Yankee Dutch (Dutch American Language in the Midwest)

Yankee Dutch can refer to a number of hybrid English-Dutch varieties. I’m particularly interested in the Midwestern variety at the beginning of the 20th century.

One form, Grand Rapids Yankee Dutch, was popularized through  Dirk Nieland’s ‘N Fonnie Bisnis.  Nieland’s Yankee Dutch was always meant to be comical, an exaggeration of how Dutch Americans spoke. Yankee Dutch was mostly spoken, but it does appear in written form, just not to the extent of what is in Nieland’s book.

There are plenty of sources for the study of Dutch American language, and despite some good work by the linguist Jaap Van Marle and Nicoline Van der Sijs, much more could be done. As more sources become available online and are easier to locate, this kind of language study is becoming easier.

 

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De Grondwet, Oct 13, 1874

It is easy to discover, for example, that American political language was quickly adopted by Midwest Dutch Americans in the first generations (1850s-1880s). Here, in a clipping from the Holland, Michigan, newspaper De Grondwet, we read a political campaign notice for D.B.K. Van Raalte. In translation, it reads  (with English words bolded) “Mr. D.B.K. Van Raalte has served his township for a number of years as Treasurer, and gave good satisfaction is this. He is very popular in his township and was never thought of for the ticket in town Holland, so it is only fair that she should be recognized in her very honored and popular soon, Mr. D.B.K. van Raalte.”

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De Grondwet, December 18, 2018

Other American terms entered the midwestern Dutch lexicon through the national press and experiences mixing with the Americans. Here, in another clipping from De Grondwet, the former Dutch American Civil War soldier Jan Nies (father of the above-mentioned Ray Nies), is called one of the “boys in blue.”

I’m particularly fascinated in the terms from American culture (and agri-culture!) that entered the Dutch American language in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the pace of the nation and the pace of assimilation picked up. While a formal American Dutch reigned in the Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches, and in many published books and articles, an informal Yankee Dutch was developing on the streets and in the fields of Dutch American communities.

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De Volksvriend, May 29, 2018

A correspondent from Randolph, Wisconsin, writing for De Volksvriend (Orange City, IA), adopts the following words into his/ her Dutch:  “Ford auto”, “bushel”, “silage”, “canning works”, and “boxes-maken” (making boxes).  This indicates of course that these words had become common and needed no explanation. Other common English terms used in these reports include “farm”, “basement”, “truck load”, and “car load”.

 

 

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De Volksvriend, Sept 19, 1912

In this report from Wisconsin, the correspondent writes about a threshing machine going “upside-down” not  the Dutch equivalent “ondersteboven.”

 

Still, this is not quite Yankee Dutch at the level of Dirk Nieland, but it the language was becoming increasingly mixed. It is difficult to estimate when Dutch-English mixture in the Midwest hit its peak. The Dutch were gradually switching to English, and in the 1920s and 1930s, most of their churches were giving up Dutch language services. Articles in De Volksvriend and De Grondwet indicate admixture, mostly the acquisition of American words, particularly nouns, but also some grammatical structure. The language of the correspondents is probably much closer to how Dutch Americans spoke than is the language of the editors of these newspapers and the contributors to other Dutch American religious periodicals of the period like De Wachter, De Hope, and Onze Toekomst.

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De Volksvriend, November 18, 1926

A Dutch correspondent from South Dakota uses the English words “corn”, “fodder” and “shredden” (to shred).

 

 

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From an advertisement in De Grondwet, April 16, 1912.

Advertisements also mixed English and Dutch. Here “engagement” “compound” and “suitcase” in a Dutch ad.  Notice the “M” of geneesmiddel has not been set properly by the letter-setter in the newsroom.

 

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De Grondwet, September 2, 1902

Orange City, Iowa:  “Jan” and “Piet”, generic names for Dutch people, are coming and going, visiting family and having “fun”

 

 

The various correspondents and editors had their own ways of speaking, of course, so there is a lot of different from article to article. But, in general, Dutch American newspapers are full of American terms, which quickly sets them apart from news articles from the Netherlands from the period. It is easy to tell, even without looking at the place of publication, if it is a Dutch-American and not a Dutch newspaper.

On one page from the Sioux City Nieuwsblad from 1899, chosen more or less at random, are the following English words:  office (kantoor), Post Office, granary, railroad, hotel-keeper, brakeman, folding bed, merry go round, corn sheller.

Newspaper are a treasure to be mined and perhaps some analytical techniques could look for patterns for readily. But there are also archival materials that could teach us more about the Midwestern Dutch.

In an unpublished manuscript held at the Holland, Michigan Museum. (I have a full digital copy of it that I transcribed back in the day), Ray Nies wrote some good examples of how a Dutch American might speak English with a strong accent. Here is a sample:

You know I live short by de collitch and sometimes the boys of my neighbor lady – she is a widow woman, she lives on the tenth street, her boys are students too, you know, – some’s they stand by mine house, ya -, put near every night, and some way the other I hear plenty talk and it’s always of nix. Anders (otherwise) as dat game van feets ball or base ball yet. And once about about ‘n new one yet, tennis ball. And yust de ander night, about six de clock, maybe half seven, when I from work home coming was, what do you think, I was surprised to meeting the oldest boy Jan, coming home carrying en long bag mit en lot of umbrell handles out sticking, and I say to myself, say I, ‘now dats nice, dats good.’ I bet you Jan has now ‘n yob’, but I wist not how in the world Jan could such en yob by de collitch get as umbrell fixin’ when they got so much ball bizness there to do, so I say to him, say I “what you doin’, Jan mit so many umbrell handles? You goin’ umbrell fixen?” “Umbrell fixen,” says he, “No. No umbrel fixen. Dese are golf clubs,” says he.   “Golf clubs!” say I, “Oh, I thought they was umbrell handles. What now you goin’ mit such en things?”  “Play golf,” says he, “mit dese sticks an en little ball!”

Did you get that?

Nies, writing in about 1939 or 1940, grew up in a Dutch-speaking family in Saugatuck, Michigan, and spent his life working at a hardware store in downtown Holland, Michigan. His “Yankee Dutch” impression was influenced by his experiences, but also seems to have adopted some German elements  – “mit dese” for example, and it takes on the nature of those early 20th century ethnic post cards that mocked German speakers.  Nies uses the Dutch accent well, spelling “college” as it would sound: “collitch”, for example, and “yust” for “just.” He also switches out a few Dutch cognates or near cognates, like “ander” for “other.”  Dutch speakers will recognize that Nies gives some standard Dutch phrasing “the boy of my neighbor lady” instead of “My neighbor lady’s boy”  and “half seven” for sixty-thirty.  All, with a liberal number of “ja’s” added for effect.

But remember, to speak English with a Dutch accent, you need to do more than say “Ja” at the end of every sentence. As the old saying goes:

“Dutchman, Dutchman,

Belly full of straw

Can’t say nothing by ja, ja, ja. “

2 comments

  1. De Volksvriend was Orange City, not Sioux City, IA. 🙂

    Like

    1. Alright, I’ll fix that. Thanks!

      Like

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