Dutch Language

Dutch: language from Northwestern Europe, derived from ancient Frankish. Today, it is the main language in the Netherlands and Flanders, but it is also spoken in Surinam and on several Caribean islands. It is closely related to South-African.


A rune inscription from Tiel: "possession of Halethewas, who gives swords to the warriors"

Before the beginning of our era, the people between the rivers Somme (in northern France) and Weser (in northern Germany) spoke an archaic Indo-European language that modern linguists call 'Belgian' or the 'North-West Block language'. Hardly anything is known about it, but ancient toponyms and the names of a deity like Nehalennia allow us to catch a glimpse of its vocabulary. Because certain characteristic traits of the Celtic languages appear to have been absent from Belgian, it can be assumed that this ancient language branched off from a proto-language in the first half of the first millennium BCE, if not earlier.

In the first century BCE, West-Germanic immigrants, belonging to what archaeologists call the Jastorf culture, started to settle in this area. This is often connected with the migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones. The migrants brought their language with them, and some words that are still used today belong to this wave. For example, the Dutch word gans (goose) is derived from Germanic ganta, a word recorded by the Roman author Pliny the Elder. A second development was the settlement of the Batavians in the Dutch river area in the last third of the first century. These people probably spoke a Celtic language. Finally, in c.15 BCE, Roman settlers moved to what they called Germania Inferior.

In the first centuries of our era, many people learned how to speak Latin. This is easy to see if you look at the survival of ancient place names that contained the element castra, 'camp'. Today they are called, for example, Kesteren and Kaster. In the fourth century, however, a change occurred in the Latin language. When a word started with /ka/, it became /sha/. The process lasted for some time, but in the end, words like castra had become Chestres and Château. Toponyms south of the line Boulogne - Bavay - Tongeren - Cologne changed accordingly, which proves that in the fourth century, Latin was still alive on the fertile loess of the southern Low Countries, but that the north had been taken over by people who had no linguistic contact with Rome.

Along the coast of Flanders, these people can be identified as Saxons (who proceeded to settle in Britain); the people along the river Meuse, on the other hand, were Franks, allowed to settle there by the future emperor Julian. Both groups spoke West-Germanic languages that are usually called Low German. Linguists use this expression to oppose it to the High German languages that share a consonant shift that started in the late fourth century. This explains a similarity between English and Dutch on the one hand, and modern German (which is essentially High German) on the other hand.

Low German   High German
sleep, ship
slaap, schip
schlafen, Schiff
eat, that, out
eet, dat, uit
essen, daß, aus
make, book
maak, boek
machen, Buch

Another change, called the 'North Sea Germanic nasal spirant law', describes how Anglo-Saxon and Franconian, although once close to each other, drifted apart. In the fifth to eighth centuries, the people living on the shores of the North Sea had close mercantile ties, influenced each other, and shared the same linguistic development. In combinations like /vowel+n+s/, /vowel+n+th/, and /vowel+m+f/, the /n/ and /m/ disappeared and were replaced by a longer vowel. For example, the original West-Germanic word uns (with a short /u/; Dutch ons) has become English us (with a long /u/).

To sum up: Dutch is derived from Franconian and Saxonian, languages that were not affected by the High German consonant shift and the North Sea Germanic nasal spirant law. Seen from this point of view, Dutch retains some archaic traits.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

The early medieval dialects of the Low Countries are known from occasional glosses in medieval manuscripts. For example, the Lex Salica, written in Latin between 507 and 511, contains the statement that if you wanted to emancipate someone, you had to say Maltho thi afrio lito, "I say: thee I free, serf". An eighth-century manuscript, now in the Vatican, contains these lines:

Ec gelobo in Got alamehtigen fadear,
ec gelobo in Crist Godes suno,
ec gelobo in Halogan Gast.

Which is already recognizable as Dutch:

Ik geloof in God de almachtige vader,
ik geloof in Christus, Gods zoon,
ik geloof in de Heilige Geest.

