1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dutch Language

For works with similar titles, see Dutch Language.

DUTCH LANGUAGE. When the Romans reached the territory now forming the kingdom of Holland, they found a number of tribes south of the Rhine, who—though here and there mixed with Germans—belonged to a non-Germanic race, and who, closely related to the Belgian tribes, spoke a language belonging to the Celtic group. Possibly they were also situated on the more elevated grounds north of the Rhine, at least vestiges of them may still be traced. We do not know anything about their being mixed with or subdued by the intruding German tribes. We can only guess it.

At that time the fertile delta of the Rhine was already occupied by German tribes who in language and national customs must have stood in some relation to the tribes living along the Rhine in Germany, later called Franks. The consonantal system of their language was in accordance with the other Low-German dialects, which is proved by the remains we have in the glosses of the Lex Salica, for the greater part handed down in a bad condition. These tribes, whom we shall take together under the name of Low-Franks—the Romans called them Batavi, Caninefates, Chamavi, &c.—were spread over Gelderland, Overysel, part of Utrecht and South Holland, and the south-western part of North Holland. When in the sixth century allied tribes from the present north Germany, who named themselves Saxons after one of those tribes living alongside the Elbe, conquered the territory occupied by the Franks a great many retreated from the eastern parts, and then the Franks, who already in the time of the Romans had begun to invade into the territory of the Belgian tribes, continued their wars of conquest in a southward direction and subdued all the land south of the branch of the Rhine that is called the “Waal.” Since that time the Frankish dialect came there, and the Celtic-speaking population of the south suffered its language to be entirely supplanted by that of the conquerors. Hence in the formerly Celtic-speaking parts of Brabant and Limburg we find but Frankish dialects, somewhat corresponding with those of part of Gelderland, Utrecht and Holland. The deviation that is perceptible concerns less the use of words than the way of laying the stress.

In part of Gelderland, east of the Ysel, and in Overysel, the older Frankish dialect (of the Salian Franks) was given up and the language of the victorious Saxons was assumed, perhaps here and there strongly mixed with the older language. The language which is spoken there, and farther to the north through Drente as far as in some parts of Groningen, is called Saxon. Indeed, these dialects correspond in a great many respects with the language of the Old-Saxon poem Heliand (q.v.) and with the North-German dialects—from the latter they deviate considerably in some respects. The chief point of conformity is the formation of the plural of the verb: wi loopt, wi gåt, Heliand: wi hlopad, wi gangad, which are wèi loopen, wèi gaan in the Frankish dialects. In the vocal system, too, there are peculiar differences.

In the north of Holland there lived, and still lives alongside the coast, a tribe with which Caesar did not come in contact. The Frisians were spread over a large distance along the shore as far as the mouth of the Elbe, and in the west at least as far as the country north of Haarlem. In the time of the Romans they cannot have extended their power farther southward. Later, however, this seems to have been the case. Maerlant and Melis Stoke (13th century) tell us that time was when their power extended even over part of Flanders. About the year 339 they were repelled as far as the mouth of the Meuse, and ever afterwards the Franks, led by their counts, pushed their dominion back farther and farther to the north, as far as the country north of Alkmaar. After all, a great many Frisian peculiarities may be perceived in the language of the country people of the parts which were once in their power.

To begin with the south: in Zeeland the population has quite given up the former probably non-Germanic language. Frisian influence is still perceptible in many words and expressions, but for all that the language has lost the Frisian character and assumed the nature of the neighbouring Frankish dialects in the present Belgium and Brabant. If it was then influenced by the south, later it was influenced rather by the language of Holland. Farther to the north Frisian elements may be perceived in Holland at the seashore and also in many respects still in North Holland. The real Frisian tongue has only been preserved in the province of Friesland, where intrusion of the dialect spoken in Holland is already perceptible since the 13th century. With the Frisian tongue this formed a new dialect in the towns, the “Stadfriesch,” whereas the country people in the villages and the peasants have preserved the old Frisian tongue as “Boerenfriesch.”

The more eastward dialects of Frisian in Groningen, the eastern part of Friesland (Stellingawerf) and West-Drente were first strongly mixed with Saxon; at the same time we find a strong mixture of Frisian and Saxo-Frankish east of the Zuider Zee. Later the Saxon dialect of the town of Groningen, once the capital of East-Drente, became prominent over the whole province.

