It is hot again, which wreaks havoc with my concentration. Since I am in the middle of a complicated translation and have to prepare two important quotations at the same time, a shaky concentration is not what I need. Juggling two languages simultaneously is hard work at the best of times. I could always tell in Denmark when I was getting really, really tired. First my Danish, otherwise fine, would disappear. Then my English would start to crumble. Finally even my Dutch would desert me, leaving me speechless but for some inarticulate grunts and groans. It wasn’t just fatigue that had strange effects on my language skills. Funnily enough, the better my Danish became the more my German deteriorated. Although I read and understand German well enough my spoken German has never been good, but I was always able to keep a simple conversation going. Not so after some months in Denmark. Whenever I tried to speak German, nothing but Danish would come out of my mouth. Sometimes I wouldn’t notice it myself, leaving my German conversation partners somewhat bewildered. The effect had worn off and my German skills returned to their former level, when I visited Denmark again this year. Attempting to speak German with a German fellow guest after having been completely immersed in Danish all day was not a success. Since the poor man spoke only German, our conversations were very brief. Strange how the brain works. I’m sure it must be related to another weird thing which has often happened to me when listening to the radio. If I turn it on at some random station during a period when I am frequently switching between languages, I can sometimes not understand a word of what is being said – until somewhere, deep in my brain, a switch flips and I realise what language is being spoken. Then, all of a sudden, every word is crystal clear. Curiouser and curiouser!


Almost, almost! Two more days of work until my vacation begins. GrondTaal will be closed until Monday, July 28th. No email, no translations, no quotations, no administration. Nothing. Not quite true: I will go to Scotland, so there will actually be a lot of translation going on, day and night. And since my dear hosts are both archaeologists, much of it will be on archaeological matters. On my part, however, all translation will be spontaneous, improvised, sloppy, and most of the time even unconsciously done. My conscious brain will simply think English, or Dunglish when I get really tired. No carefully wrought texts, each word delicately balanced and each sentence polished until it shines like the purest crystal… (Dream on! My ideal, certainly, but an elusive one). Yesterday I finished the last two projects still on my desk and sent the results to my customers. Hopefully there will be another project waiting for me upon my return, and as things are looking now there will be. Today, there are only loose odds and ends such as this web log, which I seldom get around to when I’m immersed in a project. Tomorrow a semi-business meeting in another town (Groningen; I warmly recommend it). The ‘semi-‘ refers to the fact that it will certainly involve some business, but most of it will be pleasure. Then packing a few last things in my suitcase on Thursday, get rid of the garbage, clean the cat’s litter tray, prepare instructions for the cat-sitters. And then…..GrondTaal will be closed. On the 29th of this month it will be business as usual. I will be refreshed and inspired and ready to produce more of those polished sentences and delicately balanced words – one can always hope.

Native Speakers

Back again! Back from a ten-day immersion in an English bath, with a large dose of pine-scented Scottish bath salt added to it. I feel very clean now, and ready to go. If only the weather would cooperate a bit more all would be very well. Sadly, it doesn’t. Hot, hot, hot. My brain began to fry as soon as it got off the plane. Praise be to the Gods for fans and cold showers.
I used my time with the natives well, and tried to settle a few points about English grammar and vocabulary. Surely the natives would know, right? Wrong. Not even native speakers, especially not native speakers, can tell you unambiguously whether something is this, that or the other. Ask four people about the distinction between two apparent synonyms (as I did), and you get five different answers. But at other times they will all agree that something “just isn’t as we say it”. There are definitely rules. The natives can invariably tell after only a few sentences if someone (i.e. Yours truly) is one of them or not. But the rules are implicit, elusive, and trying to write them down results in an endless list of “ifs” and “buts“ and “howevers“. All grammars, even the most detailed ones, are necessarily summaries, simplifications. So are dictionaries. Giants such as the OED for English or the “Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal” for Dutch approach perfection. Approach it, never attain it, not even after the hundred-plus years it took to produce them or the umpteen supplements that are still to appear. In the end, it all boils down to ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’, as the Germans so aptly put it. You simply ‘feel’ that something is right. If you are a native speaker, that is. I’ve got a long, long way to go yet – and I love every step.


