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Dutch is

from Saturday, November28th of the year2009.

Dutch is one of those languages I wish I had a quicker time with. I’ve mastered ordering coffee and sparkling water without people switching to English, so, that’s good. There’s something slightly disturbing about the visual scan of the language (I don’t even know what the term is for that: you know when you see a page, or a sign, written in a language and you have an immediate impression of the content of the text? This works also in your native language: look at a page from, like, Dickens, and you can sort of get the Shudder of the Text, or whatever, anyway, what I mean is that some languages, like French, always seem to bear a melismatic philosophy behind the page; German, an authority, Amharic, a crooked delight…) … with Dutch what I get is a sort of childlike pornography: hoog, sneeuwt, poesje, standplaats. 190px-Signboard-slijterijBut I’m obsessed with it: there’s nothing better than having an old school diagraph still kicking around like an appendix. Nobody knows how to talk about it, either; just as a sort of social experiment, I asked the concertmistress of this project (who has one of these fuckers in her name, Lidewij) if it was one letter or two and she couldn’t really answer. It’s fascinating. Also, look: the bougie place in Eindhoven (see my previous post about this) with the design budget can’t figure out how to kern it:


I’ve been frantically tweeting (@nicomuhly, by the way) about Zwarte Piet, which is a blackfaced Dutch Christmas Elf. I had literally never heard of this before, so maybe I’m stupid, but then again, one never expects Blackface at 11 in the morning. Check out the Wikipedia on it here; as best I can tell, the figure started as, like, Generic Spanish, but then eventually got Sambo’d Up over the course of the late 1800’s, and it wasn’t until 20 years ago that people tried to fix it up, which resulted in multi-colored Piets, like, a blue one, and that didn’t take because that’s stupid, and now it’s kind of cute again to have blackfaced children running through the streets. I will say that they were shouting Generic Dutch Christmas Greetings and kept it pretty PG; this is all neither here nor there.

Teitur and I have relocated to Amsterdam; it’s nice to get into the big city for a minute. Yesterday morning I had a fantastic experience with a cantankerous Italian man who runs a very aggressive coffee shop near the ballet.

Here is the Holland Baroque Society & Teitur rehearsing:


Here is me conducting; this is the last song, which is built on an irregularly-shaped ground bass, called “Time to Dry:



  • Your description of Sinterklaas created a weird combination of a chuckle and a hard laugh. Did you try the candy? It will be over on 5 December, after that we will start celebrating Christmas.

    Trying Dutch is good, but counterproductive, most of the people can speak English (with horrific accents, mine is just as bad, but we sort a are capable of communicating). Hearing someone with English as tongue speak it is uhmmm quite special.

    It will be great to see you perform tonight! Thank you for coming over for these concerts. I (and tons of others) truly appreciate it.

  • Is that the cantankerous Italian man with the small coffee shop near Waterlooplein, with the soup place next door and the theatre school across the street? Oh man… I hope so because that guy and his cafe is epic, complete with “We believe in an english speaking Europe” sign.

    Nico responds: Yes! it so was that dude! He was crazytown. He’s like Kenny Shopsin but by the ballet!

  • Have you seen this?

  • The concert was really beautiful in Utrecht tonight!!

    About Dutch grammar:

    The ‘ij’ is a Dutch letter, merged from the ‘i’ and the ‘j’. It is 1 character! It sounds like the Dutch ‘ei’-sound and the English ‘hi’. For typing we need to type i and j after each other. In the past there were typewriters with the ‘ij’ on one button. In handwriting you should connect the ‘i’ and ‘j’ with a little arch.

    There is a confusing part, because Dutch people talk about ‘korte (ei) en lange (ij)’ (short (ei) and long (ij)), because of the length of the character. That is so not true! We have only one ‘ij’, ‘ei’ is a composition of the vocals ‘e’ and ‘i’.

    The letter ‘y’ is called ypsilon or Greek y. We only use it for ‘borrowed’ words like baby. Officially the 25th letter of the Dutch alphabet is called Y, but in general we say and mean ‘IJ’!

  • I want so badly to hear those songs. Teitur should tweet again. His twitter is sadly neglected.

