In Memory of My 103-Year-Old Friend From Schiermonnikoog

Written by Dyami Millarson

My teacher and friend Berend van Bon, one of the last of the Schiermonnikoog native people and one of the last speakers of Eilaunders as he called it, has left the only village of his native island and passed on to live with the dune spirits (dúnatters) of the island. Whenever a last speaker leaves a fragile language community, it constitutes a huge loss of knowledge. In the case of Berend, I have luckily been able to record a lot of facts and details of his life during my ethereal conversations with him in his native language; I have been doing this with the intention of writing a book in the indigenous language of Schiermonnikoog about the life of Berend van Bon. Whenever Berend and I spoke, we spoke in his native language, and this created a bond of trust between us, so I was able to learn a great deal from him, which I would never have known had I not been able to speak his language. Berend van Bon was unquestionably an important last speaker of his language. He fully supported my efforts in 2019 when I made Glottolog aware of the existence of his language and his language was subsequently included as an independent language in the database of Glottolog. He wrote an enthusiastic mail in his own language about it to me (this was the first letter he ever wrote in his own language, so it is a true historical treasure!).

This photo was taken of me and Berend van Bon on my birthday in 2019. We always spoke with each other in Eilaunders, the indigenous language of the island.

Berend told me in that mail about an encounter with a fellow sailor from the island when he was abroad: the sailor asked Berend whether he could speak English, to which Berend replied he could speak the language of the island, and so Berend and the sailor used the language of the island as a kind of international language. This anecdote was very appropriate for the occasion of celebrating that Schiermonnikoog Frisian was included in the database of Glottolog, because it was very unfortunate that this language had been overlooked and it had always been the language of the islanders since time immemorial. The age of Berend van Bon himself reminds us of how old the language is: his parents and grandparents spoke the language. Not Berend, not his parents nor his grandparents have seen the beginning of the Schiermonnikoog Frisian language; no one in living memory has witnessed how this language came to be. So we can truly say that this insular language has existed since time immemorial, it is absolutely no exaggeration but simply a proper use of the English expression ‘since time immemorial.’

Berend van Bon was a lively narrator with a very sharp memory and keen mind.

I will forever remember my dear friend, who is the eldest writer of Schiermonnikoog Frisian the island has ever known, because I felt a special bond with him thanks to our shared language; we had spontaneously become family. I will remember all his words that he ever said to me; I will carry these with me as treasures for the rest of my life. I fondly recall the time when I spent my birthday with him on the island. We spoke cheerfully in his native language and he would tell me stories about the past with huge passion as an old seaman. It was a unique experience. I got a glimpse of true seaman culture through him and although narrating may have been common among seamen of the past, Berend’s lively way of narrating always made me forget out age difference. Whenever I spoke with him in his own language, I addressed him without any formal speech and I simply called him by his name because we were equals as speakers of the same language. Berend accepted me as a true speaker of Schiermonnikoog Frisian after our first meeting in 2018 and this is how our relationship began.

This is the occasion in 2018 where I met Berend van Bon and other last speakers of Schiermonnikoog Frisian for the first time. After these authentic speakers accepted me as a real speaker of their indigenous language, we became like family.

Berend had once told me that his teacher had called him the last of the Mohicans, which was intended as a reference to the fact he was one of the last natives of the island. When I visit the island again in the future and wander in the dunes, I will greet the dune spirits and I will think of Berend van Bon, one of the last islanders. Having been accepted by him as a true islander, an authentic speaker of Eilaunders, I feel the weight of the responsibility to carry on the legacy of his language and enthuse others for Schiermonnikoog Frisian. Berend worked for his old language until he could no more; he was always eager to help me with questions I had for my upcoming book about him and the language of the island. I will do my best to honour Berend with my actions. I am grateful that I got to know Berend in my life; I vow to pass on his stories and traditional knowledge properly, and not least I will strive to pass on his pasion for his native language. He once told me: ‘If the language disappears, then the culture disappears.’ The language of Schiermonnikoog will definitely not disappear for as long as I live.

33 comments

  1. You are doing a fabulous job! It is sad to witness languages, traditions disappearing. I wish we could something to preserve them, there is so much history and so many anecdotes hidden in these languages.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Thank you for sharing Berend’s story with us…I feel privileged for having shared a sliver of it. Your words pay a beautiful tribute to his life and the legacy he left you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. How do you say a greeting in his native language, like “hi how are you? How was your day? But also how do you phonetically pronounce his name and the name of his language? Where is this island?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a wonderful story. So sorry hear of the passing of Berend, but it’s great that you could benefit from his knowledge. He ensured that by you, with his passing, he could maintain the number of speakers of Eilaunders even if they are few. I look forward to seeing this amazing story turned into a book. This post and hopefully follow up book will be a fitting honor to his memory and legacy. Thanks for your hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hallo Dyami

    Thank you for this beautiful and interesting post. It’s a pleasure to read about your friend Berend van Bon, and his and your mission to keep his indigenous language alive. The stories he’s told you are indeed a treasure to be cherished. I’ve actually been off the coast of Schiermonnikoog (ik ging een keertje wadlopen) but I had no idea the island has its own language.

    Cheers
    Sarah

    Like

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