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Òl nak

Translated by Olivier van Renswoude from his original Dutch piece on November 16, 2015.

nak

Folk in the Low Countries have been keeping sheep for a while now. The oldest breed in Western Europe, the slender Drenthe heath sheep, has been around here for over six thousand years, contently grazing and bleating. Yet it is striking that our word for this woolly beast does not appear to be very old: sheep (Dutch schaap) must have been derived rather late from shave or the precursor to Dutch scheppen ‘to create’. The original word is ewe (Dutch ooi), but for the past few centuries that has referred to the female only. Meanwhile, in the northernmost region of the Dutch mainland, the Hogeland (‘Highland’) of Groningen, there is another, peculiar word for the sheep: nak. And that might be a rather old one.

In his Nieuw Groninger Woordenboek the philologist Kornelis ter Laan mentions that nak is mostly found in the compound nakkenstrupen ‘sheep poaching’, a base expression beside the normal schoapmelken ‘sheep milking’. Another example that he gives: dij òl nakken bennen zo wild ‘those old sheep are so wild’.

When we browse the rest of this large dictionary, we come across nokkern/nukkern, which means ‘to bleat softly as an expression of contentment or desire’, like in bok nokkert tegen t vouern ‘[the] buck [is nokkering] at the feeding’. It is also used with regard to infants, like t potje nokkert as n lam ‘the baby [is nokkering] like a lamb’. However, we may doubt whether this verb is related to nak, since a vowel shift between -a- on the one hand and -o- and -u- on the other hand usually doesn’t occur when a -k- immediately follows.

Otherwise nak seems rather difficult to connect with other words, both in and outside of this dialect of Groningen. Until we realise that the n- could have been adopted from a preceding article or possessive pronoun. That is to say, it is possible that n nak ‘a sheep’ developed from n ak, or in older speech den nak ‘the nak’ (objective case) from den ak, or mien nakken ‘my sheep’ from mien akken, and so forth. A clear instance of this in the same dialect is neers, neerze ‘arse, behind’. An inverse example of such a faulty word division is how English an adder developed from a nadder (cf. German Natter).

Well then, Proto-Indo-European, the language that was spoken thousands of years ago and from which sprang Old Germanic and thus English, Dutch and this dialect, had the word *h2egwnós ‘lamb’, which is attested in other daughter languages such as Greek amnós and Latin agnus (like in Agnus Deī ‘Lamb of God’). By regular sound shift, the Old Germanic reflex of this –you will have to take it from me– would have been *akkaz. And the reflex of that in this dialect would have been… you guessed it: ak.

That does entail that the meaning once shifted from ‘lamb, young sheep’ to ‘sheep’, but we find the same kind of development in English pig, since that originally meant ‘young swine’.

Postscript (November 19)
During further research I came across Yorkshire English nack, a child’s name for (and call-word to) a pig. Similar is English nag ‘small horse; old, useless horse’, which in turn reminds us of Early Dutch negge ‘small horse’, a rare word. Finally, comparison can be drawn with dialectal German Nickel, a name for a small horse of little account, which is usually seen as a pet form of the personal name Nicolaus, however. The more we move into the realm of call-words to animals (which seem to have often been formed spontaneously and suggestively), the less sure our footing is. So if Gronings nak belongs to this group, we will reach a dead end eventually.

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