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Letters confiscated from Dutch ships now online

More than a thousand 17th- and 18th-century Dutch letters from seized ships are now available online. The letters are a gold mine for researchers wanting to study the everyday language used by men and women during this period.

Everyday language

The original letters, that came from Dutch ships seized during the many wars between England and the Dutch Republic, are held in British archives. The letters can now be accessed via this website. Marijke van der Wal, Leiden Professor of the History of Dutch and leader of the Letters as Loot research project, explains why the letters are so valuable. ‘What’s so special about them is that they contain the language used by ordinary people in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most documents that are preserved are historical texts written by educated people from the upper classes of society. Such texts were mainly written according to particular linguistic conventions. But the letters from these ships are different: they were sent by people from all kinds of classes and backgrounds. The letters are full of spellings, words and sentence structures that reflect the way the language was spoken at that time in everyday situations.’

Very rare private letters

The letters in the corpus were exchanged between Dutch people (many of them seamen) in far-off countries and their families and loved ones back home. The senders were both men and women, and even children, and the subject matter of the letters is very diverse, ranging from reports of acts of heroism and personal worries to love letters from wives who were missing their husbands. As Van der Wal comments, ‘Private letters from women from the lower classes are extremely rare research material.’

Self-written or not?

At a time when literacy can by no means be assumed, the sender of the letter may not necessarily have been the person who wrote it, she explains. Van der Wal and her research team developed a procedure for determining whether or not a particular letter was self-written. The results can be found in the new internet application, where the letters are marked as autograph or non-autograph

Hundreds of spelling variations

These letters show that there was no uniform system for written Dutch at that time. As an example, there are over a hundred different spellings of the Dutch word for kapitein (captain), including such variations as capitijen, kappeten and katyn. Another example is bootsman (boatsman) where the spellings bosman and boosman are some of the different forms found. The corpus contains a search function that allows researchers to access all the old spelling variants in one go by entering the present-day lemma as the search term. In the examples given above, these would be kapitein or bootsman.

Information about the senders

The transcriptions of the letters, that have now been included in the corpus, were made by volunteers from the Leiden Wikiscripta Neerlandica project. The Letters as Loot research team gathered information (metadata) on the letters themselves, the senders and the addressees. This letter corpus including the valuable metadata has been enhanced with extensive search functions by the Institute for Dutch Lexicology (INL). Van der Wal: ‘The linguistic editing and advanced search functions offer linguists, historians and any other interested parties new opportunities to explore this gold mine of information.’

(13 September 2013 - MLH/LvP)

As a result of the fruitful collaboration between the Letters as Loot programme and the Institute for Dutch Lexicology (INL), the rich collection of captured letters is now publicly accessible, via https://brievenalsbuit.ivdnt.org.

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