Sunday, October 7, 2018

Colchester, oysters ... and the Dutch language

Colchester in the county of Essex is said to be Britain’s oldest permanently inhabited town and for a time was the capital of Roman Britain. Less well known is the place of a Dutch community and the Dutch language in the town’s history. Colchester lies on the River Colne and is a fairly short boat-trip away from the Low Countries. Flemish weavers had been in the town since the fourteenth century, but their numbers increased significantly from the 1560s as a result of religious and economic problems in the Netherlands. By 1586 there were well over 1,000 Flemish and Dutch in Colchester. Indeed, they were so numerous that some moved to nearby Halstead, where there was a Flemish weaving community for thirteen years. In Colchester, wills, letters and other documents were written in Dutch and a Dutch-language church was established, which functioned for over 150 years. Perhaps its most notable minister was Jonas Proost (b. 1572), who was born in the Dutch/Flemish community in London. Proost was a minister for over 40 years and wrote much poetry including Dutch sonnets. However, perhaps the most well-known Dutch poem written in Colchester was penned by the merchant, Jan Six van Chandelier (1620-1635). On a visit to England, he passed through Colchester and enjoyed eating the local oysters. This inspired him to write Oesters te Kolchester ('Oysters at Colchester'):

O! oestertjen, met groene baardjes,
O! blanke bolle, en volle beet
Betaal myn snoeplust vry, met schaartjes,
Aan ‘t mes, ter schulpknops breuk, gesmeedt…

[Oh! Green-bearded little oyster,
Oh! Pale ball and full bite,
Freely repay my craving, with notches
On my knife, forged to break you shell…]

One person born in the Flemish community in Colchester who returned to the Low Countries was the grammarian, Petrus Leupenius (1607-1670). He was the author of Aanmerkingen op de Neerderduitsche taale (‘Observations on the Dutch language’). In 1728/9 with numbers in the community falling, the doors of the Bay Hall were closed and the Dutch church ceased to function. In memory of the Flemish/Dutch presence in Colchester, an area of the town is called the Dutch Quarter. One possible loanword in the Essex dialect, is ‘dwoile/dwile’ from the Dutch dweil (cloth or rag).

Further reading: Christopher Joby, The Dutch Language in Britain (1550-1702). Leiden, Brill, 2015.

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