I often take a short walk before work. As my office is in my own house it is the only way for me to get some exercise and fresh air in the morning. My route usually leads me through the old town centre and the adjacent parks. It is a walk through history, my personal history. This is the street where my grandmother was born, that is the alley where my great-grandfather spent his last years, and there is the market square where my other great-grandparents, country folk, sauntered on market days, buying their groceries and gossiping. I myself was born far from here. I have travelled much, to places my great-grandparents could only dream of, and I have moved house often. But chance finally brought me back here, to this old, old town.
I’m an average Dutch person, from an average family which mostly avoided the eccentric or the adventurous. Money, land or power never felt at ease with us. If any came our way it was never for long. Linguistically, however, ours is a rich story.
My mother grew up speaking Achterhoeks, of the Almen variety; her mother in turn spoke the Gorssel variety. My maternal grandfather and all his ancestors for many centuries spoke Achterhoeks with a Vorden accent, living as they did in a hamlet near Vorden called Mossel – five farms and a chicken coop. My paternal grandmother and most of her ancestors spoke the Zutphen town dialect, while my paternal grandfather spoke southern Drenthian as a child but switched to standard Dutch as a teacher. That is also what my father spoke as a child. Further back on that side, there were more southern Drenthian dialects and the one of Rouveen, as well as some German ones from just across the border.
These are all Saxon dialects. They are the rumbling voices of my maternal grandfather and his friends, talking grown-up business with serious faces, unintelligible but soothing sounds which surrounded me while I, a toddler, quietly sat under the table and smelled the sweet smoke of their cigars.
For very different sounds than the soft Saxon vowels and smothered word endings, I have to dig deep into my paternal grandfather’s past. Before 1800 the male and female lines all spoke one of the dialects of the south of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland, while further back a few Flemish herring fishermen sailed past, and some middle-class Amsterdam talk of the town could be overheard. The most exotic languages on that side are French, spoken by two Huguenot ancestors, and even – dare I mention it – the solemn speech of English Puritans – from London, and possibly Herefordshire and Devonshire. Much, much further back whispers a shred of Carolingian courtly conversation through the mists of time, one tiny royal strand in a vast web of paupers, peasants and small traders. What exotic languages and looks contributed to that one strand is the stuff of legend.
So what is my mother tongue? In a literal sense it is standard Dutch. That is what my mother taught me, or rather sang to me from the day I was born. But looking at my long line of ancestors I do not know what to answer. Saxon? Southern Dutch? French? English? All of them and more have sounded at some time in my family’s past, and from that past came my present. Do not talk to me about pure language or pure blood. They never existed, not in my line. As president Obama said: ‘I’m a mutt’, and I would add: ‘Thank Goodness’. My cat and I have much in common.