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Truth is chaos. Maybe beauty is chaos (Dylan)

31/05/2012

Have you ever wondered why so many Dutch people speak English better than the English themselves? It could be because they have teachers like the remarkable Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870 – 1946).

The son of a pastor, he studied classics, then law and finally political science at the University of Utrecht. By 1894 he was in San Francisco, teaching the sons of the Netherlands Consul-General. From 1901 to 1918 he worked as a schoolteacher in Haarlem, and published several schoolbooks in English and French, as well as a study of the Dutch constitution. From 1909 until its closure by the Nazis, he wrote for the weekly De (Groene) Amsterdammer, with a linguistic column under the pseudonym of Charivarius. That was a clue to his essential playfulness and love of English, echoing as it did Punch magazine’s subtitle of The London Charivari.

Trenité wrote The Chaos as an appendix to his 1920 textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen (English Pronunciation Exercises). It almost doubled in length from 146 to 274 lines over the editions that appeared during his lifetime. I’ve copied the first 20 only, which will set the tone; for masochists the whole poem is here. Can you manage to get through it without stumbling?

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say – said, pay – paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak.

Postscript: Happily De Groene Amsterdammer, which was founded in 1877, thrives to this day as an influential news magazine.

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