History of the Dutch language

Dutch is a West Germanic language, that originated from the Old Frankish dialects.

Among the words with which Dutch has enriched the English vocabulary are: brandy, coleslaw, cookie, cruiser, dock, easel, freight, landscape, spook, stoop, and yacht. Dutch is noteworthy as the language of an outstanding literature, but it also became important as the tongue of an enterprising people, who, though comparatively few in number, made their mark on the world community through trade and empire. Dutch is also among some of the earliest recorded languages of Europe. Countries that have Dutch as an official language are Belgium, the Netherlands, Suriname, Aruba and Curacao.

Relation to the Germanic languages group

Within the Indo-European language tree, Dutch is grouped within the Germanic languages, which means it shares a common ancestor with languages such as English, German, and Scandinavian languages.

This common, but not direct, ancestor (proto-language) of all contemporary Germanic languages is called Proto-Germanic, commonly assumed to have originated in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe.[1] All Germanic languages are united by subjection to the sound shifts of Grimm's law and Verner's law which originated Proto-Germanic. These two laws define the basic differentiating features of Germanic languages that separate them from other Indo-European languages.

There are no known documents in Proto-Germanic, which was unwritten, and virtually all our knowledge of this early language has been obtained by application of the comparative method. All modern Germanic languages (such as English, German, Dutch, etc.) gradually split off from Proto-Germanic, beginning around the Early Middle Ages. As the earliest surviving Germanic writing, there are a few inscriptions in a runic script from Scandinavia dated to c. 200. It obviously represents Proto-Norse spoken in Scandinavia after it had split as a local dialect from common Proto-Germanic.

West Germanic

From the time of their earliest attestation, the Germanic dialects were divided into three groups, West, East, and North Germanic. Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, and they remained mutually intelligible to some degree throughout the Migration Period. This means some individual dialects are difficult to classify. The Western group would have formed as a dialect of Proto-Germanic in the late Jastorf culture (ca. 1st century BC).

During the Early Middle Ages, the West Germanic languages were separated by the insular development of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and related Old Frisian, the High German consonant shift, and the relatively conservative (in respect to common West Germanic) ancestors of Low Saxon and Old Dutch.

Frankish language

The Frankish language, also Old Frankish was the language of the Franks. Classified as a West Germanic language, it was spoken in areas covering modern France, Germany, and the Low Countries in Merovingian times, preceding the 6th/7th century. The Franks first established themselves in the Netherlands and Flanders before they started to fight their way down south and east. The language had a significant impact on Old French. It evolved into Old Low Franconian in the north and it was replaced by French in the south, Old Frankish is reconstructed from loanwords in Old French, and from Old Dutch.

The singular direct attestation from Old Frankish is the Bergakker inscription, that was found in 1996 near the Dutch town of Bergakker, near Tiel. It is a 5th-century Elder Futhark inscription on a metal mount for a sword scabbard.

The inscription can be read as

ha?VþV??s : ann : kVsjam :
: logVns :

where V is a non-standard rune, apparently a vowel (variously read as e or u, or as "any vowel").

Several readings have been presented in literature. Quak (2000) for example, reads "Haþuþewas ann kusjam loguns", interpreting it as "Property of Haþuþewaz. I bestow upon the choosers of the swords".

Old Dutch

Old Dutch is the language ancestral to the Low Franconian languages, including Dutch itself. It was spoken between the 6th and 11th centuries, continuing the earlier Old Frankish language.

The present Dutch standard language is derived from Old Dutch dialects spoken in the Low Countries that were first recorded in the Salic law, a Frankish document written around 510. From this document originated the oldest sentence that has been identified as Dutch: "Maltho thi afrio lito" as sentence used to free a serf. Other old segments of Dutch are "Visc flot aftar themo uuatare" ("A fish was swimming in the water") and "Gelobistu in got alamehtigan fadaer" ("Do you believe in God the almighty father"). The latter fragment was written around 900.

Arguably the most famous text containing what is traditionally taken to be Old Dutch is: "Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan, hinase hic enda tu, wat unbidan we nu" ("All birds have started making nests, except me and you, what are we waiting for"), dating around the year 1100, written by a Flemish monk in a convent in Rochester, England.

The oldest known single word is wad, attested in the toponym vadam (modern Wadenoijen), meaning a ford (where one wades), in Tacitus's Histories.[2]

Middle Dutch

Linguistically speaking, Middle Dutch is a collective name for closely related dialects which were spoken and written between about 1150 and 1550 in the present-day Dutch-speaking region. There was at that time as yet no overarching standard language, but they were all highly mutually intelligible.

In historic literature Diets and Middle Dutch (Middelnederlands) are used interchangeably to describe the ancestor of Modern Dutch. Although almost from the beginning, several Middle Dutch variations emerged, the similarities between the different regional languages were much stronger than their differences, especially for written languages and various literary works of that time.

Within Middle Dutch five large groups can be distinguished:

  1. Flemish, (sometimes subdivided into West and East Flemish), was spoken in the modern region of West and East Flanders;
  2. Brabantian was the language of the area covered by the modern Dutch province of North Brabant and the Belgian provinces of Walloon Brabant, Flemish Brabant and Antwerp as well as the Brussels capital region;
  3. Hollandic was mainly used in the present provinces of North and South Holland and parts of Utrecht;
  4. Limburgish, spoken by the people in the district of modern Limburg and Belgian Limburg;
  5. Low Saxon, spoken in the area of the modern provinces of Gelderland, Overijssel, Drenthe and parts of Groningen.

