Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

December Books 15) Geschiedenis van het Nederlands, by Marijke van der Wal and Cor van Bree

A very approachable introduction to the history of the Dutch language, aimed at undergraduates. It starts with Indo-European and Gothic and then follows the development of Dutch from the point where it is identifiable (700-1000 AD) to the present. One point that I was not left clear about: how exactly the linguistic frontier between Germanic and Latin became established, and when - was it before or after the fall of the Roman Empire?

The more recent history of Dutch has much more controversy and politics than I had realised. The first attempts to standardise came at exactly the same time as the partition of the Dutch-speaking area between the Spanish and the independent Dutch spate; the standard language therefore started based on the dialect of Holland (ie the province of that name) but with substantial input from Brabant. A fascinating map much later in the book shows that the areas where locals habitually drop the final "n" in infinitives and plurals, etc, reflects this early alliance - the "n" is pronounced in Zeeland and the Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders; also to the northwest, everywhere above a line going roughly from Alkmaar to Arnhem; and in patches of both Limburgs. But it is silent in Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven, as in The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht. As a Dutch student, this is practically the first exception you are taught for the language's generally phonetic spelling; it is certainly the most common such exception.

Scientists like Stevin and the Huygens family made Dutch an international language of knowledge, as well as of commerce. Much of the following centuries are taken up with debates about how far the written language should reflect its spoken form, mainly resolved in favour of the demotic. It took the French-educated rulers some time to catch up - French was the court language as late as Queen Emma, who was Regent until 1898. It was also, incredibly, not until 1898 that Dutch was recognised as an official language alongside French in the relevant parts of Belgium (not surprisingly the chapter on the Flemish language struggle is one of the longest).

I was a little uncomfortable with the way that the authors slip rather easily and unconsciously into the dialectic of territorial conquest: most of Flanders is now secure, and losses in the Brussels area have been stabilised; Frisian is under control; Indonesia and South Africa (and, cough, New York) may have been lost, but at least the Caribbean is still there (though it seems likely to me that Dutch is an elite language in that last case, with most people speaking Papiamento or other creoles). But I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it; Dutch speakers who want to learn more about the language will find it of interest.
Tags: bookblog 2009, language: dutch
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