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What influence did French really have on Dutch?

Just as some people today dislike English influences on the Dutch language, in early modern times people also criticised the Frenchification of Dutch. But to what extent did French actually leave its mark in our language? PhD student Brenda Assendelft made a surprising discovery. PhD defence 24 May.

In the period Assendelft studied, French played an important role in society as a lingua franca. Especially among the upper class, it was not uncommon to communicate largely in that language. 'People wrote entire letters to each other in French, for example,' Assendelft explains. Gradually, this created the impression that French left a big mark on Dutch. 'But the extent of French influences on Dutch has never actually been looked at systematically.'  

From wallets to leaks

Assendelft delved into a self-made corpus filled with Dutch texts from 1500 to 1900. She examined the influence of French on native speakers of Dutch who had also mastered French. 'A typical example of influence is that many people have an accent in their second language thanks to characteristic sounds from their mother tongue,' says Assendelft.  

Another language can also influence the mother tongue by adopting certain elements. These can be loan words such as portemonnee (ed. wallet) or garage (ed. garage), but parts of words can also be adopted. These parts are called prefixes and suffixes. 'An example of a suffix that has been carried over from French into Dutch is -age,' says Assendelft. It occurs in the French word personage (ed. character), but it has also been added to Dutch words. 'For example, lekken (ed. to leak) is a typical Dutch word without any French influence, but someone once thought of sticking the French suffix to it, so then you get the new word lekkage (ed. leakage).'  


The possible influences of French were not limited to the vocabulary of the language. There were suspicions that the language even influenced the sentence structure of Dutch. 'People used to use the relative pronouns dewelke and hetwelk in Dutch. This looks like a literal translation of the French lequel and laquelle,' says Assendelft. Because of the similarity, it was assumed that the pronouns must have been influenced by French.

Sudden change

But, as it turned out, the reality was a lot more nuanced than people initially thought. Until the first half of the 18th century, French loanwords, prefixes and suffixes increased in popularity. This was no surprise, says Assendelft, because traditionally this period is the peak of Frenchification in the Netherlands. But after that, a rapid decline set in. She attributes this sudden change to rising nationalism at the time. 'In a follow-up study, we saw very clearly that around that time many French loanwords were replaced by Dutch alternatives. Language plays an important role in connecting people within a country, so that is probably why French influences were rejected,' Assendelft explains.  

She also found no evidence that dewelke and hetwelk were influenced by French. 'As far as these relative pronouns are concerned, I didn’t find any traces of the rise and fall in popularity seen with French loanwords and suffixes. I found no evidence that these words were influenced by the French language, although more research is needed to know for sure.'

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