“I think and dream in Grunnegs”

By Juliane Glahn and Annewil Schippers

If you’ve ever been offered a “puutje” by the cashier at your local Groningen supermarket or been baffled because someone yelled “moi!” at you, you probably assumed you just misunderstood or that the person had a speech impediment. But, actually, these are perfectly normal words in the Grunnegs dialect, spoken by most people in Groningen. We speak to Marten van Dijken, a true Grunneger, on the dialect’s special celebration day.

The smell of cooked broccoli and boiled potatoes fills the room, while outside it’s raining cats and dogs — or as the Grunnegers would say, “t regent jong katten” – but nonetheless the spirit inside the Groninger Archives is high. Today, the Archives, located on Cascadeplein in the city, jam-packed with people who are desperately trying to dry their trousers, is the set of Dag fan de Grunneger Toal, or Day of the Grunneger Language. Here, enthusiasts of the local language, and artists such as writers and musicians, celebrate, as well as talk about their ties with the language, including Marten van Dijken.

The day is dedicated to the Grunneger dialect, which bears similarities to Dutch, Frisian and West Low German, and is spoken by approximately 65 percent of the population of Groningen. With around 550,000 speakers, it’s one of the Netherlands’ most prevalent dialects. Although it’s not an officially recognised language, it does have its own dictionary which was published by Kornelis ter Laan in 1929 and reissued in 1952.

“I think and dream in Grunnegs,” says Marten van Dijken, who has done translation work for over 40 years. After retiring at 57, he now spends his days translating literary works to Grunnegs. Van Dijken is passionate about translating, because working with language never gets boring, he says. It’s always new, always different. Each book has its own problems and curiosities.

His biggest project perhaps was the translation of the Bible into Grunnegs. Collaborating with 60 others, the translation was finally published in 2008 after years of hard work. “I worked on it from 10 AM to 8 PM. Even when I visited my daughter in Chile, I brought the Bible with me to work on it,” Van Dijken says. The project was funded by the province of Groningen and foundation called Liudgerstichting.

Van Dijken reciting Genesis 1: 1-5 from the Grunneger Bible

But why do we need Grunneger books, when everyone in the Netherlands understands Dutch perfectly fine?

According to Van Dijken, every classic should be translated to Grunnegs, because while Dutch is a language that is taught to Grunnegers, “Grunnegs is the language of the heart.” Van Dijken grew up in Groningen, speaking the dialect with his family. After the translation of the Bible was published, Van Dijken suddenly had people come up to him saying that they had started reading the Bible again. “This is what appeals to me, this is in my language’, they told me.”

However, the translation process is not always smooth sailing. Sometimes, certain idioms, sayings, or cultural contexts are in the way of translating a text literally. Sayings like “it’s raining cats and dogs” can’t be translated word for word, so Van Dijken has to be creative. 

But he never gives up: “Whenever I’m stuck, or when my translation doesn’t satisfy me, I go for a walk. And usually I have a Eureka moment that same day. Eventually, the right translation always comes to me,” he says. Of great help is also Ter Laan’s dictionary. Van Dijken uses it every single day, as well as his own digital dictionary which encompasses over 20,000 Grunneger words.

Although the average age at the annual Day of the Grunneger Language event is somewhat higher than that of our journalists, Van Dijken isn’t worried about the popularity of Grunnegs. He tells us that the dialect is still very much alive among younger Grunnegers, and that it’s even a subject in primary school. Exemplary of this is a new magazine called Wiesneus, that was presented to the public on the same day, and which will be used in primary schools to educate young children about the history of Grunnegs, in Grunnegs.

After the publishing of translations of the Bible, the Children’s Bible and several Dutch comics, amongst others, Van Dijken’s newest work is a translation of Hector Malot’s Sans Famille. This work, titled Allain op Wereld, was translated from both the French original as well as the Dutch translation Alleen op de Wereld (by Gerard Keller, 1880), and will be available in regular bookstores from November 2019.

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