Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Languages as Lifelines: The Multilingual Coping Strategies of Refugees from the Early Modern Low Countries

From ca. 1540 to 1600, thousands fled the war-stricken Southern Low Countries to the British Isles, Germany, and the Northern Low Countries. Research on this displacement crisis, central to the formation of the Netherlands and Belgium, reflects 21st-century debates on migration and language: language differences are often considered a hindrance to integration. This project proposes an urgent change in perspective. In studying this refugee movement, it approaches language diversity as an asset in migration, not just as an obstacle.

2022 - 2026
Alisa van de Haar
NWO Veni, VI.Veni.211F.017
Joris Hoefnagel, ‘The Patient Exile’. Rouen, BM, MS Leber 2616.

Many early modern refugees from the multilingual Low Countries spoke other languages in addition to Dutch, such as the prestigious French tongue. This project analyses how Southern Netherlandish refugees, who settled in the British Isles, Germany, and the Northern Low Countries, used their multilingualism as starting capital. It raises a fundamental question: how did language skills help these refugees to regain agency, build new social networks, and reshape their professional identity?

To answer this question at the crossroads of language, migration, and cultural and social history, this project firstly incorporates historical sociolinguistic approaches to map which languages refugees used to target particular professional and social groups. Secondly, it contextualises these outcomes through a cultural-historical analysis of these languages, assessing their respective values on the linguistic market. Finally, the project applies critical discourse analysis to determine how these refugees consciously
marketed themselves in their new environments through each particular language. 

This three-step exploration will disclose the inventive ways in which early modern refugees applied their language competencies to regain control of their social and professional lives. These outcomes will generate a new narrative on language and integration that will impact debates on (historical) migration and present-day policies: while most migrants are stimulated to learn the language of the host country, this project shows the potential of the languages they bring with them.

Key publications

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