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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

Ed. by Rutten, Gijsbert / Auer, Anita / del Valle, José / Vosters, Rik / Pickl, Simon

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Dutch: Biography of a Language

Ulrike Vogl
Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0010

Reviewed publication

Dutch. Biography of a Language. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013, ISBN 978-0-19-985871-2, 312 pp., £ 22.99

“Dutch – Biography of a language” by Roland Willemyns provides, quite traditionally, a chronological overview of the history of the language that we now call Dutch, from its unrecorded roots as part of the West Germanic languages and the oldest preserved documents from the area of the Low Countries, via characteristics of varieties of Dutch in the Middle Ages, to first efforts of standardization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and beyond. Within this chronological overview, however, the focus is on the social history of Dutch: “the book concentrates on the external history of Dutch, […] the emphasis is on what happens with the language much more than what happens in the language” (p. xiii). Indeed, throughout the book, a lot of attention is paid to language practices within the social and political context of the time, for example multilingualism in the Burgundian Netherlands in the fifteenth century.

The book’s most elaborate chapter is perhaps the one on the nineteenth century, a period which has received a lot of scientific interest in the past decades, especially regarding the southern part of the language territory (i.e. Flanders; e.g. Vandenbussche 1996; Vanhecke and Groof 2007; Vosters and Vandenbussche 2009; Rutten and Vosters 2011). Much of this research on nineteenth-century language use has been initiated by the author himself, a fact that made him an obvious candidate to write this new history of Dutch.

The subsequent chapter on the twentieth century focuses on developments that were crucial for the Dutch standard language. Willemyns pays attention to the changing relationship between standard and non-standard varieties (with dialect loss as one characteristic), as well as to attempts at norm elaboration and codification aiming at unifying the Northern and Southern varieties. Unsurprisingly, he dedicates a section to the language conflict between Dutch and French in Belgium.

The Low Countries, however, are only one of many sites of the history of Dutch. “Dutch – Biography of a language” also contains a whole chapter on “Colonial Dutch” with a lot of information about the history and present-day situation of Dutch in Surinam, the Caribbean, Indonesia and the United States, including references to recent research. The book also dedicates a whole chapter to Afrikaans, the only extant daughter language of Dutch.

On the whole, this book has a distinct focus on social, geographical and ethnic variation, as stated in the introduction (p. xiii). This focus can be clearly seen in the depiction of the language situation in the (former) overseas territories such as Surinam and the Caribbean. Dutch is presented as part of a larger dynamic repertoire in the context of multi-ethnic societies. However, this focus is less clear for the depiction of the language situation in Belgium and the Netherlands. Especially in the account of the language conflict in Belgium and with regard to the language situation in Brussels, the focus is on the opposition between Dutch and French. The section on “Language struggle and federalization in Belgium” starts with the statement that Dutch “ends up as the proud language of a monolingual Flanders” and that Dutch in Flanders now has the status “it ought to have had from the outset, namely, the prestige language of the country, mother tongue to the large majority of its inhabitants” (p. 164). Concerning Brussels, Willemyns deplores that a “definitive solution for the problem of Brussels was not incorporated in these regulations [=the linguistic legislation]” (p. 169) and that “the comforting territoriality principle is not applicable there” (p. 23). He does not elaborate on how the territoriality principle (according to which in a specific territory, a specific language has to be used for official purposes) should be applied to an exceedingly multi-ethnic and multilingual city. The fact that Brussels is a city where an increasing number of languages besides Dutch and French are spoken is mentioned only briefly (p. 25) and overall, multilingualism is not a topic that is addressed with regard to the Netherlands and Belgium (in contrast with Surinam). Admittedly, the book is intended as a ‘biography of Dutch’ and not as a biography of languages in the Low Countries, so the focus on and the devotion to the Dutch language can be expected and accepted to a certain extent.

