1300 years ago, the Dutch language was not spoken at all.  But then what?

1300 years ago, the Dutch language was not spoken at all. But then what?

How far can you go back in history and still talk to your buddies?

To clear up the misunderstanding at once: in the south and north of the Netherlands, until approximately 1,300 years ago, Dutch was not spoken at all, or even the language that preceded it. This precursor was spoken in the southern provinces and in parts of Gelderland. The dominant language in the area now known as Holland was still Frisian at that time. So Dutch is actually an import language.

Migration flows from the south took the language with them and pushed the Frisian to the north. Although Frisian and Dutch have the same ancestral language, they are really two different languages. Frisian has much more in common with English than Dutch. Consider, for example, the Frisian word for “cheese”, that is, “tsiis”, which in English becomes “cheese”.

Frisian and Dutch are both derived from Proto-Germanic. This is largely the mother tongue of all of Northwest Europe, because German, Icelandic, English, and Scandinavian languages ​​are also descended from Proto-Germanic. Proto-Germanic belongs to the Indo-European group of languages, which was heavily influenced by immigration and trade in languages ​​in the East such as Sanskrit, Kurdish, and Persian.

The early Middle Ages can hardly be understood

We now know why we speak Dutch, but that does not yet solve the question of how stable the Dutch language is. Are the Dutch today the Dutch nearly 500 years ago?

To answer this question, let’s go back in time a little bit, to 1,300 years ago. We started around 700 AD, when Dutch was first spoken in a small part of what is now Holland: Old Dutch.

According to language historian Peter-Alexander Kerkhof, this is difficult to recognize as Dutch for us. “Instead of that specific dull sound with which many of our verbs end, there were many long, latin sounds, as in Latin and Greek. Incidentally, there were not only more vowels at the end of the word, but in all of the entire vocabulary. This makes it difficult to recognize individual words.So Old Dutch has a very different phonetic structure than Modern Dutch.Old Dutch also still has a fourth sound, like English today;think of the article in English.Th has now been replaced by d In modern Dutch. It would also be difficult to recognize cases. The prepositions were hardly used.”

Kerkhove does what is called language reconstruction. By combining sources such as inscriptions and runes with knowledge of the development of the language, he can reconstruct what the language might look like.

The intelligibility improves somewhat when we turn to Middle Dutch, which replaces Old Dutch from 1170 and will be spoken during the late Middle Ages, that is, until 1500. Our familiar sound has not yet appeared, as with the second unstressed syllable of words. Long letters and long letters still exist and nouns often have their own gender-specific conjugations. For example, the word “hero” means master and “Hera” means mistress. We’ll recognize some words like “apple” and “hoenink” (honey), but we don’t have to imagine them too much. Many cases have not been replaced by prepositions such as “aan” and “by” and continuing the conversation will not be an easy task.

Dutch clear entry

So hope hangs over the modern Dutch language, which we’ve been talking about officially for the past 500 years. So Kerkhove is positive about this. “You don’t face many difficulties. Keep in mind that modern Dutch in 1500 was not the same as the Dutch that is now spoken in Randstad. Think more about Flemish and Brabant. This is how Dutchman from the sixteenth century would have spoken.”

“So the pronunciation is different and you have to adapt to that, but with a little good will you should get there. There is quite a bit of overlap in how the words are pronounced as the first prepositions appear. The word order can be quite unpredictable. Negatives and negatives are used The double where the word “and” is placed before the verb and the word “not” after the verb. For example: “I do not take the apple.” But in the sixteenth century, people were talented to omit the word “no.” Then you no longer recognize denial And you think someone is going to take the apple.”

Our national anthem, Wilhelmus comes from this time and it is interesting to compare the vocabulary. It is noteworthy that the sounds of the words are similar. For us, “Doet” is a conjugation of the verb doen, but in the sentence “I will stay in den doen,” the fourth line of the first verse of course means “dead.”

Understatement in Flemish

Nicoleen van der Siegs, a professor of historical linguistics, sees another problem arising in spontaneous conversations with a 16th-century man. “It would be easier for a modern Fleming to understand first modern Dutch than modern Dutch. In Flemish, for example, you still reduce the word with -ke or -ske. In modern Dutch we reduce it to -je or -tje. Still Double negation is widely used.

The biggest problem is the perception of the world. They disappeared or more words were added from the vocabulary of that time than were preserved. As long as you stick to global themes, you should be able to understand each other. So things from nature, for example, like the weather or the animal world. But when it comes to transportation, food preparation, infrastructure and technology, you are lacking in words. You didn’t even have such a thing as a theme park at the time, so how can you explain that? So it would also be easier for a contemporary Dutch person to understand a 16th century person rather than the other way around. We have a frame of reference for the past, and vice versa it will be difficult for the future.”

Meanings have changed

Van der Siegs says that not only are many concepts lost and new ones introduced, the meaning is also subject to change. For example, in 1680, when people spoke of “contempt”, they did not mean “contempt”, but rather “ignoring”, “not paying attention.” Nor did the people then talk of “riding each other’s wheels”, but rather of “jogging each other in horseshoes.”

In conclusion, the sentence structure and general vocabulary is the same as it was 500 years ago. But despite word recognition, our living environment and with it our vocabulary have changed dramatically in five centuries. We actually speak more modern Dutch than our compatriots at the time.


In an earlier version of this article, it was stated that Celtic is also descended from Proto-Germanic (the Proto-Germanic language from which Dutch, German, and Scandinavian languages, among others, originated). that’s wrong. Celtic is a separate branch of the Indo-European language family.

Read and listen

Do you want to know how Old Dutch, Middle Dutch and Early Modern Dutch sounded like? For example this sentence:

Commissioner, everyone saw that this man stole a loaf of bread from me yesterday and for that I am asking for his conviction in court. He must die!

It looked like this in Old Dutch (10th century):

Vro min, ethele skultheito, alla hebunt gisien who shines with this man mi en brot gistolan hevit endi bithiu bisweron iu that man hine vora themo thinge duomi. Hello skal thes dothes starvan!

In Middle Dutch (thirteenth century) as follows:

Lord, noble scout, every one of this man has stolen so much from me, and I pray that they judge him before the four multitudes. Hello, I must die.

And in Early Modern Dutch (seventeenth century) like this:

My dear sir, everyone saw that yesterday this man stole a loaf of bread from me, and therefore I beg you to judge him rightly. He must die.

Read also:

“We know a lot about the Old Dutch language”

Linguists Peter Alexander Kerkhov tells what he dreams about.

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