In all parts, however, the language of Holland, mixed with and changed by the living speech, is getting more and more influence, issuing from the towns and large villages.

This influence over the whole country began at the opening of the 17th century, and, in connexion with the prevalent written language, gradually produced a colloquial language, deviating from the written language as well as from the native idioms of the country, though assuming elements from both. In this colloquial speech the idiom of Holland forms the basis, whereas the written language formed itself on quite different principles.

If we compare the colloquial speech and the native idiom with the written language, we find remarkable differences, which are caused by the origin of the Dutch written language.

The first to write in any of the idioms of the Dutch language, if we leave apart the old version of the psalms in East Low Frankish, was an inhabitant of the neighbourhood of Maastricht, Henrik van Veldeke, who wrote a Servatius legend and an Aeneid; the latter we only know by a Mid High German copy. This dialect deviates from the western dialects and has likeness to the Middle-Frankish. His work had no influence whatever on the written language.

In the west of Belgium, in the districts of Antwerp, East and West Flanders and Brabant, great prosperity and strong development of commerce caused a vivid intellectual life. No wonder we find there the first writings in the West-Low-Frankish native idiom. This language spread over the neighbouring districts. At least in 1254 we find the same language used in the statute (i.e. privilege) of Middelburg.

In those parts a great deal was written in poetry and prose, and the writings in this language are known under the name of Middle-Dutch literature.

If originally the south took the lead in all departments, later the north gradually surpasses the south, and elements from the northern native idiom begin to intrude into the written language.

North of the Meuse and the Rhine little was written as yet in the 13th century. Not until about 1300 does literary life begin to develop here (Melis Stoke’s Rijmcronijk), and these writings were written in the language of the south with slight deviations here and there. Chancery and clergy had taken a written language to the north, deviating considerably from the native idiom in vogue there, which belonged to the Frisio-Frankish idioms. So this written language gradually spread over the west of the Netherlands and Belgium. The east of the Netherlands agreed in its chancery style more with the districts of Low Germany.

There was a great difference between the written language and the dialect spoken on the banks of the Y. This becomes quite conspicuous if we compare what Roemer Visscher, Coster, Bredero borrow from their native idiom with the language of Huygens or Cats, in the latter of which the southern elements predominate, mixed with the dialects of Zeeland and Holland. Vondel, too, in his first period was influenced by the idiom of Brabant. Only after 1625 does he get on more familiar terms with the Amsterdam dialect. In the various editions of his poems it may be seen how not only loan-words, but also words belonging to the southern idiom, are gradually replaced by other words, belonging to the vocabulary of North Holland, and still to be heard.

The written language passed from the south to the north, and, considerably changed at Amsterdam, was also assumed in the other provinces in the 17th century, after the Union of Utrecht. In the north, in Groningen and Friesland, the official writings and laws were still noted down in a Frisian or Saxo-Frisian idiom as late as the 15th and 16th centuries. When the contact with Holland grew stronger, and the government officials ever and again came in contact with Holland, chancery, too, gradually assumed the Holland idiom. The same took place in the eastern provinces.

This, however, did not yet make the written language popular, which did not happen before the population of the Dutch provinces got its Statenbÿbel, the well-known authorized version of the Bible, made at Dordrecht between 1626 and 1637.

By the frequent use of this so-called Statenvertaling the language of Holland obtained its vogue in all provinces on the point of religion, and many expressions, borrowed from that Bible, were preserved in the native idiom.

By the remarkable vicissitudes of these parts from the earliest time up to the moment when Holland became an independent kingdom, during which alternately German elements under the Bavarian counts and French influences under the Burgundian princes were predominant, and also later in the 16th and 17th centuries elements from these languages were mixed with the language in common use. Moreover, various words passed from the eastern languages into Dutch by the colonial and commercial connexions, while at the same time many words were borrowed from Latin, the language of the learned people, especially in the 16th century, and from French, under the influence of the poetic clubs of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the time of the rhetoricians, in the 16th century, and of Coornhert, as well as in the days of Bredero, Hooft and Vondel, we repeatedly find opposition against these foreign words, often successful, so that in 1650 Vondel could say: “Onze spraak is sedert weinige jaren herwaart van bastaard-woorden en onduitsch allengs geschuimt.[1] Some people, e.g. Hooft, went even so far as to make very clumsy versions of Latin and French bastard words, handed down of old.