(I believe in God the Almighty Father,
I believe in Christ, God's son,
I believe in the Holy Spirit.)

Deservedly famous is the lament by an eleventh-century monk who sighed that all birds had started to make their nests, except he and his girl - so, what were they waiting for? (Hebban olla uogala nestas bigunnan, hinase hic enda tu, uuat unbidan uue nu).

In the Late Carolingian age, the Germanic languages on the Continent dropped the /th/, which was replaced by /t/ or /d/. As we have seen in the two lines above, the word that had been thi ('you') in the sixth century, had become tu in the eleventh century. This development never had much influence on the British isles, where /th/ has survived. On the other hand, in Britain, the hard /g/ was replaced by /y/, and this wave never reached Germany. Dutch was influenced, though, and the Dutch /g/ became a voiced affricate /y/ that is similar to the /ch/ in Swiss German. Today, this is spelled /g/, which means that there appears to be some similarity with German, but the pronunciation is different. (This is a partial explanation why foreigners have much difficulty with the Dutch gutturals, and often call the language a nearly fatal throat disease.)

  thorn, brother
y<g yarn, yesterday
th>d doorn, broeder
gh<g gharen, ghisteren
th>d Dorn, Bruder 
  Garn, Gestern

In these dark ages, there was little commerce, and communication was difficult. Many dialects arose. At least six of them can be discerned:

  1. Flemish was spoken in the cities of Ghent, Bruges, Courtray, and Dunkirk, in the southwest, and was open to French influences;
  2. Frisian was spoken in the north, and shared many characteristics with Anglo-Saxon;
  3. Hollandic was spoken in the northwest, at the estuaries of the rivers Meuse and Rhine, and originally was a mixture of Frisian with Flemish influences; however, the colonists who developed the peat areas imported elements from other dialects;
  4. Low Saxon was spoken in the northeast;
  5. Limburgish was spoken in the area east of the Meuse up to the Rhine and still resembles Kölsch, the dialect of Cologne;
  6. Brabantic was spoken in the great arc of the river Meuse.

As pronunciations of the Dutch language, these dialects survive until the present day. For example, in Flanders, people will say min ´us, where others will say mijn huis ('my house'). The word schoon ('clean') is pronounced with a voiced palatal fricative in Limburgish and Brabantic, with a voiced velar fricative in other dialects, although in the northwest of the Netherlands, the old pronunciation /s+k/ has survived in certain villages.

Standardization of the dialects went hand in hand with the unification of the Low Countries by the dukes of Burgundy. Philip the Bald acquired Flanders in 1384; Philip the Good bought Namur in 1429, inherited Brabant and Limburg in 1430, came into the possession of Holland and Hainaut in 1432, and purchased Luxembourg in 1443; and finally, Charles the Bold acquired Guelders in 1472. A new state, situated between the German empire and the French kingdom, was being born. Brussels was its new capital and seat of its chancellery. Although many documents were written in Latin and French, the chancellery also composed letters in the local language, because the clerks of the cities of wealthy Flanders and Brabant were not always capable of expressing themselves in other languages than Diets ("the people's language"), from which the word Dutch is derived.

At this stage, linguistic unification meant that the dialects of Flanders and Brabant were regarded as the standard for proper Dutch. Duke Philip the Good is said to have been interested, and can with some justification be called the first patron of the Dutch language.

The parallel processes of bureaucratic centralization and standardization of the Low Countries were interrupted by the violent death of Charles the Bold, but continued during the reign of his great-grandson Charles V, who was not only ruler of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, but also king of Spain, and heir of the dukes of Burgundy. He had a special interest in the Low Countries and even spoke Flemish, although not to everyone: "His Majesty speaks Spanish to God," it was said, "French to men, Italian to women, and Diets to his horse".

