frenchified, and the English puzzled us extremely. Here is the Preface – or part of it.
“The following WORK was, originally, compiled by William Boyton. After passing five Editions a Sixth appeared partly enlarged, and partly improved, by Jac. Brandnetel. This last Edition was published, at the Hague, in the Year, 1751.
The several particles, of Speech, are arranged by the usual Order; and Declare with precision; every rule being followed, with practical exercise. This Mode, of teaching, being already appreciated; it will not be deemed Essential; nor do we, point out, the utility of it. As to Syntax; it is fully treated: whilst, last not least, cares have been exercised, to unite ease with simplicity, accuracy with idiom, and animate the Learner. It aims at the pupil of High-Life, and to acquire the Polish of the civilized Lady.
THE HAGUE, 1805.”
This brilliant introduction raised our expectations to fever heat. We had never encountered such an army of commas before; and as for the English -!”.
“Two common English verbs I found very difficult to render exactly. These were ‘drive’ and ‘put’. ‘Put’ you have to use so often that it is certainly provoking to hunt for a new verb almost every time you have a fresh order to give. ‘Put it down’, ‘put it in the cupboard’, ‘put it in the hall’ – well, I managed these somehow. But when it came to having letters posted, I was a long time at sea. I wrote a good deal; and ‘put that letter in the box’ was a common order I had to give. Now ‘box’ was easy enough, for the receptacle in the street was duly labeled ‘Brievenbus’ [Mailbox]. But when I said, ‘Plaats dien brief in de brievenbus’ [Locate the letter in the mailbox], the maidservant stared at me as if I was hardly human. ‘Zet’[Place] and ‘Werp’ [Throw] were not much clearer, apparently. ‘Gooi’ [Toss], I must admit, always made her perform the task with alacrity, but with an air that plainly said the matter was not very serious”.
At the beginning of the twentieth century English books for the Dutch book market were rather scarce, most of them being dictionaries and grammar books for pure educational purposes. In that respect Brown's books were unique and as C. Heyman, a schoolteacher in Haarlem, wrote: “highly appreciated by all Dutch people who are trying to master the difficulties of English, and often despair of finding the right word for the right place. To all such it will be quite a treat to see how their vernacular puzzles your fellow countryman. The booklet fully deserves a place in the libraries of our H.B. Schools and Gymnasiums, and is sure to find one there”.
The fact that they were published for the Dutch market and became very popular shows us at what level English functioned as a second language for a growing number of people over here at that time. Even Jack O’Neill had to admit: “There is no chance of practice unless you get away from everybody that speaks English. That was not too easy, I tell you”. For us – the Dutch – speaking English nowadays has become a second nature and English has been our ‘lingua franca’ for almost two centuries.
While browsing the internet for information about ‘Cuey-na-Gael’ I stumbled upon a stunning similar title: “A Dutchman’s Difficulties with the English Language” (London, 1865). Published almost fifty years before Brown’s book! I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a copy of this very rare little book once belonging to the public library in Haarlem. According to Worldcat only two copies remain at public libraries in the Netherlands, one in the United Kingdom. The short anonymous published story – in the form of a letter - apparently is a reprint of “Good Words”, a well-known Victorian monthly periodical in the United Kingdom. The author, we now know, was Jan de Liefde (1814-1869), not only Dutch but a clergyman as well! This in combination with the almost identical title leads me to the conclusion that Brown must have been well aware of De Liefde’s story.
“A Dutchman’s Difficulties with the English Language” is about Steven van Brammelendam, who struggles with his English in London. But in spite of the identical book title Steven is in no way comparable to Jack O’Neill. Yes, he too makes mistakes “more amusing than perplexing” but he also turns out to be a linguistic genius when debating his English friends about the inconsistencies and anomalies of their language.
“Indeed’, one of the ladies observed, ‘it never struck me that we used our prepositions in such strange way. It really must be perplexing to a foreigners to learn all such irregularities’. ‘Oh, I am disgusted from them’, Steven replied in a joking tone. ‘With them!’ several voices burst out. ‘With them?’ Steven repeated. ‘Do you say, ‘I am disgusted with that drunkard?’ ‘To be sure we do’. ‘Well, that is most absurd. We Dutchman are disgusted from him; we do not want to be with him at all. Disgust seems to bring forth a strange effect in you; it drives you to be with the object which you dislike. I suppose you consequently say, ‘I am pleased from my wife and children.’ ‘No, no – with!’ the gentleman cried. We are all of us pleased with our wifes. No mistake about that.”
Today foreign tourists in the Netherlands don’t need to bother about the Dutch language. ‘Excuse me; do you speak English?’ has become nothing more than a polite opening phrase. No need to ask, of course we speak English. However, in case you actually wish to practice your Dutch language skills, you are most welcome to try and see what happens …
Posted on Perkamentus, presented here by permission of the author. Picture: Perkamentus.