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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

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Judith Nobels: (Extra)Ordinary Letters: A View from Below on Seventeenth-Century Dutch

Jill Puttaert
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  • Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
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Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0009

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(Extra)Ordinary Letters: A View from Below on Seventeenth-Century Dutch, by Judith Nobels. LOT, Utrecht, 2013, ISBN 978-94-6093-111-6, iii, 319 pp., € 36.00

In her dissertation, Judith Nobels examines a corpus of 595 seventeenth-century letters written between 1664 and 1672, the period around the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars, from a sociolinguistic perspective. The study is part of the Letters as Loot project, which started at Leiden University in 2008 and was directed by Marijke van der Wal (cf. van der Wal and Rutten 2013; Rutten and van der Wal 2014). The project as a whole aimed at investigating sociolinguistic variation in private letters written by people of different social classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The letters under scrutiny, the so-called Sailing Letters, have recently been (re)discovered in the National Archive in Kew, London. The collection consists of about 38,000 seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century commercial and private letters.

Nobels’ study is situated in the language history from below tradition (cf. Elspaß 2005), which focuses on the writing practices of “ordinary people” from the past. This kind of historical sociolinguistic research has a relatively strong tradition in German and English language history. In Dutch linguistics, most previous work focused on Flemish varieties of the languages (cf. Willemyns and Vandenbussche 2006), but the Letters as Loot project applies the language history from below approach to the Northern varieties of Dutch. A lot of research on seventeenth-century Dutch focused primarily on standardization processes and paid little attention to the variation that existed at that time. In her dissertation, Nobels aimed at detecting and describing this variation for the second half of the seventeenth century. The book consists of ten chapters: the first three give an overview of the research context, the compiled corpus and the methodology used. Chapters 4 to 9 are dedicated to the study of various linguistic features in the corpus. The last chapter summarizes the “rich rewards” (pp. 257–268) of the dissertation.

In the introduction of her book, Nobels situates her study in a broader theoretical perspective, concisely sketching the research traditions in which this study is embedded. Ample reference is made to similar historical sociolinguistic studies on other languages.

Chapter 2 deals with the material of the study. The Letters as Loot corpus is divided into three sub-corpora. The first sub-corpus consists of autograph letters, the second comprises non-autographs, and the third contains letters of uncertain authorship. This division is made because the status of a letter defines the purpose for which it can be used in the study. The available material allows for a discussion of several independent variables: Nobels focuses on text type (private or business letter), region (mainly Zeeland, South Holland and North Holland), gender, social class and age of the writer. The total corpus consists of more than 240,000 words in approximately 600 different letters, written by 441 men and women of different social backgrounds.

In spite of relatively high literacy rates in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, a significant portion of society was still illiterate or semi-literate and may have asked for help in writing a letter. The third chapter gives a brief overview of the situation concerning literacy in the seventeenth-century Netherlands and discusses the implications of this for the corpus (cf. the division into autographs, non-autographs, and letters of uncertain authorship). To determine whether a letter was written by the actual sender or not, Nobels developed the Leiden Identification Procedure (LIP) as an easy and accessible heuristic based on a flowchart to determine the status of a letter (see also Nobels and Van der Wal 2011).

Next, delving into the linguistic variables to be discussed, Chapter 4 deals with the forms of address. Here, Nobels shows how social class, gender, and type of letter all have a certain influence on the distribution of the pronominal forms of address:

  • ul (abbreviation of the old form u liefde/uwe liefde ‘your love’ or ulieden ‘you [people]’);

  • UE (abbreviation of u edele or uwe edelheid ‘Your Honour’, ‘Your Worship’);

  • Jij, jou(w) and je (2nd person singular with its object form and possessive pronoun);

  • Gij (2nd person singular and plural, only used in subject position) and u for all other positions.

The relationship between sender and addressee also has an effect on the use of certain forms of address. As a case in point, gij and jij seem to be typical for more intimate relationships and for addressing a person who is in one way or another socially inferior to the writer. For less intimate relationships, and for addressing a superior, UE seems to be more common.

Reflexivity and reciprocity is the next feature under scrutiny, which is discussed in Chapter 5. Nobels deals with two main topics: the first part concerns the development of zich as a reflexive pronoun for the 3rd person singular and plural, while the second part deals with the reciprocal pronouns mekaar and elkaar. The aim was to examine how and why only one of each of these pronouns (zich and elkaar) entered the Dutch standard language. However, the low frequency of the reflexive pronouns in the corpus unfortunately made it difficult to draw detailed conclusions. Furthermore, almost no variation was found for elkaar and mekaar. Concerning the development of zich in Zeeland, Nobels compared her results with those of Verhagen (2008), who examined this feature in a corpus of municipal records. She put forward a preliminary conclusion: the fact that zich is more frequently used in official documents could indicate that this reflexive pronoun spread through this region as a change from above.