  • Do you remember the book we showed you when you were a child of the Artist Donald Evans? He learned Dutch by painting postage stamps of things..foods tools windmills etc to memorize the words. His entire oeuvre was postage stamps of invented countries and languages. Unfortunately Evans died in a fire in Amsterdam in the late 70s.
    I think this is so very related to what you are up to. I can imagine you doing a song cycle based on miniature Evans’ paintings.
    As you know, your great grandfather was Dutch and he used to scare the bejeezus out of us by telling us stories of Sinterklaas and Black Pete.It’s my favorite weirdness of this time of year except for olie bolle (sp?) which you must eat from a street vendor whilst in Amsterdam.

  • I got here via LanguageHat.\n\nI’m not synaesthetic – unless you subscribe to the notion that everyone is slightly synaesthetic, that we all lie somewhere on a continuum of synaesthetic potential – and yet, for me, printed Dutch brings to mind a colour.\n\nPrinted Dutch is bright pink. #FF4040 pink.\n\nThe sensation of pinkness is really quite strange.

  • Frans H R Koppenol
    November 30th, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Old-fashioned dictionaries used to put “ij” between “-ii-“and “-ik-“, treating the digraph as two letters.
    For convenience’s sake telephone directories pretend that “y” and “ij” are the same, thus:
    because treating the “ij” as two letters would confuse many who don’t know the exact spelling of some one’s name.
    These days dictionaries usually do what the telephone directories did, or, even worse, they pretend the alphabet has 27 letters (…-x-ij-y-z…which, personally I find confusing.
    Btw, up until about 130 years ago (approx.) it was not uncommon to write the ypsilon for “ij” (ryden, tyd).
    Note: the pronunciation of “ij” as in English “hi”is considered vulgar by many. One should open the mouth less wide.

  • Have you heard David Sedaris’s take on Zwarte Piet? Here it is split into three parts:

  • To Bunny Harvey.

    You mention Donald Evans. I remem ber him very well. He was a close friend to my friend Walter Nobbe, painter and custume/set designer for Nederlands Danstheater. I bought one of his works:
    an Adjudani stamp sheet; fictitious Middle East country. We used to meet on many occasions. He carried his complete oeuvre in one attaché case so he could work any place. We were devastated about his death. He was a kind and remarkable guy. We lend eachother some books , my book about American Farming in the early twentieth Century against his “Pears of New York” – an illustrated heavyweight about pear varieties. So stupid we never could change them back . I’m happy I still have his wonderful book full of stamps : The World of Donald Evans, ISBN: 90-60-197518.
    I can see the association with songs.

  • In contrast to Maarten’s statement, IJ is typically not considered a separate letter in Belgian Dutch (also called Flemish). Rather, it is still simply considered a combination of i and j that produces a diphthong like many other letter combinations (eu, ui, ei, etc.), and as such, is completely distinct from the single letter y which is indeed used mostly for loanwords.

    Thanks for the show in Brussels a few weeks ago, it was indeed a rather bizarre time of day (and I might add a non-representative one as far as Belgian concerts go).

  • In handwriting, the letter ‘ij’ (or ‘ij’) is indeed one letter, at least in The Netherlands. Here are some pictures of the ‘ij’ as a single letter:

    In the word ‘bijou’, the letters ‘i’ and ‘j’ are two letters: ‘bi-jou’. (Also ‘minijurk’: ‘mini-jurk’, the only Dutch words I know that have ‘i’ followed by ‘j’.)

    In the word ‘ijs’, there is a single letter ‘ij’.

    And the word ‘yoghurt’ starts with a ‘y’, which looks quite different from ‘ij’.

  • Check out David Sedaris’s piece, “Six to Eight Black Men” for more on Black Pete:

  • The ‘ij’ in general and the ‘sch’- at the beginning of a word are the booby-traps of Dutch pronunciation . Because
    the ij/ ei-sound is not quite like in ‘like’ or ‘hi! ‘Bunny Harvey, I knew Donald Evans very well. It gave me shock seeing his name mentioned here as it shocked us all to hear of his death at the time. He was a kind person and remarkable artist.
    Songs associated with the stamps, yes, I would like to hear that.

  • There is a show of six twelve-minute plays at the Flea Theater right now using fifteen seconds of Skip Town as set-change music. More importantly, the play that follows begins with a man and a woman toe-wrestling, singing one note of Skip Town every time their feet make contact. This ritual is enacted against a tableau of not-insignificant human misery. I believe that a bit of Mothertongue also makes an appearance.

    It’s all in good fun, and more than a little wonderful.