So much for a new entry every week. Almost seven weeks have passed since I wrote the last one. So much to do, so little time to do it. Projects to attract new customers, projects for those same customers once safely contracted (thank you for placing your trust in me), administrative backlogs, and more or less parallel to everything else a lovely little project I initiated myself, the translation of a recent biography of Johann Sebastian Bach into Dutch. I feel privileged that the author has kindly allowed me to touch his work on The Great Master. Heaven is: translating a well-written and interesting text while listening to any BWV number I can get my hands on. Not 565 or 538, of course. I deeply mistrust anyone who can concentrate on something else while those two thunder through the speakers like mighty rivers.
So, busy, busy. A good thing, for having nothing to do except writing out cheques to other companies makes me nervous. Being freelance has many advantages, but this drawback scares off many potential colleagues: you never know when your money will be coming in. You have to be able to ignore your financial situation from time to time. There is a trap lurking there, into which many a hapless freelancer has fallen: you panic, and blindly throw yourself on random tasks, racking your brains day and night, but everything you do is inefficient and not backed by solid strategy. Nothing comes out of it except being overworked and miserable – and not a penny richer. I know that trap: I’ve seen the inside of it a couple of times. It’s ugly.
One thing I calmly considered after looking at my bank account and then deliberately implemented, is raising my rates. I’m sorry, esteemed customers! But your servant’s poor cat has to eat, and so does the cat’s mistress. You may want to re-read the entry titled Money Matters; it is illuminating.

Christmas Mailing

Another long period of silence. When business is busy, time for the blog is short. My most recent project involved writing an article for a client (not translating, original work; GrondTaal is constantly exploring new territory), and that took much time and thought. But now that I find myself briefly in between projects (come, dear clients, come!) there is room for other things. Right now I am preparing the Christmas mailing. Excuse me? Christmas mailing? In October? Yes, in October. It is entirely a DIYS job, both because of the costs and because I like to pretend I’m good at design and graphic arts (quod non). However, that does make it something which cannot be rushed at the last minute. There are addresses to be selected and checked, labels to be prepared (no small feat to have achieved that in spite of all the opposition Word could muster – veni, vidi, vici), the Christmas card itself to be designed. Finally the trip to the copy shop, comparable (I assume) to going to the maternity ward to have your baby. I always go to Aquarius, a delightful local shop, and as usual they made the delivery painless. All that is left for me to do is signing my own name in silver ink over 200 times, sticking the labels on the envelopes (idem) and waiting for the Dutch postal service TNT to produce their annual Christmas stamps.
With that out of the way, I can take up my Bach translation again. The man has reached the end of his life, and in a few pages he will meet an unpleasant end at the hands of a fake eye surgeon. Please tell this to any local quacks you may meet: ‘One of you lot murdered the greatest Western composer who ever lived!’ I have little hope that it will stop any of them, but it is worth a try.
Next week will be different: it will be GrondTaal’s annual retreat to Vlieland. Some religions acknowledge the existence of seven heavens. I know of only two: Vlieland and Schiermonnikoog. GrondTaal will be accompanied by Bach, books and breiwerk as well as a choice selection of linguistically stimulating DVD’s involving Orcs and Rings. No cars, no computers, no telephone. Business will be resumed on Monday, November 10th.


The Orcs and Rings are defeated once more (I always carry the complete series with me on vacations), and for many pages the waters were out in Lincolnshire – but not on Vlieland, my holiday resort. There, fog and sea mist lay heavily on the bleak dunes (no pun intended), creating a perfect atmosphere for long and silent hikes. As expected, of professional translation there was not a trace. But there was language. Language is everywhere, always. There were the entries in the guest book written by previous guests in their various dialects and languages. One guest had even taken the trouble to write a long delightful poem in Kölsch, the dialect c.q. language of Cologne. Then there were the various regional accents I could pick out whenever fellow visitors passed me on the road (not many of those). Having grown up in Friesland, I need only a few words – any will do – to recognise a Frisian. For Gronings two or three words containing -aa or t- will do. For Twents, a few words with -oo and -en will clench it. But this is nothing compared to what my mother told me. When she was a child, local dialects in her area, the Achterhoek, were still widely spoken and much more distinct then they are now. My mother and her sisters could pinpoint the exact village people came from, even if it was a mere 20 miles down the road.
Now, Vlieland is fading to the back of my mind and work once again demands my full attention. The first big event to come up are the ‘Reuvensdagen’, the annual national convention of all Dutch and (increasingly) Flemish archaeologists. Everyone who has any connection, however tenuous, to archaeology will be there. That means the bulk of my potential customers will be there, and therefore that I must be there and grab them. Fresh stacks of business cards and company brochures in my pockets, dressed to the nines and shoes shining, then a deep breath: off I go.