All in all, Willemyns’ biography of Dutch is a very dense book, clearly striving to provide as much information as possible on the history of Dutch. It remains, however, a very readable book, suitable for different groups of readers ranging from interested non-native speakers and foreigners to specialists in the Dutch language. It is no surprise that Willemyns sees non-native speakers as the main target audience of “Dutch – Biography of a language” (as he points out in the introduction). It is the first language history of Dutch written in English that makes the topic accessible for a broader audience. Moreover, Willemyns intended it for “academic specialists” in the field of the Dutch language, and it certainly serves this purpose as well: first of all, besides being the first history of Dutch in English, it is the first history of Dutch that pays equal attention to Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium. Previous language histories commonly only included an extra chapter on Dutch in Belgium or focused specifically on Dutch in Belgium (cf. “Het verhaal van het Vlaams” [The story of Flemish], written by Roland Willemyns as well).

Even more importantly, this book is the only history of Dutch that draws extensively on results from empirical research on language use in the history of the Low Countries (among others Vanhecke and de Groof 2007; Rutten and Vosters 2011). Willemyns rightly names this as an important asset of his book: “the full amount of recent research results (e.g. on the Old Dutch period and the 19th century) is displayed here for the first time” (p. xiii). Willemyns certainly does not content himself with retelling “the story of Dutch” as it has always been told. On the contrary, throughout the book, he constantly re-evaluates common assumptions about the history of Dutch, based on new insights from the analysis of original sources. For example, Napoleon’s linguistic policy after the annexation of Flanders at the end of the eighteenth century is usually depicted as having Frenchified public life in Flanders within a short period of time. Empirical studies show, however, that this was not the case. Willemyns remarks that “researchers have been misled by the decrees […] and forgot to check how or even whether they have been implemented” (p. 108). This striving for a “back to the sources” approach certainly makes Willemyns’ history of Dutch very valuable.

The last chapter is dedicated to the future development of Dutch. Here, the author summarizes recent findings on the changing relationship between the Dutch standard language and non-standard varieties of Dutch, reporting from various studies carried out by researchers in the Low Countries (e.g. regarding the role of the regional variety tussentaal [‘intermediate language’] in Flanders and the variety Poldernederlands in the Netherlands). Willemyns is (quite understandably) not very explicit about the future of Standard Dutch: Will the unity of the Dutch standard language in Flanders and the Netherlands be maintained? My impression is that Willemyns is actually rather confident that the Dutch standard language will persist as a unified norm for both countries. After all, as a biographer, he has every right to display loyalty and faith towards his object of study: the Dutch language.


  • Rutten, Gijsbert & Rik Vosters. 2011. As many norms as there were scribes? Language history, norms and usage in the southern Netherlands in the nineteenth century. In Nils Langer, Steffan Davies & Wim Vandenbussche (eds.), Language and history, linguistics and historiography. Interdisciplinary approaches (Studies in Historical Linguistics, 9) 229–254. Oxford & New York: Peter Lang. Google Scholar

  • Vandenbussche, Wim. 1996. Schriftelijk taalgebruik van de lagere klassen in 19de eeuws Brugge. In Verslagen en Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 106. 161–175. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_ver016199601_01/_ver016199601_01_0011.php (last accessed on 3 February 2015). 

  • Vanhecke, Eline & Jetje de Groof. 2007. New data on language policy and language choice in 19th-century Flemish city administrations. In Stephan Elspaß, Nils Langer, Joachim Scharloth & Wim Vandenbussche (eds.), Germanic language histories ‘from below’ (1700–2000) (Studia linguistica Germanica 86) 449–469. Berlin: de Gruyter. Google Scholar

  • Vosters, Rik & Wim Vandenbussche. 2009. Nieuw onderzoek naar taalbeleid en taalvariatie in de zuidelijke nederlanden ten tijde van willem I. In Ad Backus, Merel Keijzer, Ineke Vedder & Bert Weltens (eds.), Artikelen van de zesde anéla-conferentie, 389–395. Delft: Eburon. Google Scholar

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 149–152, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0010.

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