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Word of the Day: zwijgen (to be silent)

What exactly makes our species human? Wisdom? Hardly. Maybe our ability to communicate with one another in so many different ways. We can speak, sing, laugh, whisper, cry and we can choose to remain silent. Humans are the only creatures that can decide to communicate by refraining from any other form of communication. This week’s discussion is about human utterances or the lack of them. ZWIJGEN, to be silent. Let’s start with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s adage that concluded last week’s discussion.


‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence’, thus spake the Austrian philosopher at the end of the only book he published in his lifetime: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Ludwig did not really speak these ominous words. Firstly because they were written and printed and secondly because he wrote the book in German. So what he really wrote was: ‘Wovan man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.’ In Dutch it translates as: ‘Waarover men niet kan spreken, daarover moet men zwijgen.’

ZWIJGEN, German ‘schweigen’ does not have an elegant English equivalent. Ain’t that weird? Yes, in Old English there still was the verb ‘swīgian’, resembling Middle Dutch ‘swigen’ but sometime in history English lost the verb. ‘Pass over in silence’ or ‘be silent’ are weak approximations of ZWIJGEN. In contrast with ‘to be silent’ the verb ZWIJGEN implies a wilful action.

So Wittgenstein’s last proposition can never be translated properly into English. It proves how inapt language really is. The sounds humans produce suggest that we are able to understand each other and, more so, give insight into the nature of things. But the sounds are merely sounds. In Shakespeare’s words: ‘Life’s but … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ (Macbeth)

‘Spreken is zilver, zwijgen is goud’ (speech is silver, silence is golden) is a famous Dutch and originally German proverb. Apparently people who possess the ability to restrain their urge to utter words have a higher value than chatterboxes. As Carlyle said: ‘Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.’ Speech is for idiots, mud, silence is for the enlightened, the wise, diamond…

The one Dutch person, famous as a non-speaker, is supposed to be William of Nassau-Orange (1533-84), father of the Netherlandish fatherland, founder of the Republic, ancestor of the Dutch monarchy which started in 1813. But was this great man really speechless? Why did they nickname him Willem de Zwijger, in French Guillaume le Taciturne, in German Wilhelm der Schweiger and in English William the Silent?

The short answer is: we don’t know. History is silent: ‘de geschiedenis zwijgt’. Historians claim that there is not an inch of evidence that William was wordless. On the contrary, this great revolutionary leader was well-spoken. Historians think that he probably received the honorary name because of a translation mistake. In 1574 a latin text referred to him as ‘astutus Gulielmus’ (sly William). A poor latinist mistakenly translated this into Dutch in 1608 as ‘den swijger’.

After his assassination by Balthasar Gérardts in Delft in 1584 Willem de Zwijger became a mythical person as is testified by the national hymn in which the poet calls him a pious Christian and a fearless hero of noble blood: ‘Als een vroom christen man /…/ heb ik … als een held zonder vrezen / mijn edel bloed gewaagd.’ His dying words were in French: ‘Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de mon âme; mon Dieu, ayez pitié de ce pauvre peuple.’ (My God, have pity on my soul; my God, have pity on this poor people.) But again, these words were probably never spoken, since he must have died almost immediately.

The Hague honours this man of noble blood with two statues. The statue in Noordeinde (opposite the King Willem-Alexander’s palace) portrays the fearless hero on staggering horseback. On het Plein in the heart of the city of peace and justice the father of the fatherland is merely standing with the first ever Act of Independence in his hand. Originally this statue faced the buildings of parliament but for some obscure reason it was turned to face Delft, where the first William was murdered and where his body is decaying in the tomb of the Orange family.