Last week, having just finished an interesting but somewhat hectic project, I allowed myself some breathing space and sauntered over to a small Christmas fair here in Zutphen. There was a local folk-dance group, all dressed in costumes my own late great-grandparents would have worn and performing country dances on clogs. There was a friendly lady spinning and carding fleeces, who patiently answered all my eager questions (I’m a knitting person myself). And then, in a corner, I saw a few large birds. A falconer! He had some ten birds in all; several species of falcon and hawk, a squabbling pair of barn owls, and a lovely, gentle turkey vulture. I have a soft spot for vultures, much maligned as they are. Yes, they eat dirt, and what’s wrong with that?
On his fist the falconer carried his top attraction: a full-sized eagle owl. Full-sized is really, really big in the case of eagle owls. They will deal with a careless fox if that is all they can get, and they eat prickly hedgehogs for breakfast. This one, however, didn’t look particularly hungry just yet, and I could get up close & personal, gazing deeply into those wonderful, orange eyes while the falconer told various interesting things about its private life. Suddenly one word caught my attention. It sounded like ‘tarsel’, and the falconer used it when referring to male birds. I asked the man to repeat it, and it was indeed ‘tarsel’: a male eagle owl. He said it had something to do with the word ‘three’ and that it referred to the smaller size of male eagle owls (roughly a third of the females’). Tarsel! I had never heard it before, in any language. It had an oddly ancient flavour to it, enough to raise my archaeological and linguistic instincts. For the next few days I chewed on it, and then I decided to find out more about it.
I had a hunch where to look. The ‘tar-/ter-‘ suggested something central- or south-European, probably Romance, and old; and the ‘-sel’ too had a Romance, if Germanicised, flavour. The word wasn’t in any of my printed dictionaries. Long live the internet: I Ixquicked (I don’t Google). Initially without result, but a reference to Chaucer, falcons and ‘tercel/tarsel’ provided the first opening. Chaucer, falcons: that suggested falconry, Middle English and ultimately French roots. And yes! There it was. Tarsel, not in any Dutch dictionary but definitely the word I heard. Middle English tercel/tarsel, from Old French terçuel, from Vulgar Latin *tertillus, diminutive of Latin tertius, third; with an Indo-European root trei-. My hunch had been correct. True, every instance of tercel/tarsel I could find referred to male falcons, not eagle owls. But changes in a language never proceed with strict logic and regularity, like a cool Vulcan working on a warp drive problem. Languages are rather like Klingons were before the Federation tamed them. If a male falcon is a tarsel, then any male bird of prey (with or without cloaking device) is a tarsel, never mind that this one is fluffy, eats hedgehogs and cries ‘UHU’.
Only a person who is equally language-mad can understand my excitement. One obscure little word for the male of one species of bird that most people have never even seen. It was my reward for the previous week’s hard work.

Technical Weather

These are dark days for diggers. I mean diggers in the ground, not word diggers like me. Still, when I and the world were younger and I, too, occasionally wielded a trowel instead of a pen, winters were tough. Long after builders and farmers had taken refuge indoors we archaeologists would struggle on, until our fingers were frozen more solid than the hardest shards and our feet were as cold as those of the corpses we unearthed. I have dug during blizzards so fierce I couldn’t see the trench, and in frost so severe that the ice in our water hoses was as hard as the very flints on the mesh of our sieves. Admittedly, that was in Norway in November, where winter is still a mighty King. And this was also before anything like a Health & Safety Department existed in archaeology. Ah, those good old days…….when archaeologists were archaeologists, and death in the trenches was considered an honourable end to a noble career.
Spring was very different. Spring was the season when lambs were born, trees were budding and archaeologists became frisky. Many a colleague would disappear for days on end, long-standing appointments were cancelled with a brief phone call: ‘sorry, technical weather today’. For that is how they were called then, those balmy, sunny days in spring when the fields were freshly ploughed and new crops of delicious finds were poking their lovely little rims out of the dark soil: technical weather. All diggers would be itching to be outside, and all paper-pushers were green with envy. Many a dry and dusty dossier of sites long forgotten suddenly needed urgent checking in the field, without delay and in person. On such days I will still drop my books in a wink and run off for a survey with the very first ex-colleague who asks. But today it is winter and cold, very cold. I think of those dark days in Norway and, purring like a cat beside a cosy stove, turn to my dictionaries. Not technical weather today.