During his reign, the polymath Dirck Coornhert (1522-1590) tried to create a Dutch literature, translating Cicero, Homer, Seneca, and Boccaccio. The first grammar books and dictionaries were published. Until then, the general precept had been to write Dutch in the way it was done in Flanders and Brabant; now, a supraregional standard promoted, and people attempted to purify Dutch from French influences. The supraregional approach, which became the second standard for proper Dutch, can be explained by the rapid rise of Holland as an economic center in the Low Countries, whereas the anti-French aspect had much to do with the almost perennial wars between Charles and King Francis.

In spite of the political agenda, this was a real scientific project. The scholars involved, like Hendrick Spieghel (1549-1612), are among the greatest linguists ever. Their descriptive tools were based on Latin, however, and were thus ill suited to Dutch, which by the sixteenth century had already lost two of the five cases used in the old Germanic languages. The sixteenth-century scholars now tried to reintroduce these, and invented some rules that, in their view, were necessary, such as the difference between hen (them) and hun (to them). Up to the present day, no native speaker of the Dutch language understands this rule; the only ones who can explain it are hyper-purists and foreigners who learned Dutch as a second language.

The Staten Bible

Not everybody appreciated the forced unification of the Low Countries, but the tensions remained under control. However, when Charles' son Philip II embarked upon an anti-Protestant policy, civil war broke out between the Catholic south and Protestant north. Terrible atrocities took place, including the massacre of many inhabitants of Haarlem by a Spanish army in 1573. Not much later, many Protestant southerners fled to Holland and were settled in Haarlem. Brabantic was still considered to be the most beautiful of the Dutch dialects: even now, Haarlemmers are commonly held to speak the best Dutch.

The arrival of southerners in the north and the appreciation of their dialect had an important result: the retreat of Hollandic. The smooth /s+gh/ now permanently replaced /s+k/, standard Dutch incorporated many other Brabantic elements. The most important of this was the change of /û/ into /ui/ and /i/ into /ij/. The introduction of these diphthongs is the only language change that has no parallels in German and English; it is specific to Dutch. The sound /ij/ is almost unique and hard for foreigners to learn and has, in the Dutch alphabet, the status of a special, 27th character.

The seal on this development was the publication in 1637 of the Staten Bible, a translation commissioned by the Protestant Synod of Dordrecht in 1623 and sponsored by the Staten-Generaal (the Estates General). Its language was the first real, supraregional Dutch, but it was heavily influenced by Brabantic. In fact, it is a compromise between the two standards that had been proposed for proper Dutch.

The Staten Bible became, like the German translation by Luther and the King James Version in English, the crystallizing nucleus for the development of a language. Because the translators had occasionally remained a bit too close to the structure of Hebrew, modern Dutch contains more than a few semitisms, which are nowadays no longer recognized.

Dutch today

Several characteristics of the Dutch language have already been mentioned. Like Anglo-Saxon and High German, it started as one of the West Germanic languages, and it was subject to processes of language change that also influenced the development of English and German in the Middle Ages. The three languages present strong resemblances. Like German, Dutch has both strong and weak verbs, and three genders; as with English, of the old grammatical cases, only the genitive survives. What is almost unique is the pronunciation, especially the great number of diphthongs.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the vocabulary of Dutch was expanded by taking in loan words from French and German. This period also saw the rise of urban dialects in the great cities of Antwerp, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, and Amsterdam, the second one being very melodic and the last one being influenced by Yiddish. In the twentieth century, the grammar rapidly simplified. For example, the difference between masculine and feminine has almost disappeared.

Today, the influence of English is so strong that it has resulted in the creation of new words that look English, but do not really exist in that language. An example is the word mainport for a major international airfield. (which native speakers call a hub.) Sometimes, the spelling of Dutch words is changed (e.g., the Nijenrode University now calls itself Nyenrode), and even the word order is changing. The word echter (however) used to be placed at the beginning of a sentence, but is now often placed after the subject, as in 'Varieties, however, abound.' It is interesting to note that the captains of industry, who in the 1920s introduced English expressions to impress others, have in the 1990s reverted to a studied purism, including, once again, the difference between masculine and feminine words. Everyone uses those English expressions now, after all.

