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The evolution of Dutch

In order to compare languages, it is important to have a thorough knowledge of the specific languages you are studying. Gijsbert Rutten and his team are investigating the origin of Standard Dutch and the repression of ‘non-standard’ variants between 1750 and 1850.

The appearance of a single Dutch language

‘Standard’ Dutch as we know it did not always exist. In the eighteenth century, there was a lot more variation in the spoken and written language than there is today. Under the influence of the wave of nationalism that swept through Europe between 1750 and 1850, a discussion arose within Dutch associations and public bodies regarding the introduction of a single national standard language as a symbol of the nation. This led to the introduction of the Dutch language policy in the early nineteenth century: the government decided that there should be a single standard grammar and spelling. In his research, Gijsbert Rutten investigates how the ideas regarding a standard language developed in the Netherlands, and how the use of this standard language was imposed.

Dutch at school

In his research, Rutten focuses on such issues as education. During the introduction of Standard Dutch in schools, pupils were required to speak and write in class as much as possible in line with the standard, although they obviously spoke dialect with each other outside the classroom. Rutten wants to find out whether pupils were made aware of this distinction, and how exactly it worked. In order to investigate this phenomenon, Rutten studies textbooks, periodicals for educators, school inspection reports and the minutes of teachers’ associations. Many of these sources have never previously been studied.

The success of the policy

In addition Rutten also wants to know how successful the language policy of the nineteenth century was. The government had created official spelling rules and a grammar, but there were no laws to fully impose the mandatory use of these rules. It is known that there was resistance from literary circles, for instance from well-known author Willem Bilderdijk. But perhaps an even more intriguing question is whether the official spelling and grammar were followed by ‘regular’ language users. To investigate this, Rutten is comparing language use in the eighteenth century, i.e. before the official rules, with language use in the nineteenth century. He uses sources such as private letters, diaries and newspapers in his research.

The Groot ABC Boek (‘Roosters book’), a popular school book used in the Netherlands in the 18th and 19th century. Collection Dutch National Museum of Education

Contemporary Dutch

Studying the introduction of Standard Dutch allows us to find out more about the origins of contemporary Dutch. What myths are there regarding the origins of modern Dutch? The research results can also provide more general insights into how languages develop. How does everyday usage ensure that something becomes a grammatical rule? How does a standard language come into being? Rutten’s research project runs until 2019 and is supported by a VIDI grant from NWO.

More information:
Going Dutch. The Construction of Dutch in Policy, Practice and Discourse, 1750-1850


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