A Biography of the Dutch Language
In the introduction to his new history of the Dutch language Roland Willemyns boasts that his is the first such history written in English. A few pages later he corrects himself, however, and acknowledges the publication of Bruce Donaldson's Dutch. A linguistic history of Holland and Belgium (1983) exactly thirty years earlier. This contradiction is a rare hiccup in an otherwise excellent book. Actually, Willemyns is full of admiration for Donaldson's work, just as he is for the Frenchman Brachin's La language néerlandaise (1977) and its English translation by Paul Vincent (1985). Why have we had to wait thirty years for a new linguistic history of Dutch in English? Lack of expertise amongst Anglo-Saxon neerlandici or, more likely, lack of time? Reluctant publishers? A combination of these? Whatever it may be, the need for an updated history of Dutch has been keenly felt in the Anglo-Saxon world of Dutch Studies since Donaldson went out of print. But it is not just for that reason that the appearance of Willemyns' book is a cause for celebration.
A great deal has changed over the last thirty years, not only in the Dutch language itself, but also in our knowledge of its history. Yet Willemyns goes much further than charting that history in all its facets: he also sketches a contemporary portrait of the language and discusses possible scenarios for its future development. In all this, his angle is clear: ‘The story of Dutch is predominantly a story of language contact and conflict.’ The Dutch standard language emerged through contact between and with other languages, and contact with other languages has always influenced it. Inherent in that contact is conflict, which remains a characteristic of Dutch today. This thread is the recurring theme of Willemyns' linguistic history of Dutch, and what emerges is a sympathetic portrait, without value judgements, of a language that continues to develop.
Contact and conflict are even reflected in the names for Dutch through the ages and in other languages. The first chapter is about these names,
including the interesting English word Dutch itself. It is also about the geography of the language and its border with the surrounding languages: German and Frisian, and especially French. This is followed by five historical chapters covering, respectively, the precursors and contemporaries of Old Dutch (or Old Low Franconian, up to 1100), Middle Dutch (1100-1500), Early Modern Dutch (1500-1800), the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. The next two chapters investigate the colonial traces of Dutch and the history of Afrikaans. Willemyns concludes his book with a careful and measured reflection on the future of Dutch in the 21stcentury in the light of a number of recent developments.
The five historical chapters do not follow a set pattern, but allow their structure and focus to be determined by the matters in hand. Thus, the chapter on Middle Dutch stresses literary production in the context of the first careful steps towards a standard language, whereas the Early Modern Dutch chapter tells us about the first grammars and dictionaries that appeared in the 16th century. Sometimes the focus is on the north, at other times on the south, for example the steps towards further standardisation in the Dutch Republic and the 19th-century emancipation of Flanders. Such a balance between the Netherlands and Flanders is often absent from more superficial descriptions of Dutch. This is very helpful for students of Dutch outside the Low Countries who are often unaware of the wider context of the language, including the fact that it is not just spoken in Holland. And Willemyns clearly has these students in mind, given his criteria for the selection of his material. Not only does he want to give the best possible description of the development of modern Dutch, but he also wants to highlight those aspects of Dutch that are most interesting ‘for non-native speakers having learned Dutch as a foreign language and for other foreigners taking an interest in Dutch’.
In over 40 years of research into the history of Dutch, Willemyns has studied many of its aspects, but perhaps not so much the colonial heritage of the language. Nevertheless he rightly dedicates two chapters to it, but they necessarily depend more than other chapters on the work of other scholars. Sometimes this results in a noticeably different, more noncommittal tone in these chapters, whereas elsewhere he tells a more inspired story and readily sounds a critical note. One example: the comment that ‘Creoles have generally been regarded as degenerate variants’ begs for more discussion of the concept of Creole languages, and this would also have provided an opportunity in the penultimate chapter to investigate the extent to which Afrikaans can be called a Creole. However, Willemyns' inspiration is back in full flight in the final chapter where he discusses the concepts Poldernederlands and Verkavelingsvlaams. The former refers to changes in the pronunciation of standard Northern Dutch, especially widening of the diphthongs /-i/ (written <ij> or <ei>), / oey/ (written <ui>) and /-u/ (written <ou> or <au>). The latter, which is also known as Schoon Vlaams or Tussentaal, refers to colloquial speech in Flanders that takes an intermediary position between standard Dutch and dialects (hence the label tussentaal, ‘in-between language’). It is characterised by a wider range of features than is Poldernederlands in the Netherlands, including pronunciation, morphology, lexis and syntax. Willemyns subjects these concepts, which are seen by some people as two completely new, divergent varieties of standard Dutch, to deservedly critical examination.
Oxford University Press, Willemyns' publisher, has recently also published two linguistic histories of German: Ruth Sanders' German. Biography of a Language (2010) and Joe Salmons' A History of German (2012). This calls for a comparison, not least because of the almost identical titles of Sanders and Willemyns. However, Willemyns' book is much better and much more balanced than Sanders'. On the other side of the comparison, Willemyns' focus is explicitly on external linguistic history, whereas Salmons concentrates on internal linguistic history. The two books do not refer to each other, but they should. After all, Dutch and German have a large part of their history in common and Salmons
therefore provides excellent insights into the internal linguistic history of Dutch. Moreover, many Anglo-Saxon students of Dutch tend to learn the language after they have already acquired German. For that reason it is to be hoped that Oxford University Press, unlike Donaldson's publisher in the 1980s, will soon allow a second edition of Willemyns' book to appear which can refer to Salmons. That would also provide an opportunity for a number of editorial improvements, for example in the use of English tenses. A number of maps and illustrations are not clear enough (e.g. on p. 95, where the difference between the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic has got lost), require an English version (e.g. the legend of the table on p. 136 is in German), and/or need an acknowledgement. An extensive list of recommended websites would be a further improvement.
Despite such imperfections, Dutch. Biography of a Language brilliantly closes a 30-year gap. It is required reading for students of Dutch not just in Anglophone countries but all over the world, even in Flanders and the Netherlands.
ROLAND WILLEMYNS. Dutch. Biography of a Language.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
ISBN 9780199858712. 289 pp.