Under the influence of the club “Nil Volentibus Arduum” and the predominant literary clubs of the 18th century, people became inclined towards expressing their thoughts as much as possible in pure Dutch. Therefore a large number of rules were given, with respect to prose as well as to poetry, in consequence of which the written language grew very stiff in choice of words and forms, and remains so till the latter half of the 19th century. The obtrusion of the French language during the reign of Napoleon had no effect. But the subsequent union of Holland and Belgium strengthened the French element, especially in the higher ranks of society. King William I. had tried to make Dutch more popular in Belgium by a general teaching of the Dutch language. When north and south were separated, the French became predominant in the south. Only in the Flemish provinces of Belgium the people tried to preserve the native idiom and to do away with French words. These endeavours, called “De Vlaamsche beweging”, begun by F. v. Willems, Heremans and others in the south, were supported in the north by Professor de Vries at Leiden. In order to get a pure Dutch language, the idea of composing a general Dutch dictionary was introduced. M. de Vries and his partner L. te Winkel, however, did not begin this task before having given a new formulation of the rules for spelling. These rules, deviating in many respects from the spelling then in vogue, introduced by Siegenbeek in 1806, have been predominant up to the present moment. Since 1891 Dr R. A. Kollewyn and Dr F. Buitenrust Hettema have been engaged in trying to bring about a simplification in the spelling. As this simplification is not generally considered efficient, their principles are not yet generally adopted; see for instance C. H. den Hertog, Waarom onaannemelyk? (Groningen, 1893).

Excepting Belgium (Flanders, Antwerp, Brabant) the Dutch language is heard outside Holland in Dutch East India and in the West Indies. In East India pure Dutch has been preserved, though some Javanese and Malay bastard words may have slipped in by the habit of speaking to the population in the Malay tongue or in the native idiom. Hence no Indo-Dutch was formed there. This is different in the West Indies, where a great number of negro words and English words as well as English syntactical constructions have slipped in.

In the 17th century a number of Dutchmen, for the greater part from Holland and Zeeland, under Jan van Riebeek, had settled in South Africa, in Cape Town, where the Dutch navigation called into being a Dutch port. In course of time they were joined there by French emigrants (most of them Huguenots who left their country about 1688 and joined with other Huguenots from Holland in assuming the Dutch language), perhaps also by Portuguese and by Malay people, who, together with the English who settled there and after 1820 became numerous in Cape Colony, mixed some peculiarities of their language with the Dutch idioms. Thus in the first half of the 18th century the language arose which is now called the South African Dutch. Since 1880 the present Dutch language has became more frequently used in official writings, though with certain adaptations agreeably to the native idiom.

In order to offer an example of the Middle-Dutch language beside the present language, we give here a single strophe from Maerlant’s Wapene Martyn, with a metrical translation in modern Dutch from the pen of Nikolaas Beets (1880).

God, diet al bi redene doet,
Gaf dat wandel ertsche goet
 Der menschelt gemene,
Dattere mede ware gevoet,
Ende gecleet, ende gescoet,
 Ende leven soude rene.
Nu es giericheit so verwoet,
Dat elc settet sinen moet
 Om al te hebbene allene.
Hieromme stortmen menschenbloet,
Hieromme stichtmen metter spoet
 Borge ende hoge stene
 Menegen te wene.

God, die het al met wijsheid doet,
Gaf dit verganklijk aardsche goed
 Den menschen in’t gemeen,
Op dat zij zouden zijn gevoed,
Het lijf gekleed, geschoeid de voet
 En leven rein van zeen.
Maar zie nu hoe de hebzucht woedt
Dat iedereen in arren moed
 ’t Al hebben wil alleen’
Hierom vergiet men menschenbloed
En bouwt met roekeloozen spoed
 Burchtsloten, zwaar van steen,
 Tot smart van menigeen.

