Opposing the French participle clause
The Dutch phrase ‘ijs en weder dienende’ (literally, ‘ice and weather serving’) is a good example of what is known as a participle clause and is perhaps one of the most unfathomable grammatical constructions in Dutch. For what (or who) is serving whom (or what)? It actually means ‘ice and weather permitting’. The inaugural lecture by Gijsbert Rutten, Professor of Sociolinguistics of Dutch, is about this kind of participle clause. Inaugural lecture on 18 February.
The participle clause is not uncommon in Dutch, but neither is it very common – unlike in Romance languages like French and the mother of all Romance languages: Latin. This is why it is also seen as a borrowing influenced by these languages. Its heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth century coincided with the heyday of French influence in the Netherlands. But Rutten wondered whether it is true that the participle construction is a borrowing from French.
The participle clause became increasingly common in written language from the late Middle Ages onward.
The participle clause became increasingly common in written language from the late Middle Ages onward, and began to decline in the nineteenth century, the period of nation-building, national sentiment and nationalism. That is also the period when people began to oppose this ‘French construction’. Now, more than a century later, we can look at it afresh, free from nineteenth-century parochialism, thanks in part to new techniques that make it possible to search digitally through entire text collections.
Ice and weather permitting, Rutten moved from Nijmegen to Leiden in 2007 with his newly obtained Rubicon grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). Nijmegen and Leiden are the only Dutch universities where the history of the Dutch language is studied, and Leiden is the only one to have a full-time post in this. There is more interest in the discipline outside the Netherlands – in Flanders and Germany. Quite surprising for the best-documented language in the world, with the largest historical dictionary, Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT).
Rutten diligently set to work. For the participle clause, he used large data collections such as the LOL Corpus (Language of Leiden) and the Historical Corpus of Dutch (HCD). He does not (yet) venture a conclusion as to whether or not the participle clause is a borrowing from French, but he does offer a cautious hypothesis.
‘We see the construction being increasingly used in written language from the sixteenth century and no contemporaries complaining about it,’ says Rutten. That is a good indicator of whether a linguistic form is accepted. ‘There is the odd critic of the frequent use of the participle clause with auxiliary verbs, such as ‘zijnde’ (being) and ‘hebbende’ (having). It is precisely this usage that is common in French, and not in Latin, since this language hardly ever uses auxiliary verbs. It therefore seems that the participle construction became fashionable under the influence of Latin but was restricted again by criticism of French.’
Text: Steven Hagers
Photo: First page of the travel diary of Pieter de la Court from 1641. Photo via Erfgoed Leiden.