‘Tis Nieuw to Thee

On August 26, 1664, the urban ancestor of the town in which I live changed its name. The English arrived, only four years after the restoration of their own monarchy, and threw out the Dutch. New York was born, sort of.

That was 350 years ago. On August 25th, the day before the anniversary, The New York Times reported this:

“Finally, on Sept. 8, the largely defenseless settlement tolerated a swift and bloodless regime change: New Amsterdam was immediately renamed New York. It would evolve into a jewel of the British Empire, endowed with a collective legacy—its roots indelibly Dutch—that distinguished it from every other American colony.”

Well, not exactly. The colony wasn’t New Amsterdam, it was Nieuw Amsterdam. Those “indelibly Dutch” roots the Times salutes here get erased when copy style insists on translating into the geopolitical vernacular.

I don’t have an ax to grind, but I do have vague Dutch connections (one great-grandparent), and I grew up in Yonkers, a place with not much time to celebrate its origins as a Dutch patroonship. In school we were taught that my hometown’s name derives from Jonkheer, something like lord or esquire, a title attached to Adriaen van der Donck, who bought the land in the 1640s.

Yonkers is a funny name, but I suppose it’s better than Adriaen-van-der-Donckers.

The Dutchness of Nieuw Amsterdam feels pretty remote today, despite the obligatory reminder that Wall Street is named for the wall that separated the colonists from the wide, wide world beyond, or that the crazy quilt of streets in lower Manhattan is a colonial legacy. (Walking past investment bankers south of Wall Street, I do not think of geese or blunderbusses.)

Pieter Stuyvesant, the guy most often called Peter Stuyvesant, turned the city over to the English. He was a pretty disagreeable person, with not much time for Jews, Quakers, or Roman Catholics. If he knew how to have a good time, he took the secret to his grave, which I pass most days, on the east wall of St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (from bouwerij¸ or farm—the land hereabouts having been his).

When I think of the Dutch who settled here I try to focus on their most curious import, a European language, and what it must have been like to find themselves banging up against the dazzling incomprehensibility of native tongues.

But when the Times refers to New Amsterdam instead of Nieuw Amsterdam, it silently erases a sliver of that Dutch history.

This editorial styling is the tip of a larger geolinguistic iceberg. The Times—and most of us—say Japan instead of Nippon, Germany instead of Deutschland, Italy instead of Italia, Brazil instead of Brasil, China instead of Zhongguo.

Using Hellas instead of Greece would still be a compromise (as it would be for Nippon and Zhongguo) as it’s a transliteration from a writing system other than the one English speakers use.

I’m not advocating for the elimination of our traditional English place names. I don’t want to order a Hellas salad hold the bacon, or order Zhongguo takeout on a rainy Saturday night. (Yes, I know those aren’t the possessive forms. Please don’t email me.)

But there’s something about the rise of English as a global language that invites us to explore the limits of that globalization. Surely the names people have for themselves and their nation-states present a question worth giving at least a little consideration.

So it’s 350 years after a signal event in the Anglicization of North America, now a populous, multilingual mass in the midst of a world of thousands of languages. It might be as good a time as any to try an experiment. Who knows—calling places by what they call themselves might move us a little closer to understanding what we’re not.

And if in any city in America, why not this one? New York Times, I’m talkin’ to you.

Or, as E.B. White might have written, “This Is Nieuw York.”


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