The sixth chapter deals with clause negation (see also Rutten et al. 2012). Like in German, English and French, the form of negation in Dutch has evolved over time. Building on a rich research tradition in Dutch linguistics focusing on language-internal aspects of the shift from bipartite to single negation, Nobels also pays attention to language-external factors (social class and gender), making her contribution very valuable. She shows that single negation in written Dutch expanded from North Holland to South Holland and Zeeland, and that scribes with more writing experience (largely people from the upper classes and mostly men) tended to use the single negation more often than less-experienced scribes (mostly people from the lower classes and women).

Final schwa deletion, or the disappearance of the unstressed vowel in word endings, is the topic of Chapter 7. Nobels not only describes patterns of linguistic, regional and social variation for this feature but also focuses on the possible influence of letter writing conventions, such as epistolary formulae and ellipsis. She concludes that the final schwa is retained more often in writings from Zeeland than in those from Holland. Additionally, almost no effect of social class was found for Zeeland, while in Holland social class seems to correlate directly with the use of final schwa: especially men of the higher ranks of society used schwa endings more often.

The form of the diminutive suffix, where -je is the default form in present-day standard Dutch, changed over time, but in the seventeenth century, several forms still coexisted. The main variants are the forms ending in -ke and in -je. In Chapter 8, Nobels sketches the history and origin of these suffixes, and zooms in on the diminutives in her corpus. She finds no less than 12 different orthographical types of suffixes, discussing in great detail the possible links between the written forms and the pronunciations which they may represent. Nobels very carefully describes her method and line of reasoning, with ample eye for the possible pitfalls and difficulties in this complex undertaking. Based on this overview, she then moves on to examine regional and social variation, both from an orthographical and a phonological point of view. As for the regional variation, local dialects do seem to have had an effect on the usage of the diminutive suffixes in writing. We see, for instance, that writers from Zeeland most frequently use the -ke suffix. Social class and gender also seem to have an impact: less experienced writers (such as women and lower class scribes) tend to favour the i-suffix, which is more typical for the spoken language.

Chapter 9 concentrates on the genitive and alternative constructions. The case system of Dutch has all but completely disappeared in the modern language, where the synthetic genitive endings are only still used in fixed phrases and formulae. Although the genitive as a productive case was probably already lost in the spoken language by the seventeenth century, it was still used in writing. Nonetheless, other constructions to express possession were also commonly used, such as the van-construction (comparable with English ‘X of Y’), the prenominal s-construction (e.g. Pieters bouk ‘Peter’s book’), and the z’n-construction (e.g. wouter sijn bene ‘(lit.) Wouter his legs’). Nobels investigates the distribution of these genitival constructions in relation to social class, gender and context (neutral or spontaneous contexts, as opposed to contexts with an elevated style and in fossilised expressions).

The last chapter of Nobels’ dissertation gives an overview of the “rich rewards” (pp. 257–268) of this study – as they indeed are. Nobels work is a valuable contribution to the field in the sense that it expands our knowledge of – and thus also gives new insights into – the history of Dutch by focussing on a unique type of writings which has never been examined to this extent before, that is mostly private letters from people of all sorts of social backgrounds. For the first time, we get a broad and in-depth quantitative analysis of the variation that existed in seventeenth-century Dutch letters, in many cases expanding our insight into the direction of change (from above or from below, in social terms and in terms of awareness).

As in each study, however, there are some limitations – and the most prominent limitation in the work of Nobels is the so-called bad data problem (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003: 26–27). The data Nobels works with are – as she also acknowledges herself – necessarily limited in terms of quantity, especially when it comes to data from the very lowest ranks of society and from women. In the overview of how the corpus is built up based on the writers’ gender, social class, region and age (pp. 44–45), we can see that Nobels’ material includes only five lower class male writers and the same amount of lower class females. Therefore, some of the results can at times not be seen as more than first indications and impulses for further research, as they are based on a fairly small number of observations. Nobels, however, is very much aware of the shortcomings of her corpus and takes great care when discussing her results not to extrapolate beyond the range of her own data.

All in all, this study may inspire other researchers to look not only at standardization processes from above but also focus on historical variation and linguistic processes from below. As such, it will be of interest to any scholar interested in historical sociolinguistics or language history, and we can only hope that this work will have a wide readership across language boundaries.


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About the article

Published Online: 2015-05-06

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 143–147, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0009.

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