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Word of the day: heelal (universe)

You won’t believe this but there are people in this HEELAL (universe) who are keen to learn Dutch for its own sake. They don’t go to Dutch classes because they need the Dutch language for work or for a residence permit. They want to learn the language because they like the language and what’s more they like Dutch culture too. 

One of these people is Slovak Londoner Andrea. She told me the other day that she loves old peculiar words like WISKUNDE (mathematics), LUCHTLEDIG (vacuum) and HEELAL. So do I and therefore I’m going to pay some attention to these pearls of the Dutch language in this and the following postings.

Today I start with the most encompassing of all nouns, the word HEELAL which is a ‘het-woord’! Of course the word was invented when people had a completely different view of the cosmos.

Today we know that the HEELAL is full of galaxies with suns which are stars and planets and moons and invisible stuff like dark material and mysterious wormholes and voracious black holes. We even suspect that are there other HEELALLEN (universes) that have parallel existences.

In the European Middle Ages the HEELAL was more or less the dwelling place of God and his angels. It was usually referred to as the HEMEL (heaven), a word that I’ll deal with some other time. And the earth was its centre.

Amazing, I just wrote: ‘And the earth was the centre of the universe’. A few centuries ago. And now we know that we are very fortunate to be aware of the fact that we are alive and kicking on a tiny speck of material.

One of the earliest texts in which the word HEELAL occurs in Dutch was written by the Dutch Shakespeare Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679). He was the most prolific poet and playwright of the Golden Age. During his long life he wrote over thirty tragedies. He was famous in Holland’s political and artistic circles, and a friend of Rembrandt and Grotius and other humanists and scholars. In his tragedy ‘Lucifer’ (1654) he wrote about the angels:

‘Zy boude ‘t wonderlijck en zienelijck Heelal
Der weerelt Gode en oock den mensche te geval’
(They built the miraculous and visible universe / for the delight of the world of God and the people too)

And later in the play Satan aka Lucifer is so angry that it is his fiery ambition to destroy the works of creation. He has a vision in which he want to see ‘the abused earth like a monstrous body, this miraculous Universe in its mishmash clod’.

‘’t Gerabraeckt aertrijck zien als een wanschapen romp;
Dit wonderlijck Heelal in zijnen mengelklomp’.

If you wonder what language Vondel wrote, well, it is Dutch, but a kind of Dutch that even the Dutch cannot read or understand anymore thanks to the scores of spelling reforms that history has known. The English can still read Shakespeare because the British are more conservative and have left their spelling alone.

The word ‘gerabraeckt’, for instance, would be spelled ‘geradbraakt’ these days. It comes from the verb ‘radbraken’ (to break on the wheel), a ghastly kind of torture and execution fashionable in the seventeenth century.

Anyway, back to HEELAL. Johnson in his famous dictionary (1755) defined the French and Latin word ‘universe’ as ‘the general system of things’. He quotes Shakespeare’s Henry V:

‘Creeping murmur, and the poring dark,
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.’

By now you must have guessed how the Dutch concocted this wonderful word HEELAL, originally also written as: ‘heel het al’. The universe is all that is the case. ‘Het gehele alles’ : the totality of everything. Sometimes this word is shortened to AL (everything). Great! A two-letter word encompassing everything. There is no other language in HET HEELAL or HET AL that can express so much in such a short word.