De eerste woordsoorten die mensen leren
Vóór drie jaar oud zijn levenslang genoeg
Om de hoogste nood te formuleren
zoals: ik heb honger… hou van jou…. ben moe
Plots uit die zoete ontmoeting weggerukt
hebben zij een nieuwe ontmoetingsplaats ontdekt
om over en over, onnozel van geluk
toereikend te verduidelijken: jij en ik
‘n Maand daarna - want tijd brengt raad - hanteren
zij moeiteloos dichtgeweefde betekenis
die voegwoorden van kunstig verweer
zoals: daarentegen…. ondanks… desalniettemin ....
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This poem in 60 seconds
Young children use plain language. What they want or need is instantly clear. As fluency increases, language use becomes more intricate. Eybers seems to surrender to this notion, but does not seem unequivocally positive about it. Could it be that children’s language is sufficient, and that all else is redundant or contrived? Her poem seems its own counterargument: Eybers plays with double meanings and showcases the multifacetedness of language.
Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.
Klerksdorp, Transvaal, 1915 - Amsterdam, 2007
Eybers was the first female poet to publish a collection of poems in Afrikaans. She studied the language at Wits University in Johannesburg and became editor of several (literary) magazines. In 1937 she married businessman Albert Wessels. They had four children, but the couple split up in 1961.
Eybers in the Netherlands
After her divorce, Eybers emigrated to Amsterdam. She quickly made a name for herself in the literary scene there. Although she kept writing in Afrikaans, she allowed for some Dutch elements here and there, resulting in what some called ‘in-between language.’ She published nearly thirty volumes of poetry. In 1991, she was awarded the P.C. Hooft-prize, one of the most prestigious Dutch literary prizes.
What's this poem about?
Eybers starts off this poem with language a small child will already know. Needs and thoughts are presented clearly and in a very direct way. This type of language, according to Eybers, will “last them a lifetime,” essentially: you don’t need more than the language you knew when you were three. And yet we acquire more complicated and clever language, “diggeweefde sin” (closely-woven sentences). Is that merely embellishment? This language lesson seems to teach us that language also creates distance.
In this poem, Eybers plays around with double meanings. That first rededele man is taught can be translated as ‘word class’ but also alludes to the dissection (dele) of reason (rede), or making one’s thoughts explicit. And the three “voegwoorde van kunstige verweer” (conjunctions of artful deflection), daarenteen, ondanks and desnietemin are in effect no conjunctions, but prepositions. They do not conjoin, they create distance. And though the word kunstig generally has positive connotations, rather than ‘artful’ it can here be taken to mean ‘artificial’, or feigned.
A year after she had moved to the Netherlands, Elisabeth Eybers published a collection of poetry entitled Balans (Balance, 1962), which also includes the poem Taalles (Language lesson). In it, she reflects critically on her life. Fellow poet Jozef Deleu, who paid her a home visit when she was working on this collection, recognized in Balans “disillusionment, sharp at almost every edge, of a person who believed many things, hoped who knows what, perhaps too much, and above all loved in vain. This mother going on fifty is left with the mere pieces of her own heart.”
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Elisabeth Eybers in Leiden
Photo Leo van Zanen
Taalles (Language lesson) can be found on the wall of the Anne Frank school in Stevenshof. All streets in this neighborhood were named after prominent women, it therefore seemed only logical to adorn it with work by a female poet. The design is exceptional: every line was given a different color. These are the colors of the South-African flag.
Since I’ve been living in the Netherlands, I am naturally more aware of my exceptional identity as a speaker of Afrikaans. And yet I cannot rightly call Afrikaans my native tongue. My mother came from an English-speaking family and in our home both English and Afrikaans were spoken. The village I grew up in was primarily Afrikaans-speaking and this was also the language used at school. But at home we were surrounded by English books, I read almost exclusively in that language and my first attempt at poetry was also in English.
Elisabeth Eybers, about her connection to Afrikaans
Eybers lived her day-to-day life in Dutch but basically refused to write poems in it. That stubbornness was enormously appealing to me: it was a good reminder of the necessity of independence to poets.
Jacquelyn Pope, poet and literary translator
- It’s almost as if this poem is hard to capture! On the wall in Leiden, the word ‘die’ is missing from “hanteer hulle moeiteloos die diggeweefde sin.” In the second booklet published about the Leiden wall poems, Dicht op de Muur 2, the first line reads ‘mededele’ instead of ‘rededele.’ That’s two errors. While on the wall the tenth line reads ‘hulle,’ in the Versamelde Gedigte (‘Collected Poems’, Cape Town 2004) it says ‘hul’ - though in this case, the wall is correct.
Die eerste rededele wat mens leer
vóór drie jaar oud is lewenslank genoeg
om die akuutste nood te formuleer
soos: ek het honger … hou van jou … is moeg …
Plots uit die soet ontmoeting weggeruk
het hulle 'n nuwe saamkomplek ontdek
om oor en oor, onnosel van geluk,
toereikend te verduidelik: jy en ek …
'n Maand daarna - want tyd bring raad - hanteer
hul moeiteloos diggeweefde sin,
die voegwoorde van kunstige verweer
soos: daarenteen … ondanks … desnietemin …
The Leiden group Street Fable put this poem to music
The first word classes people learn
before the age of three last them a lifetime
to formulate their utmost, acute needs
like: I am hungry … I love you … am tired
Suddenly ripped from that sweet encounter
they have discovered a new meeting place
in which over and over, mad with bliss
can be made clear sufficiently: you and I
A month has passed - for time will tell - they use
closely-woven sentences with no effort at all
those conjunctions of artful deflection
like: however … although … nonetheless ...
Translation: Anne Oosthuizen
This entry was written by Eep Francken in collaboration with Taalmuseum. The translation into English is by Anne Oosthuizen. The following publications were consulted:
- Atwell, David en Derek Attridge (eds.): The Cambridge history of South African literature. Cambridge, Cambridge U.P. 2012.
- Cloete, T.T.: “Die taalles van die gedig”. In: Kaneel. Opstelle oor die letterkunde. Kaapstad, Nasionale Boekhandel 1970, 35-40.
- Deleu, Jozef, ‘“Balans” door Elisabeth Eybers’, Dietsche Warande en Belfort 109 (1964) 298, via DBNL.nl
- Eybers, Elisabeth: Versamelde gedigte. Derde, opnuut uitgebreide uitgawe. Kaapstad, Human & Rousseau Tafelberg 2004.
- Francken, Eep en Luc Renders: Skrywers in die strydperk. Krachtlijnen in de Zuid-Afrikaanse letterkunde. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker 2005.
- Jansen, Ena: Afstand en verbintenis. Elisabeth Eybers in Amsterdam. Pretoria, J.L. van Schaik 1996.
- Kannemeyer, J.C.: Geskiedenis van die Afrikaanse literatuur. Deel 2. Pretoria enz., Academica 1983.
- Spies, Lina: “Elisabeth Eybers (1915-“. In: H.P. van Coller (red.): Perspektief en profiel. ’n Afrikaanse literatuurgeskiedenis. Deel 1. Pretoria, J.L. van Schaik 1998, 428-439.
- “An Afrikaans Poet in Amsterdam: Translating Elisabeth Eybers” (2017) Jacquelyn Pope via WorldLiteratureToday.org