The last two of the Middle Dutch dialects mentioned above show features, respectively, of Middle High German and Middle Low German, since these two areas border directly onto the areas of Middle Low and High German.

Standardization and Modern Dutch

A process of standardization started in the Middle Ages, especially under the influence of the Burgundian Ducal Court in Dijon (Brussels after 1477). The dialects of Flanders and Brabant were the most influential around this time. The process of standardization became much stronger in the 16th century, mainly based on the urban Brabantic dialect of Antwerp. In 1585 Antwerp fell to the Spanish army: many fled to Holland, influencing the urban dialects of that province. Brabantian, as compared to other main Dutch dialects, had a big influence on the development of Standard Dutch. This was because Brabant was the dominant region in the Netherlands when standardization of the Dutch language started in the 16th century. The first major formation of standard Dutch also took place in Antwerp, where a Brabantian dialect is spoken. The default language being developed around this time had therefore mainly Brabantian influences. The 16th-century Brabantian dialect is rather close to colloquial Dutch. The standard Dutch language has mainly developed from Brabantian and later some Hollandish dialects from post 16th century. The Standard Dutch language has evolved little since the 16th century.[3] In 1637 a further important step was made towards a unified language, when the first major Dutch Bible translation, the Statenvertaling, was published that people from all over the United Provinces could understand. It used elements from various dialects, but the spoken form was mostly based on the urban dialects from the Province of Holland. A linguistic saying therefore is that "The Dutch language was born in Flanders, grew up in Brabant and reached maturity in Holland."

Genesis 1:1–3
Dutch from 1637 Contemporary Dutch
Inden beginne schiep Godt den Hemel, ende de Aerde. In het begin schiep God de hemel en de aarde
De Aerde nu was woest ende ledich, ende duysternisse was op den afgront: ende de Geest Godts sweefde op de Wateren. De aarde nu was woest en leeg, en duisternis was op de afgrond, en de Geest van God zweefde over de wateren.
Ende Godt seyde: Daer zy Licht: ende daer wert Licht. En God zei: Laat er licht zijn! En er was licht.

Development of Germanic sounds

Linguistically speaking, Dutch has evolved little since the late 16th century; differences in speech are considered to be negligible, especially when comparing the older form with modern regional accents. Grammar has been somewhat simplified, but a great deal of the grammar lost in contemporary Dutch is preserved in many much-used expressions dating back to or before that time.


Proto-Germanic Old Dutch Middle Dutch Modern Dutch
Closed Syllable Open Syllable Closed Syllable Open Syllable
a a ɑ ɑː ɑ
ɛ (i-umlaut) ɛ ɛː ɛ
e e
i i ɪ ɪ
u u, o ɔ ɔː ɔ
y, ø (i-umlaut) ʏ øː ʏ øː
ɛi & iː (before r)
œy & yː (before r)
iu iu
eu io
ei̯ (i-umlaut/irregular) ɛi ɛi

Specific sound changes

Proto-Germanic Old Dutch Middle Dutch Modern Dutch
-ɛ:- (before hiatus) -a:- -ai̯:- -ai̯:-
-o:w- / -o:- (before hiatus) -uo:i- / -uo:w- -u:i̯- / -ɑu̯- -ui̯- / -ɑu̯-
-u:- (before hiatus) -u:- -yu̯- / -ɑu̯- -yu̯- / -ɑu̯-
-i:w- -i:w-
-ɛːw- -ɛːw-
-iww- -iww-
-eww- -eww-
-aww- -aww- -o:i̯- / -ɑu- -oi̯- / -ɑu-
-iuw- -iuw- -iu̯- -iu̯-


Proto Germanic Old Dutch Middle & Modern Dutch
Initial Between vowels Geminated Word final Initial Between vowels Geminated* Word final
k k- -k- -kk- -k k- -k- -k
g ~ ɣ ɣ- -ɣ- -gg- -x ɣ- -ɣ- -x
h ~ x h- -∅- (h syncope) -xx- h- -∅- -x-
p p- -p- -pp- -p p- -p- -p
b ~ β b- -v- -bb- -f b- -v- -b-, -p* (final) -f
f f- -f- -ff- v- -f-
t t- -t- -tt- -t t- -t- -t
d ~ ð d- -d- -dd- d- -d-, -∅-* (d syncope) -d-
þ þ- (> ð) -þ- -þþ- -s- / -t-
s s- -s- -ss- -s z- -s- -s
-z(-) - -r- -r - -r- -r

Specific sound changes

Proto Germanic Old Dutch Modern Dutch
ald/uld - alt/ult ald/uld/old - alt/ult/olt ɑu̯d - ɑu̯t
-egi-/-ehi- -egi-/-ehi- -ɛi-
ft ft xt
xs xs / ss s
mb mb / mm m
ng ng ŋ
wr- wr- vr- (Still spelled wr-)
xl- / xr- / xw- l- / r- / w- l- / r- / w-


  1. "Languages of the World: Germanic languages". The New Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago, IL, United States: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1993. ISBN 0-85229-571-5. This long-standing, well-known article on the languages can be found in almost any edition of Britannica.
  2. Van der Sijs, Nicoline (2001). Chronologisch woordenboek. De ouderdom en herkomst van onze woorden en betekenissen. L.J. Veen. p. 100. ISBN 9020420453.
  3. http://taal.phileon.nl/brabants.php
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