By Eleanor Brown
Here is the first of an occasional series of posts, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children when they lived in The Netherlands in the 1960s.
Later on, when I was married, I did have a lot of spare time. Because we moved to Holland in ’65 and we didn’t have a television. I spent a lot of time learning Dutch, because I’d got by then two young children who would go into nursery school, and I would need to be able to sing to them, nursery rhymes and so on. So my Dutch is based on nursery rhymes; I can’t discuss anything political, but I can sing you a nursery rhyme! And so a lot of my time there I went to the British Women’s Club Library…
With no YouTube to visit for colourful animations including a friendly ball bouncing along subtitled lyrics in time with the music; with no Babel Fish (RIP) or Google Translate to show texts side by side with their translations; with no smartphone language app encouragingly keeping score of learning tasks completed, Julia had to find her own way into Dutch. She must have had to learn tunes, pronunciation and intonations at toddler groups; perhaps at mother and baby sessions at the library. She must have had to do some guesswork and dictionary work at first, piecing together the meanings of (sometimes more or less nonsensical) texts with clues from the illustrations in books.
As in English, many Dutch early learning songs tell no very rational or sequential tale: bears buttering their sandwiches and snakes hanging out the washing are wonders to be met with in a world where beren rhymes with smeren and slangen rhymes with hangen.
In the absence of a television, Julia made her own visual aid: she coded her own and her children’s learning into a cross-stitch needlework textile wall hanging that illustrates 12 traditional Dutch nursery rhymes. The texts (together with audio and translations) of some of these can be found at Mama Lisa’s World: Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes From Around The World but if you make your own translations, you can enjoy finding equivalents for the flavour, rhythm or silliness of the original.
They range from the briefest summary of domestic animal whereabouts:
A, B, C, A, B, C,
De Kat gaat me, The cat comes with me,
De Hond blijft thuis. The dog stops at home.
‘Piep!’ zei de muis ‘Eek!’ says the mouse
In ‘t voorhuis. In the front of the house.
to a long, earnest account of (Everyboy) Jantje’s moral struggle as he gazes at the ripe plums his father has forbidden him to scrump. They include such recognisable childhood experiences as pulling your friend along in a little wagon, holding tight to mother’s umbrella in the wind and rain, and calling your sister stupid when you drop your cap in the mud.