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Lecture | Sociolinguistics series

Language choice as a (historical-)sociolinguistic phenomenon: the case of Dutch and French

Friday 23 September 2022
LUCL Sociolinguistics Series 2021/2022
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


In recent decades, the topic of language has attracted quite some interest in historical sociolinguistics (e.g. Rjéoutski & Frijhoff 2018), often centred around Fishman’s (1965) famous question: “who speaks what language to whom and when”. Most studies to date have tackled this question from a qualitative perspective, zooming in on specific individuals, families or cities. However, in order to gain a fuller understanding of language choice as a complex (historical-)sociolinguistic phenomenon, a quantitative angle is needed.

Using the case of Dutch and French in the history of the Netherlands, we propose a new methodological framework to assess language choice in the past. As elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Rjéoutski, Argent & Offord 2014), the presence of French made language choice possible in various situations and domains, including the private sphere. As part of our current research project Pardon my French? Dutch-French Language Contact in The Netherlands, 1500–1900, we compiled a substantial dataset of private family correspondence, collected from Dutch archives (Puttaert, Krogull & Rutten, forthcoming).

Our large-scale approach allows us to investigate a range of sociolinguistic parameters and their influence on the choice for Dutch, French, or both languages alongside each other. The variables under scrutiny include regional variation, gender and gender constellations, and familial relationships. Through a systematic quantitative analysis of Dutch-French language choice, in this case in the private domain, we can provide much-needed baseline data and an interpretational frame for previous (and future) qualitative observations related to the alleged ‘Frenchification’ of the Netherlands. 


  • Fishman, J.A. (1965): Who speaks what language to whom and when? La Linguistique 1: 67–88. 
  • Puttaert, J., A. Krogull & G. Rutten (forthcoming): Towards a methodological framework for historical language choice: the case of Dutch and French in the Netherlands (1800–1899). Slovo a Slovesnost.
  • Rjéoutski, V. & W. Frijhoff (2018): Language Choice in Enlightenment Europe. Education, Sociability, and Governance. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 
  • Rjéoutski, V., G. Argent & D. Offord (eds.) (2014): European Francophonie: The Social, Political and Cultural History of an International Prestige Language. Oxford et al.: Peter Lang. 

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