Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the Day: stem (voice)

STEM, the voice is the source of all languages and of all the words that we communicate with. In Old English it was ‘stefn’ or ‘stemn’. Somehow the English lost their Germanic STEM in history and now they are ‘voicing’ it. ‘Voice’ going back to French ‘voix’ and Latin ‘vox’.


One of the oldest Dutch words is STEM. The first time it appeared in writing was in a tenth century psalm: ‘Bit stimmon minere ce god riep ik’ meaning: ‘With my voice I called to god’. Originally the word STEM only referred to divine and human sounds. Indeed, the STEM is a magical instrument. It has the power to move you to tears, to shock you, to make you laugh, to make you live!

The worst that can happen is that your STEM is not heard. Not by god or by anyone. The 18th century Irish philosopher George Berkeley proclaimed: ‘Esse est percipi’ (‘to be is to be perceived’), meaning that if you’re not seen, you don’t exist. This may have been true in the god-fearing days that your rank in society was decisive. Today in our equalitarian universe we must raise our voices (STEM VERHEFFEN) in order to be seen and heard. So: ‘Esse est audiri’. And I use this ‘audiri’ in the sense that a voice can also be heard on paper or in bits and bytes (by way of Facebook or Twitter for instance).

Having a STEM (voice or gestures) gives power. This is evident from the other meaning of STEM: the vote. People used to vote by means of their voices. So STEMMEN MET STEMMEN. The Dutch vote silently these days, with a red pencil in a narrow booth, curtain closed. The constitution prescribes that all Dutch individuals have STEMRECHT, the right to vote.

STEMMEN can also mean to tune. ‘De stemmer stemt de piano met een stemvork’ (The tuner tunes the… and the rest you can guess). And last but definitely not least, STEMMEN can mean to put someone in a mood as in ‘zij stemt me treurig’ (she makes me feel sad).

There are many verbs with STEM in them; afstemmen (attune), instemmen (agree), overeenstemmen (match), ontstemmen (put out of tune, upset), bestemmen (intend), voorbestemmen (destine), etc.

The reason why I have chosen the word STEM, is because a wonderful and beautifully illustrated book has come out today. It is called: ‘Stemmen van Den Haag’ (published by Prometheus) and it is a collection of 150 poems originally written by our famous poet Sir Constantine Huygens who lived in the seventeenth century, father of the famous scientist Christian Huygens. Huygens wrote these short poems in Latin in 1643. The volume’s title was ‘Haga vocalis’.

Huygens gives a voice to the streets and buildings of The Hague. In the poems they speak about themselves. With this book in hand (there is also an app) you can walk through the streets of The Hague and listen to these ancient voices from the seventeenth century. You’ll find out that most of the streets and buildings are still there, alive and kicking.

Academic Frans Blom and poet Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer translated the Latin texts into modern Dutch. This is not material for absolute beginners, but if you have some Dutch, you can understand these witty poems. Here is an example followed by my poor attempt at translation.


In ons Den Haag ben ik Parijs:
Gezellig druk en eigenwijs.
Omdat ik bruis van bruisend leven,
Zij alle troep hier mij vergeven.
Vergeven? Nee, het is een eer
Te zijn vergeven van verkeer.

In our The Hague I am Paris:
Pleasantly busy, saucy and free.
Brimming with dazzling life
Let me be forgiven for all the noise.
Forgiven? No, it is my pride
To be alive with dealings.

(The pun on ‘vergeven’ is lost in this translation.
‘Vergeven’ can mean ‘forgiven’ but also ‘infested’.)