A Survey of the Sounds used in Dutch.The Consonants. As regards the consonants, Dutch in the main does not differ from the other Low German languages. The explosive g and the th are wanting. Instead of the former there is a g with “fricative” pronunciation, and as in High German the th has passed over into d.

The final consonants in Middle Dutch are sharpened, and the sharp sounds are graphically represented; in Modern Dutch, on the other hand, the historical development of the language being more distinctly kept in view, and the agreement observed with the inflexional forms, the soft consonant is written more frequently than it is sounded; thus we have Middle Dutch dach, Modern Dutch dag, in analogy with the plural dagen.

The gutturals are g, k, ch and h.

G is the soft spirant, not used in English. In Middle Dutch this letter was also indicated by gh. K was pronounced like English k. In Middle Dutch c was sometimes used instead of k; now this is no longer done.

Ch (pronounced as German ch without the i-sound, not as English ch) loses its sound when combined with s to sch at the end of a syllable, for instance, vleesch, but the s-sound is not purely dental as in dans. As an initial consonant sch is nearly pronounced as sg (schip, English ship); only in Frisian and Saxon dialects the old consonant sk in skip, skool is retained.

H has the same pronunciation as in English.

The dentals are d and t. The d is formed by placing the point of the tongue against the upper teeth. At the end of a word d is sharpened into t, but written d, for instance, goed, pronounced gut. In the idiom of the east of the Netherlands final d is preserved. When between two vowels after oe (Engl. ô in do), ō, or ui, d is not pronounced, though it is written. After it has been left out, a j-sound has developed between the two vowels, so, for instance, goede became first goe:e and then goeje. Thus it is pronounced, though it is still spelled goede. After ou d disappeared and ou became ouw, for instance koude > kouw.

T has the same pronunciation as in English. In some dialects final t is dropped, for instance, heef for heeft, nie for niet.

S has the pronunciation of English s in sound, z that of English z in hazel; only in zestig and zeventig z has the pronunciation of s.

The labials are b, f, v, p.

At the beginning and in the body of a word b has the same sound as in English. At the end of a word, when shortened from bb, followed by a vowel, it became p in the pronunciation, so older krabbe became krabb, krab (the present spelling), which is now pronounced krap.

F has the same pronunciation as English f. In many cases older initial f passed into v, hence most words which have f in English have initial v in Dutch, for instance vader, vol, vechten.

This v, initial and between vowels, has the pronunciation of English v in lover. Dutch p is the same as English p, also the liquids and nasals.

The w in Dutch is mostly labiodental; in the eastern parts before vowels bilabial pronunciation is heard.

Vowels.A has in open syllables the sound of English a in father, in closed syllables that of English a in ass, but more open; when there is a clear sound in closed syllables the spelling is aa (jaar), in open syllables a (maken), pronounced as a in ask; in bad, nat, a = ă. An original short a and a long a in open syllables are even in Middle Dutch pronounced alike, and may be rhymed with each other (dagen, lagen, a rhyme which was not permitted in Middle High German). In the Saxon dialects â was expressed by ao, a or â in the Frisio-Saxon districts passes into è before r, as jèr (jaar). Middle Dutch preserved a in several words where in Modern Dutch it passes into e before r (arg, erg; sarc, zerk; warf, werf); in others, as aarde, staart, zwaard, the Middle Dutch had e and a (erde, stert, swert, swart, start; Modern Dutch zwaard, staart). In foreign words, likewise, e before r has become a; paars, perse; lantaarn, lanterne (in the dialects e is still frequently retained).

E. The sound of the e derived from a does not differ from that of an original e, or of an e derived from i, as they appear in open syllables (steden, vele, pronounced as a in English name). If the e derived from a or i or the original e occurs in closed syllables, it has a short sound, as in English men, end, Modern Dutch stem. The e in closed syllables with a full sound (as English a; Sweet, ei) is spelled ee: veel, week (e from i), beek. The sharp, clear ee is indicated by the same letters in both open and closed syllables: eer, sneeuw, zee.

In some dialects this ee is pronounced like English ee, not only in the present dialects, but also in the 17th century.

The pronunciation of ei (from ai, or eg: ag, French ai, ei, ée) is that of English i, for instance, Dutch ei, English egg, is pronounced like English I.

