Dutch Language Blog

Curious Dutch Words – Monnikenwerk Posted by on Mar 28, 2022 in Dutch Grammar, Dutch Language, Dutch Vocabulary

It’s a situation we’re probably all too familiar with: You know you have that paper to write, but it is saaaaai (booooring). This eentonig (monotonous) subject and the ridiculous length that you are required to write about it… Come on! Daar heb ik geen tijd voor! (I don’t have time for that!) In Dutch, we sometimes call such eentonig werk (monotonous work) that requires a lot of geduld (patience) monnikenwerk (“monk’s work”, drudgery). Where does this word come from, and why on earth would you write this plural with one k?

Previous posts in this series:

Curious Words In Dutch

 The work of monks

Monnikenwerk monk's work drudgery donkey work

Photo by Gioele Fazzeri: https://www.pexels.com/photo/light-fashion-man-people-4496725/

When you think of a book, the last thing you probably think about is its price – unless you’re studying at university, in which case I wish you luck. But in general, books aren’t expensive, thankfully. And that’s because it’s super easy and quick to copy and print a book these days.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the Middeleeuwen (Middle Ages) before the advent of the drukpers (printing press), boeken (books) were hard to come by. A lot of knowledge was simply communicated through speeches and stories told from one generation to the next. Most people could not read and write, as there simply wasn’t a need. Even if you managed to find the time to learn reading and writing, where would you even come by things to read and write?

Abdijen (abbeys) and kloosters (monastry) had vast libraries and taught how to read and write. And so in these places of study, books and copies of these books were in demand. But without a machine that could easily and quickly copy or print books, how could you duplicate them so that more than one person could store the knowledge and how could it be spread?

Enter monniken (monks). Some of them had an ill fate. Day in, day out, their job was to copy entire books, entire libraries, letter for letter, word for word front to back. That was the only way to actually get a book copied – just write what you see written on the page.

As you can imagine, this kind of work is incredibly saai and eentonig. And to do this kind of work for such long periods of time, you really do need a lot of geduld! That’s where the word monnikenwerk comes from.

Why only one in monniken?

Monnikenwerk monk's work drudgery donkey work

Photo by Yuval Levy on Unsplash

As you might know, we get a second medeklinker (consonant) in Dutch when we want to make the klinker (vowel) before it sound short. So, for example:

prik, prikken

If we left that second k, it would sound like prieken.

But this is not the case with monniken – that i still sounds short, this doesn’t become monnieken. Why?

It’s because the second lettergreep (syllable) of monnik doesn’t have a nadruk (stress) – that lies on monnik.

That’s it, basically. It might feel weird, but there’s a whole host of words like this. For a more complete list and a bit more of a deep dive, check out this excellent post by Onze Taal.

Have you dealt with monnikenwerk yourself? How do you call it in your language? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.