Tag Archives: ijken


IJ lijk IJkdijk!


No, I do know. There’s a lot to like about IJkdijk. And not (just) because it looks like it stands for “I’m just kidding, dude, I’m just kidding.” Nor (just) because it has such a lovely echo of sound and shape, and sounds like an answer in a car game I played as a kid called Hink Pink.

This is not an English word, which makes it unusual for my blog. But it’s Dutch, which is close enough, and, hey, why try to hold back the flood of words from other languages? Never mind this idea that if you let a little trickle through you’ll sooner or later have a complete breach. That may be true with dikes – in fact, it is true – but with languages it’s a different thing. OK, well, if a language starts borrowing words it will probably borrow more and more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s worked out well enough for English.

This word wouldn’t come into English just as it is, though. Not with that IJ there. My Microsoft Word wanted to “fix” the double capitals! But in Dutch, ij is treated as one letter. Sort of.

Think of it as like English æ. We generally don’t use that as a single letter in modern English, but we used to. Sometimes we still write it that way, especially outside North America: encyclopædia, hæmorrhage, et cetera. We can equally write it as ae, and we alphabetize it between ad and af now. But in Old English it was a separate letter, as it still is in some Scandinavian languages.

Similarly, ij used to be alphabetized separately in Dutch. Guess where it fell in the order. Not between ii and ik, as it does now. No, between x and z. Wait, what goes there? Why, y, usually. And in Flemish (which is basically Dutch as spoken in Belgium) and Afrikaans (which is based on Dutch but with heavy influence from other languages), words have y – or (in Flemish) ÿ – that have ij in Dutch.

So does ij come from y? Or vice versa? It’s not entirely clear – there are various theories. It seems that it started as ii, and back when j was just a swash form of i they made ii into ij, and then because of its resemblance to y (which comes from Greek upsilon) it just merged in that direction. It was originally pronounced like the i we say in machine, but now it’s between the i in ice and the a in ache (in most instances, anyway).

But does IJ really hold water? In English, we may write Ægis (when we do), but if we split the digraph, we write it Aegis, not AEgis. Why should ij be different? I mean, if it’s merged to Y, obviously it holds water, just as a Y shape holds water – or, better, a martini – but if it’s the two separate capitals, IJ, it has a hole in the bottom. Sometimes it’s written as a single letter form, but when it is, it’s often rendered as like a U with a gap in the lower left. A cup with a hole in the bottom. A little leak that can only become bigger.

But yes, IJ holds water. Not just because Dutch speakers can decide what Dutch does, but because IJ is also the name of the body of water that Amsterdam fronts on, and because that name comes from an obsolete word meaning ‘water’.

Which is not what IJkdijk refers to, though, not directly. You see that k holding the IJ back? It tells us that this is from ijken, a Dutch verb meaning ‘calibrate’ or ‘gauge’. And the dijk means… oh, come on, just guess. Yes, ‘dike’. IJkdijk is a facility in the Netherlands dedicated to testing dikes and specifying their best construction and maintenance, and designing sensors to warn of possible points of failure.

If you’ve ever wondered what makes dikes last or fail and thought “I don’t know,” IJkdijk will help you know. Did you think that making dikes higher is the best approach? It turns out it is not. Dikes fail mainly not because they aren’t high enough but because they have water incursions – a bit of water gets into them and starts a stream and then you have a flood. Dikes (also known elsewhere as levees), you see, contrary to the cartoons we see of little boys plugging holes in them with their fingers, are not normally made of bricks or rocks or concrete. They are typically made of earth, clay. But they are also expensive to make or to make bigger. Sensors can be a cost-effective way of keeping water from overtaking.

Which, again, is different from language. Trying to dam one language off from another is not like keeping land dry from the surrounding water. It’s like dividing a pool of water from the rest of the water around it. It’s all water! We need neither sensors nor censors. Is English likely to accept IJ? No, it is not. But on the other hand it has accepted assorted letters (and sometimes their associated phonemes) from other languages: k and v, for instance. And j.


Thanks to IJva Cheung for suggesting today’s word.