An Interview, Dutch style

Earlier this week I listened to the radio, to the Dutch news station (so-called) Radio 1. A journalist was interviewing a politician on some issue of truly cosmic importance; I forgot what it was. To me, a good interview involves coaxing the interviewed persons into saying things they would rather hide, and critically testing their arguments. Information and analysis, in short. I am certain that the journalist thought it was a proper interview. It was certainly typical for most interviews on Dutch radio these days. The journalist interrupted the politician’s every sentence before it was half-finished, answered his own silly questions and repeated himself ad nauseam in long rambling sentences, all in a loud, aggressive voice. The voice of a bully. The poor politician – I rarely apply the word ‘poor’ to politicians but here it was appropriate – couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Hooligans express their tender feelings on the soccer pitch with more finesse.
At the end of it we, the listeners, had learned absolutely nothing about the politician’s views or arguments. All we knew was what the journalist had said, which could be summarised as: ‘RRRROARR!! ME TARZAN, ME BIG!’
That was it. The journalist had used language as a sledge hammer. Not even as a battering ram, trying to break into information not otherwise accessible. No, a coarse, heavy sledge hammer only fit to destroy. So much for information and analysis.
Deeply annoyed, I switched to another station, BBC World. Immediately my mood lifted. Soft voices, calm and articulated, interesting facts and thorough analysis, and yes: proper interviews. Two or three brief, soft-spoken questions and a devious politician, slippery like an old eel, had revealed all he would have bitten his tongue to hide. One more question delivered in similar style, and the eel’s arguments bit the dust. No raised voices, no interruptions, only brilliant tactics and deadly skill. Language wielded like like a scalpel.
Does BBC World offer training courses to foreign journalists?

Babylonian Delight

I know a young lady who is a perfect polyglot. She speaks Abaza, Bai, Chhattisgarhi, Diola, Ewondo, Frisian, Gâ, Hiri Motu, Inuit, Kiki-Chin and occasionally, when she’s in the mood for it, Quenya. Her repertoire of consonants includes Plosives, Implosives, Ejectives, Nasal Trills, Lateral flaps, Lateral fricatives, Ejective fricatives, Ejective lateral fricatives, Percussives, Lateral approximants, Click consonants (including the odd Lateral click) and a couple of grunts defying all description. She switches from one to the other effortlessly, in mid-sentence, simply for the heck of it. The most astonishing fact is the lady’s age. She is a bright-eyed, perky 10-month-old.
Once upon a time, in another universe, I myself was a 10-month-old and I could do what this lady does now. So could we all. As babies we all produced every sound in every language on the planet, and we loved it.
A glimpse of that joy returned to me much later, during evenings with friends and friends of friends in our dorms at the American university I attended. Many of my fellow students came from all four corners of the world, and so did my friends and my friends’ friends. On those evenings we would swap mock insults (cheerfully and deliberately un-PC), weird recipes and linguistic acrobatics. I remember one evening in particular, when among those present was a lady from South Africa who beside an impressive number of other languages also spoke Xhosa. Xhosa is famous for having no fewer than 15 click sounds, which no sluggish Dutch tongue can imitate and live to tell the tale. This lady had mastered them all, and to tease us click-less folks she produced a tongue twister. I have forgotten what the phrase meant; it had something to do with bracelets. What I do remember is that it contained no fewer than three different types of clicks, one for each syllable, and that it sounded like an avalanche of little pebbles. We were stunned. None of us came even close in our attempts to reproduce it. I tried to avenge my nation’s honour by issuing my own challenge, ‘Achtentachtig Scheveningse schonen schaatsten schreeuwend een scheve schaats’, which I am proud to say was fairly effective but did not quite match the effect of the clicks. We concluded that we all spoke weird, impossible languages, and proceeded to have a wonderful evening together.

I never liked the biblical story about the Tower of Babel, one reason being that I don’t understand the Babylonian curse. Why is it a curse to have many languages? Perhaps divine dictators prefer perfect uniformity in all things, including language. I don’t like divine dictators.
……Oh, and all those languages and sounds I mentioned in the first paragraph? Don’t ask me what they all are. I had to look most of them up in my favourite ‘Dictionary of Languages’ (by Andrew Dalby; Bloomsbury 2004). A little showing-off goes a long way.