Another development is the different pronunciation of the /r/. The new /r/ originates in the accent of a part of Holland called Het Gooi, where most broadcasting companies have their studios. Sibilants are changing because there is a large minority from Arab countries. Through Dutch rap music, young people of Moroccan descent are the greatest source of linguistic innovation today.

A problem these days is the orthography. This is regulated in a Belgian and a Dutch spelling law of 1946 and 1947. To make things easier, the governments published a long list of words, informally known as 'the green booklet' because of its color. In the 1990s, however, the laws were amended and the new Green Booklet contained many errors.

In the end, an association called 'Onze Taal' (Our Language) decided to publish a better explanation of the law, which became known as the White Booklet. To make matters even more complicated, in 2005 the governments decided to amend the law. The net effect of this was that most Dutch newspapers decided to ignore the latest Green Booklet and stick to the White Booklet. Most Belgians don't see a problem, and the dissatisfaction in the Netherlands may have less to do with love for language than with the fact that since the 1990s, the Dutch government has very often been unable to explain its own laws.

A word about literature

I think that an article about a language must also say something about the way it is used. English without Shakespeare would be Hamlet without a prince. Therefore, I introduce you to three masterpieces.

The first one is the late twelfth-century satire Reynaert, or, to use its full title, Van den vos Reynaerde. The Flemish author, who identifies himself as 'that Willem who also wrote the Madoc', uses well-known figures from medieval fables to criticize medieval government and society, which is likened to the kingdom of animals. It is ruled by a lion called Nobel, who tries to organize the trial of a notorious killer of chickens, the fox Reynaert. This clever scoundrel, however, is able to turn the tables by exploiting the self-interest of the aristocracy. The hypocrisy of the clergy and the lack of civilization of the Third Estate are also criticized. Geoffrey Chaucer reused parts of the Reynaert in his Canterbury Tales, and William Caxton made the first of several English translations.

Far more serious is the Adam in Ballingschap (Adam Exiled) by the Amsterdam playwright Joost van den Vondel (1664). Very briefly summarized, this is an adaptation of the story of the Fall: after the Creation, Adam and Eve live in Paradise, and the devil is able to convince them to eat of the forbidden fruit, which gives them knowledge of good and evil. "Their eyes were opened", as the Bible says, which for Vondel means that they have lost their childlike naivity. From now on, Adam and Eve are grown-ups who have to make moral decisions. In other words, the Fall is in fact an Ascent. This play resembles Milton's Paradise Lost (1667); both are inspired by a play named Adamus Exul, written in 1600 by Hugo de Groot (Grotius). Not surprisingly, Vondel's tragedy was not put on stage during his life.

Eduard Douwes Dekker, who called himself Multatuli ('I have suffered much'), published his novel Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company in 1868. It is the partly autobiographical story of a Dutch civil servant in the Dutch Indies who discovers how the peasants are exploited, but it also offers social satire, and is primarily a political pamphlet. In modern Indonesia, this dazzling novel is sometimes called "the book that killed Dutch colonialism", and that is hardly exaggerated. A modern, annotated translation is included in the Penguin Series.

It is hard to choose from the great variety of twentieth-century authors. The big authors include:

Finally, Gerard Reve (1923-2006) deserves to be mentioned, a strange man with a wicked sense of humor. The following text is one of his poems. (If you are not Christian, you need to know that names like 'sister Immaculata' invariably refer to women living in a monastery.)


Sister Immaculata who, for thirty-four years,
has been washing, cleaning and feeding
incapacitated people in their beds,
will never see her name mentioned anywhere.
But any scruffy jackass who, with his pro-this
and anti-that placard blocks traffic,
can already see his mug on the tube that evening.
It's good that there is a God.