Dutch Language in the USA

the Dutch language continued to be widely spoken in the New York region for over 200 years. Not until 1764 was English used to preach in New York’s Dutch Reformed churches. President Martin Van Buren (born in 1782 not far from here in Kinderhook and elected in 1836) spoke Dutch at home with his wife. The first 20th century president, Theodore Roosevelt, grew up hearing his grandparents speak Dutch at the dinner table in New York City in the 1860s. Sojourner Truth, the anti-slavery orator and associate of Frederick Douglass, was born as a slave in Ulster County, New York about 1797, and grew up speaking nothing but Dutch until she was eleven years old. Dutch was spoken in parts of Brooklyn into the mid 1800s and is quite likely the origin of the so-called Brooklyn accent.

Closer to the present, the Ramapough Lenapes or Ramapough Mountain Indians*, a clan of mixed black, Indian and Dutch heritage still live in the Ramapo Hills of New Jersey. They spoke a bastardized form of Dutch, which still had some 200 speakers in 1910. This Jersey Dutch died out sometime between the 1920s and 1950s, although some Dutch-derived expressions apparently survive among their elders. Researchers in 1910 as well as in recent years found that some of them still knew a nursery rhyme called Trippe Trappe Troontjes, which was also mentioned by Teddy Roosevelt as the one piece of Dutch he remembered learnning from his grandmother; and on one of his African trips Roosevelt discovered that it was also known by the South African boers who had carried it there from Holland 300 years before.

In the early 20th century, Dutch researchers found other surviving pockets of Dutch descended directly from that of the colonial settlers of New Amsterdam, in the Hudson Valley as far north as Schenectady. I have found at least anecdotal evidence of families in the Catskills who spoke Dutch on a daily basis into the 1940s or 50s. So the language survived nearly three full centuries after the end of Dutch influence in North America. And who knows, it seems quite likely that somewhere in New York or New Jersey, there still lives a geezer or two who learned, on their mother’s knee, a smattering of that colonial Dutch.

Isolated language
"One group who spoke the language were the Ramapo Indians of New Jersey, and they're still there. They call themselves the Ramapo but they descended from a mixture of indians, black slaves who were liberated and Dutch settlers," says Martin Langeveld, an American journalist of Dutch descent.
"The Ramapo continued to speak Dutch, or at least a dialect form of Dutch, throughout the 19th century. They had settled there in the late 1600s, but it was an isolated mountain area. And the last speakers of that dialect, which was pretty well documented, died out in the first half of the 20th century. In 1910, there were still 200 speakers of Dutch there, of the original colonial Dutch.
Nursery rhyme
According to Langeveld, there are still a few traces of the language that the Ramapo would recognize today. One of these is a Dutch nursery rhyme: 'Trippe trappe troontjes…'

Trippe trappe troontjes,
De varkens in de boontjes,
De koetjes in de klaver,
De paarden in de haver,
De eendjes in de water-plas,
De kalf in de lang gras -
So groot myn kleine poppetje was!

Trip a trop a troontjes,
the pigs are in the beans,
the cows are in the clover,
the horses in the oats,
the ducks are in the water,
the calf in the long grass,
this is how big my baby was!

Langeveld: "Interestingly, this was also the one piece of Dutch that was remembered by Theodore Roosevelt, who was the first 20th century president of the United States, but who grew up in the 1860s in New York. He would go to dinner at his grandparents house. And at Sunday dinner his grandparents spoke Dutch at the dinner table. And this same nursery rhyme is one that he learned there, and he mentions in his autobiography that when he went to visit South Africa, he found Boers there and recited this nursery rhyme to them and they knew it too!"

Tightly-knit community
Why did some Americans continue to speak Dutch into the 20th century? English was, after all, the only accepted American language. According to Langeveld, that had to do with the small, close communities where Dutch descendants lived until the beginning of the 19th century. These communities were organized around Dutch-speaking churches and schools. Amongst themselves, the villagers only spoke Dutch. But it was also the official language of municipal government.
"In the city of Albany, not far from here, a lot of the city business was done in Dutch at least until the American Revolution in 1776. At this point they became part of the United States. They had a federal government that spoke English so then they too made the transition to English. But for at least those first 200 years after the English took over in the Dutch colony, these Dutch communities just stayed together."
Watered down
Everything changed because of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800. This was the time when large numbers of people went west. Everywhere on the East coast, small farming communities broke up. Many people moved to the city to begin life anew. America's railways expanded, bringing many Dutch people who used to be isolated into contact with the rest of American society. The Dutch they spoke was watered down and before long it was only spoken in the few small communities that still existed, like the one where Martin Van Buren lived.

English gradually became the dominant language in all of New York state. This happened during Van Buren's lifetime... And by the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected - he was the third US President with Dutch roots - the Dutch language of the Hudson Valley had disappeared, like a long-forgotten nursery rhyme.

1 comment:

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