Dutch: The Withering of a Language1

Geerhardus Vos
Translated by Ed M. van der Maas

Editor's Introduction

The following article by Geerhardus Vos is the last published composition known to have flowed from his pen.2 It was written in response to a request from Albertus Eekhof that Vos provide some reflection on Dutch-American matters following his retirement from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1932. The reader will note that the article is dated "late October" 1932 and postmarked Santa Ana, California. It is to this sunny retreat that Vos moved with his wife Catherine in the fall of 1932. They made their home with their youngest son, Geerhardus, Jr. (or "Jerry").

When Vos left Princeton, New Jersey for the last time in the early summer of 1932, he was recovering from severe illness. He had submitted to abdominal and oral surgery for conditions that were life threatening. In a letter dated April 28, 1932, he anticipates the quiet and refreshing of his beloved mountain summer home in Roaring Branch, Pennsylvania.3 It was to be yet another place in this world to which Vos would never return alive.4 Some time between September 9 and October 28, 1932, Vos traveled by car to the sunshine mecca his feeble body craved.5 The automobile trip comprised two weeks of that eight week interim. Vos also included the only extant autobiographical sketch to Eekhof as well. Eekhof published these fascinating pieces seriatim: "Autobiographische aantsekeningen" ("Autobiographical Notes") was appended to Eekhof's article "Prof. Dr. Geerhardus Vos" in Neerlandia 37 (January 1933): 9-10. The article included a photograph of a natty Vos dating from 1913 when he was 51 years old.

Vos's remarks here are intriguing—more for what he does not say than what he does. He avoids ecclesiastical matters ("I do not want to pursue church-related . . . issues")—even eschews "religious" issues ("I have preferred not to give it a specifically ecclesiastical coloring"). The reader should keep in mind the explosive ecclesiastical climate of 1932. J. Gresham Machen has withdrawn from Princeton Theological Seminary as a result of the gerrymandered Reorganization of 1929 engineered by President J. Ross Stevenson and his cronies. Westminster Theological Seminary has been established in Philadelphia (1929) to continue the Old School, Old Princeton tradition. But Geerhardus Vos does not join—he does not join Machen in his departure from Princeton, nor does he lend his hand to the emerging Presbyterian schism (i.e., the 1936 formation of the Presbyterian Church of America, after 1939 called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). In 1932, Vos declines to discuss these prominent ecclesiastical matters or even their context—certainly newsworthy to the Dutch and especially the Dutch Reformed world. In the same manner, Vos gives us no glimmer at all into his theological, let alone biblical-theological, career in his autobiographical sketch. In neither the personal sketch nor the Dutch language piece below does Vos reflect on his Grand Rapids or Princeton career. This is indeed remarkable—almost as if his 44-year teaching career were a cipher!

Allowing for due self-abnegation (which Vos confesses in his October 28 letter to Eekhof), nonetheless Vos's silence, his failure to comment on Princeton and Grand Rapids is a marked change from his letters of the 1880s and 1890s to Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. In those epistles, he was incisively critical of the Grand Rapids backwater as well as euphoric about the scholarly advantages in his new surroundings at Princeton. Something has changed—and that dramatically. Vos's silence speaks potential volumes. And it adds to the enigma of the man.

This enigma may be resolvable in perhaps only one way—unio cum Christo ("union with Christ"). And yet, even that dominant motif in his magnum opus, The Pauline Eschatology (his most mature work), is in the background not only of these pieces, but of his correspondence from 1931 to 1949. Only the miscellaneous poems from this era carry a hint of the old Vosian paradigm.

The translation has been admirably prepared by Mr. Ed M. van der Maas of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The footnotes are his as well.

The recovery of the Neerlandia articles is due to the patience and persistence of Rev. Brian Vos, pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church, Caledonia, Michigan. Brian poured over pages of Dutch periodicals in an attempt to locate additional 'Vosiana'. The reader now enjoys the fruits of Brian's labors. And the editor adds, Gratias tibi ago, Brianensis. Laudemus novissimum agnum!

James T. Dennison, Jr.


1 "Taal-afsterving," Neerlandia 37 (February 1933): 15-16.

2 I am excluding the small "Preface" dated September 1, 1948 which stands at the beginning of his Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1949).

3 Cf. The Life and Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr. forthcoming.

4 The question of whether or not Vos accompanied the body of his wife to the cemetery in Roaring Branch following her death in Santa Ana in September 1937 appears to lean towards the negative. He deeded the property in Pennsylvania to his children in the fall of that year, but executed the notary from Southern California. Hence, I believe he did not come to Roaring Branch for the interment of his wife. The fact that the California funeral was held at their Southern California address slightly reinforces my judgment.

5 In 1923, the Voses had sojourned in La Jolla, California and environs in a sabbatical spring and summer.

Dutch: The Withering of a Language1

Translated by Ed M. van der Maas

In response to a request to write something for Neerlandia about the situation and prospects of the Dutch element in the United States, I will try to limit myself as much as possible to the question of the usage of language and national self-awareness. I do not want to pursue church-related (or even general religious)2 issues that are more or less intertwined with the above-mentioned problems. I realize that Neerlandia does not represent a particular religious stance.3

The prognosis for the future of Dutch as a living language in this country is not favorable. It is even a question whether the time for prognosis is not already past because the patient has been given up by the physician. When I arrived here in 1881, Dutch was still a living language that was used in the pulpit, in several periodicals, and in everyday communication. The Americanization of the young people among the immigrants already had some impact even back then, not yet quite as visible but nevertheless effective.

