Our colleague Zsuzsa responded to yesterday’s posting on GEBOORTE (birth) by asking whether the word BAREN in the Dutch nursery rhyme ‘varen, varen over de baren’ has any relationship with the verb BAREN in the sense of ‘giving birth’.
And the answer is no. The noun BAAR is an old word meaning ‘billow’ or ‘wave’. Middle English also knew this word. Etymologists assume that it is related to ‘bear’ in the sense of ‘raise’ or ‘lift’. Waves lifting de surface of the sea, very poetic.
In January 2012 Zsuzsa gave birth to the baby boy Noah (see photo). The words of the age-old song she sings to him, are:
Varen, varen over de baren
varen, varen over de zee
die nog nooit gevaren heeft
weet niet hoe een zeeman leeft
varen, varen over de baren
varen, varen over de zee
(Sailing, sailing across the billows / sailing, sailing across the sea / who has never sailed / knows not how a sailor lives …)
The song echoes the rhythm and movement of the billowing sea. All the /a:/ sounds have a soothing effect. Young children love /a:/ sounds. All over the world, in almost in any other language in the world, the oldest and the first words are: BABA, DADA, PAPA, MAMA. Speech stemming from comforting baby talk.
A mother rockabying a child to sleep is a cute picture of safe homeliness. Uttering sounds (as in mantra’s) can be comforting. Repetition can be a way to ward off danger and panic.
In my favourite Samuel Beckett play ‘A Piece of Monologue’ (from 1980) an old man at the end of his life reflects on his futile life which started with his own birth. The first words of the play are: ‘Birth was the death of him.’ All through the play the word ‘birth’ recurs and it is apparent that he is obsessed by the word. There he is in the dark. The old man waiting to give birth to what he calls ‘the rip word’.
‘Stands there staring beyond waiting for first word. It gathers in his mouth. Birth. Parts lips and thrusts tongue between them. Tip of tongue. Feel soft touch of tongue on lips. Of lips on tongue. … Cry. Snuffed with breath of nostrils.’
Beautiful isn’t it? The way Beckett describes how the sound of the word is gathered in the mouth and how it escapes the mouth via the tongue between the lips:
/b/ -> /ə:/ -> /θ/.
When Paul Regeer and I translated this play in Dutch, this posed a problem. The pronunciation of Dutch GEBOORTE is completely different. ‘The word ‘birth’ has only one syllable, whereas GEBOORTE consists of three syllables and two uvular sounds. We discovered, however, that these sounds made in the uvula could be considered a gift. The Dutch sound of GEBOORTE is gathered down in the mouth. Before it can travel out through the lips the sound of /t/ has to strike against the palate:
/χ/ -> /ə/ -> /b/ -> /o:/ -> /r/ -> /t/ -> /ə/
So this is our translation:
‘Staat daar naar gene zijde te staren en wacht op het eerste woord. Het pakt zich samen in zijn mond. Geboorte. Splijt de lippen en stoot de tong naar voren. Puntje van de tong. Voel de slag van de tong op de rand van het gehemelte. Voel gehemelte op tong. … Schreeuw geworgd in de huig.’
In Dutch the word GEBOORTE mimics the act of birth better than ‘birth’. Joy!