What is the strange version of the Dutch language that is used during Carnival? Find out what it means and the unexpected link to the Knights of the Round Table.
Slogans on carnival floats, posters for events related to carnival and texts in the local newspaper carnival supplement are often written in something approximating local dialect, something most people no longer speak on a day-to-day basis. I always enjoy trying to translate them into modern ABN, Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands. In other words, into standard Dutch. The website of the carnival organisation in Bergen op Zoom is a good example. So non-standard is the dialect that the entire website is available in a dialect and a translated standard Dutch version.
Why does carnival use dialect?
Perhaps the main reason to use dialect at carnival time is to emphasise the folk origins of the festival and its local nature. Since the majority of people don’t speak in dialect any more on a day-to-day basis, except for a few set phrases or local words, it makes it even more important that events like carnival keep it alive. An article on the Dutch Language Union (Taalunie) website discusses how dialect is being deformed by people who don’t really speak it often enough to know the rules. Particularly as carnival is shifting towards becoming far more of a young person’s festival, Dutch youth language is also infiltrating dialect, for example describing a ‘cool clubske’, that takes the English word ‘cool’ and adds the incorrect ‘clubske’; it should be ‘clubke’ according to the rules of the dialect spoken by older people. All language changes, even dialect! As the article points out, dialect isn’t really designed to be written down. It’s a spoken language, so even thought there are grammatical rules, the spelling isn’t too much of an issue.
Carnival names of towns
One of the most obvious places where dialect is used is in place names. Wherever Carnival is celebrated, towns and villages have a special carnival name, replacing the usual name on the road signs at the entrance to the town (see this list).
At the start of the carnival period, the keys of the town are handed over by the mayor to the carnival prince (Prins Carnaval), signifying that the fools have taken over. At the same time, the town takes on a special name, often referring to some historical tale or trade that was related to the inhabitants.
Lazy names (changing the pronunciation)
Sometimes the name simply changes to a dialect version of the town such as Ernum for Arnhem and Gruusbek for Groesbeek. Not very original, I’m afraid.
Kingdoms and countries, hills and dales
As each town is ruled by a carnival prince and his 11 councillors (raad van elf, council of 11), the link is soon made between a kingdom (rijk) and country (land). Riek is simply the dialect version of rijk for kingdom, as is durp for the Dutch word dorp, village. There are many of these. Implying a very small place is in the back of beyond, gat (hole) can be used literally for quiet places like Alverna (‘t Vennegat – the fen or marsh hole) or ironically in a large city such as Eindhoven (Lampegat – lamp hole). Paradoxically, a tiny village such as Ravenstein is called Pomperstad (Pumper’s city).
Many names refer to the characteristics of the place itself. Berg en Dal, which famously features an enormously steep hill (yes, a hill, in the Netherlands!) is called Duivelberg (Devil Hill, or mountain in Dutch terms). Waotergat (water hole), Kikkergat (frog hole) and Vennegat (fen hole) are all known for having boggy or marshy areas. Niftrik and Balgoij, two villages on the banks of the River Maas, both refer to this in their names: Maospruversdeel and Maoslandersrijk respectively.
Poking fun at yourself
Carnival is a time for poking fun at everything, including oneself, so many of the names of both carnival associations and the towns themselves are based on derogatory names for the local residents. Cuijk is called Nölersriek and Elden is Neulewiekersdorp; nuilen is a regional dialect word meaning to complain or whinge. I assume the wieker part refers to the wieken or sails of the prominent local windmill in Elden. Tilburg’s carnival name is Kruikenstad (jug town) because it was a centre for the textile industry where locals used to collect urine in stone jugs to use for washing wool. This lead to the nickname for Tilburgers of kruikenzeikers. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, carnival associations adopted the names their neighbours used to poke fun at them. Locally, The village of Ewijk calls itself Zottendael (valley of the fools) and Westervoort is Doldorp (crazy village or dizzy village). Malden is known as Rijk der Dwarsliggers, the Kingdom of Awkward People. Heumen is renamed Rijk der Raore Schutters, the Kingdom of Strange Shooters; the shooting part is because carnival was originally celebrated in the village by the old shooting society. Bemmel’s name is ‘t Kaokelnest, the cackling nest, presumably with the idea that they talk a lot. The Heikneuters from Mook are owning up to being yokels from the middle of nowhere.
Some names reveal links to past occupations in the area. Lampegat (Eindhoven) is called this because the town is closely linked with the Philips electric light bulb factory. Best is renamed Klompengat (clog hole) because of the Bata shoe factory, Dommelen is Brouwersgat (brewer’s hole) because of the Dommelsch brewery and Doesburg is called Mosterdgat because mustard was produced there.
