How did the Dutch language originate?

How did the Dutch language originate?


"Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda thu?" (all birds are nesting except you and I, what are we waiting for(1 If you paid attention during Dutchclass in high school, you probably remember that this phrase (which sounds romantic but actually has religious overtones) is often brought up as the first "real" Dutch written text. The words appear on the last page of a medieval manuscript in the library of Rochester Abbey, England, dating back to the 11th century. They were probably written by a monk who just wanted to try out a new quill, because the text has nothing to do with the rest of the manuscript. Was Dutch really "born" on this occasion? You can read more about the origins of the Dutch language in this blog article.

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The early history of the Dutch language

A new language does not arise spontaneously. Languages develop gradually. On the territory of what is now the Netherlands, all kinds of Germanic dialects were spoken long before our era, mixed with some French influence in the south. Because linguists also like clarity, it was decided at some point - based on certain characteristics - that we would call this collection of dialects spoken before 1200 Old Dutch and the dialects spoken between 1200 and 1500 Middle Dutch (also called Diets). There was no single uniform language yet: many dialects were so different from each other that their speakers could hardly understand each other, if at all. Nor was there a general written language.

Toward a standard language

Starting around 1500, the world began to change much faster than in all the centuries before. Think of the sprint that science took, the "discovery" of new continents and the rapidly increasing trade. There were also many changes in the political sphere. In the Netherlands, for example, most previously autonomous areas came under (more or less) central authority. So there was also an increasing need for a language with which people from all parts of the country could communicate. So, little by little, a standard language arose: the New Dutch. This was first and foremost a written language, used by the higher circles, clergy and merchants. The common man or woman in the 16th and 17th century was usually illiterate and never left his or her region. Consequently, most dialects simply persisted.

The modern era

Only after 1800 did the standard language begin to spread even among the poor majority of the population. There were several reasons for this. First, more and more children went to school, where they were introduced to written Dutch standard language. Second, the mass media emerged, bringing more people into contact with the standard language through newspapers. And third, perhaps the most important reason, - from the early 19th century - the mobility of the population increased greatly. Barge, stagecoach and later the train brought people from all corners of the world together. Thus, a common language became indispensable. In practice, many people developed a form of bilingualism: at home and with local people they spoke dialect, elsewhere and with outsiders they spoke the standard language. In attenuated form this has remained so to this day.

So what about these bird nests?

To return to the familiar phrase with which this blog article begins: it is an imaginative starting point to explain the origins of the Dutch language. But it has little to do with an official "birth" of Dutch. Such myths are also completely unnecessary, because even without artifice, Dutch is alive and well. Would you like to have a text translated to or from Dutch soon? The language lovers at professional translation agency Scriptware Translations will be happy to arrange it for you. Feel free to call or email them!

1 Did all birds start nesting, except you and me?

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