I is pronounced short (somewhat like i of English pit), for instance in pit, binden, sikkel; it has a clear sound in fabrikant, though it has no stress.

Ie is pronounced like English ee in see, but somewhat shorter; so, fabriek, fabrieken, Pieter; also in bieden, stierf, &c. For original long î, Middle Dutch ii and ij, afterwards ÿ, was used. This vowel, though still written y, is pronounced like English i in I, like; so in sysje (English siskin), lÿken, &c.

The letter o represents three sounds:—(1) the short sharp o and (2) the short soft o, the former like the o in English not and French soldat (Dutch bod, belofte, tocht, kolf), the latter like the English o in don, the French o in ballon (Dutch dof, ploffen, ochtend, vol), and (3) the full, clear o as in English note, French noter (Dutch kolen, sloten, verloren). The sharp clear oo, in stroom, dood, has almost the same sound as the full o, in some dialects (among others the Saxon) it is pronounced as o with a glide o, in others (Flemish and Hollandsch) somewhat like au. In Middle Dutch, the lengthening of the vowels was frequently indicated by e (before r sometimes by i, as in oir); hence ae for â, oe for ô. Where oe occurs in the modern language, it has the sound of u (pronounced like the u in High German, and answering to the Gothic ô), which in Middle Dutch was frequently represented by ou. oe is pronounced ou (au; Sweet, p. 6) in West Flemish and the Groningen dialects. Before labials and gutturals oe in Middle Dutch was expressed by ue and oe (bouc, souken, and also guet, but usually goet, soeken, boec). The Saxon dialects still preserve an ô sound which agrees with the Dutch oe (bôk, môder); in two words—romer (roemer, however, is also used) and spooko has passed from these dialects into Dutch. As the u (Old German û), which in the Dutch tongue has passed into ui except before r and w, retains the û-sound in the Saxon districts, some words have come into Dutch from these dialects, being written with oe from the similar sound of oe (from ô) in Dutch and û in Saxon (snoet, boer, soezen), by the side of which are Frankish words (snuit, suizen, &c.).

In the language of the people oe before m is often pronounced as ŏ, for instance bloem and blom.

Eu is not a diphthong, but the modification (Umlaut) of the clear ō; it has the same sound as German ö in schön; so in vleugel, leugen, keuken.

U before a double consonant or before a consonant in monosyllables has about the same pronunciation as in English stuff, rug; so in kunnen, snurken, put. When used in open syllables it has the same sound as in French nature.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Middle Dutch û passed over through oi into ui by the influence of the Holland dialect. In the Saxon districts û kept the old pronunciation, but only in the language of the peasants. The common language has everywhere ui, pronounced nearly as German eu, English oy; so in duizend, vuil, buigen, &c.

Ou and au in vrouw and blauw are nearly pronounced in the same way, very much like English ow in crowd.

Authorities.—For a full survey of a history of the Dutch language the reader is referred to Jan te Winkel, “Geschichte der niederländischen Sprache,” Grundriss der germ. Philologie, 2, p. 704 (Strassburg, K. Grübner). Here an elaborate account may be found on p. 704 of the different works on the grammar and phonology of the various periods of the Dutch language. For explanation and history of words of the current language see the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, by De Vries and Te Winkel, continued by A. Kluyver, A. Beets, for a time by J. W. Müller and De Vreese, who left at their nomination as professors at Utrecht and Ghent. The Middle Dutch language may be known from the Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek, first by E. Verwys and J. Verdam, after the death of Verwys by Verdam alone. For the dialects the different grammars and glossaries issued at Martinus Nÿhoff (The Hague) and Kemink & Son (Utrecht) are of great importance. The Flemish dialect may be found in De Bo, Westvlaamsch Idioticon; other Belgian dialects are recorded in the publications of the Vlaamsche Academie (Ghent). Phonetic explanations are given in Roorda’s or in ten Bruggencate’s Phonetic Works, and a survey of the pronunciation in Branco van Dantzig’s Dutch Pronunciation and Dykstra’s Dutch Grammar.  (J. H. G.) 

  1. i.e. “Within a few years our language has been gradually skimmed of bastard words and non-Dutch elements.”