Huissen is called Zwaonestad (swan town) because the town’s coat of arms is a swan. Wijchen is called ‘t Urnerijk because many Iron Age burial urns have been discovered in the area. Nijmegen’s carnival name Knotsenburg refers to the name of a fortification that used to be on the other side of the River Waal.
Twin towns, matching names
Sometimes you can also see other historical links in the names given to villages. The fact that Ravenstein on the Noord-Brabant side of the Maas is called Pomperstad and Batenburg on the Gelderland side is called Pompestad is probably no coincidence as there are strong links between the two. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Batenburg was ruled by Protestants and there was no Roman Catholic church in the town so the 80% of the population who were Catholic used to cross the river to attend Mass at the church in Demen; in Noord-Brabant there was religious freedom.
On the other hand, some places are made up of two or more adjoining places such as Gilze en Rijen, fused in 1961, but retaining two linked names: Dringersgat (yokel-hole) and Wringersgat (troublemaker’s-hole). At the moment, in Gelderland, 3 councils have just merged into one new council made up of Groesbeek, Millingen and Ubbergen. In 2016 it will be called Berg en Dal, but for the first year it was called Groesbeek. However, during last year’s carnival, someone changed all the street signs to the carnival name of Duufelshemel (devil’s heaven, a name connected to the nearby Duivelsberg – Devil’s ‘Mountain’, and the carnival name used for Berg en Dal). It’s all a bit of mystery who was responsible.
If your town already sounds like a carnival name
You might expect that a places like Stampersgat that already sounds carnivalesque would keep their own name, but it becomes Meekrapdurp. Likewise, Stompwijk turns into Gaandrië.
Translations of slogans on photos:
- Standard Dutch: Dit foute jaar wordt hem niet, dus mikken wij op Sotsji (We didn’t make it in this wrong year, so we’ll aim for Sochi)
- Mix between the words ‘fout’ (wrong) and ‘oud’ (old)
- Standard Dutch: In het foute jaar staat Frau Antje voor Duitsland klaar (In the wrong year, Frau Antje is ready for Germany)
- Standard Dutch: C.V. Waar Gaat Het Heen! (Carnival association Where Will It End?)
Where else is dialect used during Carnaval?
One of the most obvious places to see dialect is during the carnival parade where all sorts of slogans are painted on the floats or carried as signs by people walking in the parade. Not always written in dialect, but more often than not.
Carnival songs – carnavalsschlagers, the hits of which are known as carnavalskrakers – are also often sung in dialect. Some are as old as the hills, but new ones are written every year as well as songs that are parodies of a chart-topper. Every year there seem to be a few that make the charts, but they are often just novelty songs that become popular as après-ski music during the skiing season that runs parallel to carnival season. Some places hold competitions for new songs and sometimes they are released on a CD by the carnival association to raise funds. As the songs often make fun of local news or current affairs, they are often only around for a year or two, but the competitions are still taken very seriously. This is one top 10 list for 2016. I haven’t listened to it, I’m afraid, so don’t blame me if your ears are offended.
Likewise, carnival associations hold competitions called the pronkzitting (showing off meeting) or buutavond (talking evening), in fact stand-up comedy competitions combined with song and dance, too. Speakers dress up as a character or typetje, usually one who is not too clever. In Brabant, the speaker is called a tonpraoter (or sauwelaar – I haven’t heard this one), meaning someone talking in a barrel (ton), and that apparently is just what they do! In Limburg and the Achterhoek part of Gelderland, the speaker is a buutteredner / buutreedner, and the speech itself a buut. And what does the word buut mean? A barrel, symbolising a pulpit. And redner is related to the German word reden, to talk. All this talking takes place in dialect.
The pronkzitting is probably the only time that people get dressed up smartly to go to a carnival event. The full Raad van Elf (Council of 11) is there in full regalia and the public are expected to dress accordingly. The Prins Carnaval also takes on a name, usually in dialect and often referring in some way to his profession or place of birth, numbered like real monarchs, so Simon d’n Eerste (Simon I), John d’n Twidde (John II), Marius de Spierstrieker (in standard Dutch spierstrieker means muscle smoother, so perhaps a physiotherapist), etc.
Carnival and the Knights of the Round Table
There are many carnival place names that include the word kei, that usually means stone, but not here: Keienland (Liessel), Keiegat (Waalre), Keistad (Lichtenvoorde), Keijebijtersstad (Helmond), Keieschietersriek (Arcen) en Keiespellersdurp (Helvoirt), not to mention the name Keijenburg that used to be used for Bergen op Zoom. The dictionary Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal gives an old definition of kei as fool or idiot, going back to the name of one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, Keye or Kay, who was described as a mix between a fool and a hero. Hence the world kei meaning fool and that is why it is so fitting to be used as a name used carnival, the festival of fools. Source: www.kennislink.nl.
There is much more I could write about the language of carnival, but I will have to leave that to another time.