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Word of the Day: wat (what, vertellen part 2)

Yesterday I told the story of the ‘Direct Dutch storyteller in residence’, the mesmerizing Ann Harris. And I started her story with her own words: ‘Luister, ik ga je een verhaal vertellen… (Listen, I am going to tell you a tale). 


Trying to catch the attention of an audience is the first challenge faced by a storyteller. There you are in a room filled with noisy people. How do you make them listen? By shouting ‘silence’ or ‘quiet’? By saying: ‘Luister!’ (Listen). ‘Mag ik even uw aandacht? (Can I have your attention?) Or: ‘Er was eens.’ (Once upon a time). Or are you just going to make an unusual noise… Stamping your foot, clinking your glass?

In the early Middle Ages the Anglosaxon storyteller, the ‘scop’ used to begin with ‘hwæt’. The opening of the story of Beowulf, for instance:

‘Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
Þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
Hu pa æþelingas ellen fremedon’

‘So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.’

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel prize winner made a translation of this early Anglosaxon epic. A hell of a task it must have been. Heaney translated ‘Hwæt’ as ‘So’! His argument is the following:

“Conventional renderings of ‘hwæt’, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was.”

So! What about ‘what’? In Anglosaxon ‘hwæt’ we can still recognize ‘what’, or Dutch WAT. Shakespeare was still using it in that exclamatory sense and the jocular ‘What ho, Sir!’ can still be heard. ‘What’ as an ‘expression obliterating all previous discourse’ as Heaney puts it. Hello, HALLO! The Dutch like to shout out ‘WAT’. It is short. It is hard, sharp and pointy. It hits target. It is a question and an imputation at the same time. WAT?!?!

So what once you have caught the attention of your listeners? What then? This depends on your storytelling capacities. Ann Harris was a natural born storyteller. She knew exactly how to hold the attention. Her eyes were continually searching the audience to gauge their interest. Every teller of tales has the job to relate the story in such a way that the listener becomes involved. In such a way that the storyline will nestle inside the head of the listener.

The word VERTELLEN tells us how a ‘scop’, a ‘bard’, a teller of tales goes about his business. How? What? Tomorrow in the last episode of this short series I’ll tell you my hypothesis.

Photo of Seamus Heaney by Adriaan van der Weel (thanks)