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Word of the day: lezen (read)

Here I am, writing on my laptop in the middle of the Expat Fair in the World Trade Centre where Direct Dutch has a stand. Petra, Marloes and Avril are chatting to new and familiar faces. Learn Dutch is their message and then speak Dutch. Our badges SPREEK NEDERLANDS! MET MIJ! go like hot cakes.


It is not easy to write this posting and to say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ (both DAG in Dutch) at the same time. A father and his two children look at the badges. I give them a badge. ‘Can you read it?’ No, she can’t yet read. Her father translates it for her. And with her little finger she follows the letters trying to make sense of them. In vain. Another year perhaps and she’ll join the world community of readers. ‘Dag’, I said. ‘Bye’, shyly.

This brief encounter reminded me of something I witnessed last week. On Sunday, 7th September, I went home after a visit to the Haagse UIT-markt. The organisers had scattered the stands over the Voorhout and the Spuiplein. So I did a lot walking up and down.

I wasn’t in the best of spirits when I went home at five o’clock. The amount of cultural institutions seemed to have dwindled enormously since last year. The result of years of cut backs. And in the Central Library they were selling thousands of books, cd’s and dvd’s ‘voor een appel en een ei’ (literally: ‘for an apple and an egg’ -> next to nothing).

Apparently the library stacked a lot of dead letters. Books that most readers had lost interest in and now had to be got rid of. A book sale in the Bibliotheek (library)! We call this ‘vloeken in de kerk’ (‘cursing in the church’, no idea what the translation of this saying is).

The word ‘library’ in Dutch is ‘bibliotheek’, originally the Greek word ‘bibliothḗkē’, a combination of ‘biblíon’ (book) and ‘thḗkē’ (storehouse, repository). So a ‘bibliotheek’ was and has been for centuries a storehouse of books. And now? What is a ‘library’ now? Now that printed books are losing their value and move to ghost libraries in digital space. What can we store in them?

So being a bit downcast, I took a tram and travelled back to Voorburg where I live. In the tram there were two women and a small child. One of these women (mother? sister?) was reading to the little child from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Not the Lewis Carroll ‘Alice’, but the Walt Disney ‘Alice’. After a while the roles were changed and the child pretended to read out to her. I took a photo of this moving tableau.

The little girl understood the pictures in the book but she had not yet learned to read. Yet she knew what the letters in the book were for. Letters she knows are coded mysteries, stories, messages. Letters convey meaning. Lewis Carroll was aware of this when he was writing his famous novel about the girl who fell down the rabbit hole.

I imagined that the girl in the tram was reading about Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty who experienced words as living creatures. In the original book the egg said:

‘[Words] have a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject.’

LEZEN (read) is a weird word. And the process of squeezing meaning out of minimal signs is even weirder. Impenetrable in fact. The words ‘read’ and ‘lezen’ are not related and yet… somehow they are complementary.

‘Read’ goes back to Old English ‘rædan’ or ‘redan’ meaning ‘to advise’ or ‘to counsel’ and yes, you guessed right, this word is related to Dutch RADEN (to advise and also to guess). Old English ‘in þas boc rædan’ (reading the book) is guess work. Reading is guessing the meaning of written symbols. The Dutch word RAADSEL (riddle) is the noun of the verb ‘RADEN’.

LEZEN (read) also exists in Old English. The verb ‘lesan’ originally means ‘to gather’, ‘to glean’ or ‘to pick’. In Latin the verb ‘legere’ (read) originally also meant ‘to collect’. What has the sense of gathering to do with making sense of symbols? That is the question. Maybe this transition from collecting to reading shows that the old Romans and Saxons had a good insight into the mental process that is involved.

LEZEN is collecting symbols, then sorting them mentally and eventually you listen as the sorted symbols speak to you. READING is guessing what the symbols mean and hoping that they will make sense.

By the way, the word LEZEN in the sense of collecting can still be detected in the word BLOEMLEZING (anthology) which translates as ‘flower collection’. An anthology is a collection of the most beautiful flowers in the field.

Please don’t complain that my posting is too long. I could go on talking about ‘schrijven’ (write) but I’ll keep that for later. You’ve read enough. ‘Genoeg gelezen.’