When Dutch Was Spoken On The Roads Of Flatbush

flatbush farm
Old farmhouse still standing in 1916 at the intersection of Cortelyou Road and Flatbush Avenue. [v1973.2.106; Brooklyn oversize 19th century collection, v1973.002; Brooklyn Historical Society.]
It is hard to imagine the lengthy period of time when Flatbush was a village, surrounded by woods and farms, linked to the larger settlement of Brooklyn by a country road.

But much harder still, is to imagine that English was not the dominant European language spoken here for several generations.

Flatbush was settled by Dutch farming families in the 1650s, and was surrendered to the British in 1664. But the Dutch families in this area retained at least some of their language and customs for almost 200 years. Many Flatbush residents, including enslaved Africans, spoke Dutch well into the 19th century.

Incredibly —  “as late as 1830, and even 1840, when elderly people met together socially, it was quite common for them to drop gradually into the use of the Dutch tongue,” writes Gertrude Lefferts-Vanderbilt in her extremely interesting book, The Social History of Flatbush, and manners and customs of the Dutch settlers in Kings County.

Lefferts-Vanderbilt (1824-1902) was born and raised on the Lefferts family homestead in what is now Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Her grandmother was a Dutch speaker.

I’ve included several excerpts from Vanderbilt’s book below — reading it is like traveling in a time machine. Vanderbilt writes that at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, local officials attempted to force the children of Flatbush to speak English.

“In 1776, in order to oblige the children to learn English, they were compelled to converse in that language in school, and were punished if they spoke Dutch.

At home, however, where no compulsory measures were used, they naturally fell into the old familiar words, and their language there was still that of the fatherland. At the fireside, on the farm, in the street, they spoke Dutch; the colored people in the kitchen, the master and mistress in the house, neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend, all conversed in Dutch.

Business was transacted in that language, wills were written and agreements made in that familiar tongue; and on the Sabbath-day they read from their Dutch Bibles, sang from their Dutch Psalm books, and listened to sermons in Dutch from ministers who, as late as 1746, came from Holland.”

Some Flatbush families, Vanderbilt describes, had carefully saved Dutch-language books brought over from Holland.

“They had their store of old Dutch books, bound in parchment, and meant to last, as they faithfully have done. We have some of them still on the upper shelves and in the old chests of the capacious garrets. Many of them are illustrated with quaint old plates……

“Drie Parabolen ofte Gelykenissen,” etc., is the title of a large parchment-covered volume published in Amsterdam in 1665 which is still in possession of a lady in Flatbush, and which has descended to her through several generations. It was probably brought from Holland when her ancestors first settled here.”

By the late 1700’s, British occupation of Kings County had ended, and Flatbush was a bi-lingual community. The English and Dutch languages co-existed here for several more decades.

“It was not until 1792 that the afternoon services in the congregations of Brooklyn, Flatbush, and New Utrecht were in English.

As late as 1830, and even 1840, when elderly people met together socially, it was quite common for them to drop gradually into the use of the Dutch tongue, even when the conversation had begun in English; a little confidential talk between old ladies was sure to be in Dutch. So gradual was the change that the elderly members of a family would often consult with each other on any important matter in Dutch, and, turning to their children, address them in English.

This inter-changeable use of the two languages may have been the means of prolonging a knowledge of the Dutch, and of having caused the young children to catch many a quaint word and odd expression; for the mother tongue of so many generations could not pass away without leaving some sign, or dropping some phrases into the memory of the children…

For a long time, in this mingling of two languages, neither of them was grammatically spoken; bad English and worse Dutch were the result, until finally the Dutch was vanquished and the tongue of the Anglo- Saxon was triumphant. But there were many words which lingered and fell behind the ranks of the retreating army. Some of these were caught by the children, others were imprisoned in the memory of those older, so that, long after Dutch sentences were forgotten, Dutch words and quaint expressions might be heard in the family.”

Vanderbilt lists many Dutch words and phrases that she must have heard growing up in Flatbush. The language she describes also provides interesting clues about what life in Flatbush was like in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Here are just a few examples:

“A child who was querulous was said to be ” krankie,” from “krank,” weak, sick. One who complained without sufficient cause was said to be ” kleynzeerig.” A thriftless person, one who could with difficulty earn a livelihood, was called an “arm sukkelaar.” One who was sad and downhearted was spoken of as “bedroefd”…

Easter was long known as Paasch, and Whitsuntide [Pentecost] was Pingster. A child who was restlessly creeping on the floor was said to be “kriewelen.” The tin dipper that hung at the well curb was a ” blikke,” from the Dutch word “blik,” for tin.

We remember to have heard children call their grandmother “Grootje.” Kelder was cellar; Opperzolder was garret; little cakes, Koekjes (the sound of j is that of i); Zoetekoek was a kind of sweet cake raised with yeast, which had sometimes currants and raisins in it. The wife of the minister was always called “Joffrouw.” The word Sprookjes was used for stories which tended to the ghostly and marvelous.

Even many of the proverbs of this period are ours in their translations…”As you have brewed, so you must drink”: “Dat by gebrouwen hebt moet gy zelf drinken,” is the proverbial expression for bearing the evils we bring upon ourselves, and which has its counterpart in an English proverb, which says, “As you make the bed, so you sleep in it.”

“The burned child dreads the fire,” we say of the wisdom we gain from bitter experience, and the old Dutch people expressed it in the same figure: “Eengebrond kind schroomt het vuur.”

When Vanderbilt was writing her book around 1880, she must have known that she was witnessing the last moments of the Dutch language in her rapidly urbanizing community.

By 1894, Flatbush was subsumed into the city of Brooklyn, and by 1898, Brooklyn would become part of New York City. Vanderbilt died four years later.

“These words and sentences have lingered in the memory of the generation that is not yet past.

There are aged people still living in Flatbush who keep in mind the Dutch language, and a few of the old colored people remember some familiar words and expressions, but these all are only as the rustling leaves upon the dead oak, which will be swept away when the tree falls, if not loosened before that time, as the withering branch loses its power to hold them.”

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  1. “Easter was long known as Paasch, and Whitsuntide was Pingster.”

    Just goes to show you how times change. Nobody in Brooklyn would use Pingster to refer to Whitsuntide these days.

  2. Wonderful piece, and picture. The Flatbush Dutch and their culture are always portrayed as quaint, stolid, virtuous, by 19th century writers–often with a fond condescension. The fact that their wholesome farm lifestyle and its orderly households ran on the labor of enslaved blacks well into the 19th century is delicately avoided (like Gone with the Wind, it’s shown as a world of well-treated and mostly loyal, happy servants) but the current exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society on abolitionism in Brooklyn helps complete the picture. For a startling reminder of our Dutch predecessors, see the tombstones in the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church cemetery, many of which are still in Dutch and bear familiar names from our local streets.

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