The first Dutch sermon I heard here was delivered in the worst Dutch I have ever heard in a public address. Yet it was spoken by someone whose connections with the Netherlands were still fairly fresh. But nothing was done to stem the inevitable deterioration of language that filtered in from the English-thinking and English-speaking surroundings, or to create a counter-balance. It cannot be denied that in this respect matters have much improved in the two or more decades that followed.

The improvement had more than one cause. For a relatively long period, various pastors came from the Old Country4 and were capable of using the mother tongue well. The effect of this must not be underestimated, since in those days, more so than later, the Dominee truly provided leadership in his own congregation and sometimes in a wider circle outside the congregation. A more recent5 cause must be sought in the influence of the theological literature that came from the Netherlands, from the circles of revitalizing Calvinism, and was eagerly adopted by the pastors, and not only by them. It was fortunate that this literature made Dutch available in a very pure, we might even say splendid, form.

This gave a new impetus to maintaining the native language of many of the pastors, even young pastors. Later this literature began to be translated. This was generally speaking a positive step, but it was at the same time symptomatic of the fact that the younger element was growing away from a knowledge of Dutch, which was a prerequisite for the profitable use of these works. Those who were interested began to feel that they could no longer draw from these works the best they had to offer. The fact that the translation was at times inadequate did not change this. It is better to make do with a poor translation than to have an unintelligible and therefore unread book in the bookcase.

Another reason for the retardation of the transition process I want to mention is the impact of the theological and pre-university education6 in certain schools. This was of better quality than the stylistically and grammatically inferior Dutch7 that was used before, and that was left to continue virtually unchecked. Until now there are (weekly) news periodicals that use relatively good Dutch. But it goes without saying that this cannot continue much longer. The supply of pastors from the Netherlands has stopped, since the current institutions [in North America], of which a large number use English, fairly satisfy the need for candidates. The "quotas" that restrict immigration prevent the further influx of Netherlanders who would not be able to get along except in Dutch; as a result of this regulation a not insignificant part of the migration has been shifted to Canada.

The most effective factor in the Anglicization of the Netherlanders here can be found among8 the young people, who soon no longer understood Dutch or sometimes rather prematurely claimed9 that they could no longer understand it. This is natural. It is undoubtedly true that "I can no longer" often bordered on the "I don't want to any longer." But the fact remains that the powerful attraction of the broader and more modern American environment was irresistible to the "younger people."

The Dutch-speaking churches had to make arrangements for English services in the interest of the coming generation, but also for their own sake, because this generation strongly tended toward a gradual dissolving of various denominations into the American churches.10 No one can deny that this arrangement was indispensable. It has delayed for many young people the estrangement from their religious heritage,11 although it has not been able to prevent it altogether. We will leave out of consideration here whether the remedy was taken to hand too early or too late, even as the question as to whether the methods used were always wise.

There are still older folks of Dutch descent in certain regions who need Dutch in preaching; consequently an ever-shrinking number of young, bilingual preachers has not yet become entirely superfluous. But it is said that given a choice between calls, there is a strong preference for entirely English-speaking congregations.

It cannot be denied that the ascendancy of English in general among the young people has not proceeded without a regrettable disdain for the Dutch traditions. There has been and still is at work a feeling that it was more "refined," more "aristocratic" (or should I say "more democratic"?) to forget one's Dutch and to repudiate it. This could be seen especially among those who came from the Netherlands with less education. And it was of course unavoidable that the English that gained ground on the basis of such motivations was not always of the best quality and was in some cases downright vulgar.

This was a deterioration of the language that had its source among the Netherlanders themselves. At present, and with this I want to conclude my brief comments, there is a great danger that American-English in all circles suffers from a malady that perhaps within half a century will turn it entirely into a coarse "slang" language. There are not a few who openly admit that they can no longer understand this new way of speaking. And this process of corruption of the language is not limited to the common man or youth only. It threatens to make inroads in otherwise "cultured" circles, among older, more conservative individuals. I was told of a professor who in a lecture on a historical topic referred to certain historical characters12 as "this guy" and "that guy." If this happens in the greenwood, what will happen to the kindling of everyday language? In my judgment this is a serious question. I mention this because incompletely grasped English presents fertile soil for such usages to gain the upper hand. It must be a source of great amazement that in spite of the intensive education in correct English, on which the thousands of public schools concentrate, the younger generation of Americans that comes out of these schools seems as soon as they graduate, to be unable to muster even the least resistance to the decay of language in everyday life .

It seems a pity to have to note this and to speak about it in Askalon or Gath.13 English, the beautiful language that at first had such a awesome ap-peal to the young people of Dutch descent, seems now to be underway to shipwreck on its own general decay. May God prevent it! And Caveant Philologi.14

Dr. Geerhardus Vos

Santa Ana, California

U.S.A, Late October 1932.

This article is printed without changing the American-Dutch linguistic and stylistic peculiarities. A[lbertus] E[ekhof]


1 Lit. "Language-withering." I had a whole string of possible titles, but this one seemed the clearest and simplest.

2 In the original, the closing paren is misplaced; it should precede rather than follow "vragen."

3 Lit. "color."

4 Lit. "old Fatherland."

5 Lit. "new"

6 "voorbereidend onderricht."

7 "stylistically and grammatically inferior Dutch": "kreupel Hollandsch," lit. "cripple-Dutch."

8 "Among" translates "in de neiging der" ("in the inclination [or tendency] of"); this is a somewhat awkward sentence and the omission does not change the meaning significantly.

9 Vos italicizes kunnen (could), but it seems better to italicize claimed instead.

10 This is best sense I can make out of this sentence. It fits, but I am not altogether sure.

11 Lit. "mother soil."

12 Lit. "persons he dealt with in that lecture."

13 Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon (KJV); 2 Samuel 1:20.

14 "Men of letters, beware," or "Scholars, beware."