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Research project

Letters as loot

Linguistic research on a unique collection of Dutch letters allowed us to gain access to the every-day language of people from various walks of life. Private letters by men, women and even children have been elaborately explored in the Letters as Loot researchprogramme, initiated and directed by prof. dr. Marijke van der Wal, and funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO; 2008-2013).

2008 - 2013
NWO Vrije Competitie NWO Vrije Competitie

Approximately 40,000 both commercial and private Dutch letters have been gathering dust for centuries in British archives, kept as part of the so-called Prize Papers (the National Archives (Kew, UK)). They were confiscated and survived due to European warfare and privateering, the longstanding legitimate activity of conquering enemy ships. The 15,000 private letters 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 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. Though mere booty for privateers as well as for the British High Court of Admiralty at the time, the letters nowadays represent priceless material for historical linguists of the 21st century.

As the confiscated private letters preserve the written language of thousands of different writers, men and women, from different social classes, age groups and regions, they form an excellent basis for an investigation of everyday written communication in the past and its variation and change. The first extensive sociolinguistic analysis of these Dutch letters was conducted in the Letters as Loot research programme (2008-2013) at Leiden University. This research concentrated on a selection of about one thousand Dutch private letters from the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, written by more than 700 different letter writers.

Looking at language from the perspective of the language history from below, the participants in the Letters as Loot project were able to thoroughly revise the traditional views of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch, which were largely based on analyses of published, mostly literary texts produced by professional - male - writers belonging to the higher social classes from the province of Holland. This historical-sociolinguistic research was embedded in international fruitful collaboration and contributed in various respects to international discussions (see also HiSoN, the Historical Sociolinguistic Network).

Ultimately, the main results, presented in the monograph Letters as Loot. A sociolinguistic approach to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch by Gijsbert Rutten and Marijke van der Wal, convincingly proved the great value of the confiscated letters for the history of Dutch. The book discusses the key issues of formulaic language and the degree of orality of private letters, it questions the importance of letter-writing manuals, and reveals remarkable patterns of social, regional and gender variation in a wide range of linguistic features. Arguing for writing experience as an important factor in historical linguistics generally, the book offers new and remarkable perspectives on the history of Dutch.

The monograph is available in print and as an OA e-book published by Benjamins Publishing Company as volume 2 of the Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics series. For more information see the publisher’s website.

Other results, both books and articles, are listed under Publications.

The Letters as Loot research received considerable media attention, for instance in the television broadcast Brieven boven Water, May 2011. 

For a general public, interesting letters were selected and highlighted in the Monthly Letters series, published online by members of the Letters as Loot research programme. See under Monthly Letters.

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.

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). As an example, there are over a hundred different spellings of the Dutch word for kapitein (captain), including such variations as capitijenkappeten and katyn. 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, in this case kapitein, as the search term. This example evidently shows that there was no uniform system for written Dutch at that time.

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, including photos, transcriptions and metadata, is now publicly accessible at https://brievenalsbuit.ivdnt.org. The linguistic editing and advanced search functions offer linguists, historians and any other interested parties new opportunities to explore this gold mine of information.


  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2014): Letters as Loot. A sociolinguistic approach to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Judith Nobels (2013): (Extra)Ordinary Letters. A view from below on seventeenth-century Dutch. PhD-thesis, Leiden. LOT publications. 
  • Tanja Simons (2013): Ongekend 18e-eeuws Nederlands. Taalvariatie in persoonlijke brieven. Proefschrift, Leiden. LOT publications. 
  • Marijke van der Wal (2010): De voortvarende zeemansvrouw. Openhartige brieven aan geliefden op zee. Sailing Letters Journaal III. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, pp. 160. Met bijdragen ook van Jaap Bruijn, Judith Nobels, Gijsbert Rutten, Tanja Simons en Annette de Wit.


  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2017): Discourse continuity and the written medium: Continuative relative clauses in the history of Dutch. In: Daniël Van Olmen, Hubert Cuyckens, Lobke Ghesquière (eds.), Aspects of Grammaticalization(Inter)Subjectification and Directionality, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 113-138.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (2016): At the cross-roads. Orality and literacy in Early and Late Modern Dutch private letters. In Ann-Catrine Edlund, T.G. Ashplant & Anna Kuismin (eds), Reading and Writing from Below: Exploring the Margins of Modernity. Umeå: Umeå University & Royal Skyttean Society, 197-214.
  • Marijke van der Wal, Goede nachten (2016): In Alex Reuneker, Ronny Boogaart & Saskia Lensink,  Aries netwerk: een constructicon. Leiden, 211-213.
  • Bart Jacobs & Marijke van der Wal (2015): The discovery, nature and implications of a Papiamentu text fragment from 1783.  JPCL (Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages) 30:1. 44–62.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (2015): Over maar dat alleen maar aaneenschakelt. In: Sander Lestrade, Peter de Swart & Lotte Hogeweg. Addenda. Artikelen voor Ad Foolen. Nijmegen: Radboud Universititeit, 523-537.
  • Gijsbert Rutten, Rik Vosters & Marijke van der Wal (2015): Frenchification in discourse and practice: loan morphology in Dutch private letters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Catharina Peersman, Gijsbert Rutten & Rik Vosters (eds.). Past, Present and Future of a Language Border. Germanic-Romance Encounters in the Low Countries. Berlin: De Gruyter, 143-169.
  • Marijke van der Wal (2014): Brieven als Buit: zicht op het andere taalverleden. TN&A (Tydskrif vir Nederlands en Afrikaans), 21, nr. 2, 3-20.
  • Gijsbert Rutten, Rik Vosters & Wim Vandenbussche (2014): The interplay of language norms and usage patterns: Comparing the history of Dutch, English, French and German. In: G. Rutten, R. Vosters & W. Vandenbussche (eds.). Norms and usage in language history, 1600-1900. A sociolinguistic and comparative perspective. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1-17.
  • Judith Nobels & Gijsbert Rutten (2014): Language norms and language use in seventeenth-century Dutch: Negation and the genitive. In: G. Rutten, R. Vosters & W. Vandenbussche (eds.). Norms and usage in language history, 1600-1900. A sociolinguistic and comparative perspective. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 21-48.
  • Tanja Simons & Gijsbert Rutten (2014): Language norms and language use in eighteenth-century Dutch: Final n and the genitive. In: G. Rutten, R. Vosters & W. Vandenbussche (eds.). Norms and usage in language history, 1600-1900. A sociolinguistic and comparative perspective. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 49-72.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (2014): Negatieverschijnselen revisited. In: Freek Van de Velde, Hans Smessaert, Frank Van Eynde  & Sara Verbrugge, Patroon en argument. Een dubbelfeestbundel bij het emeritaat van William van Belle en Joop van der Horst, Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 393-405.
  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2014): Social and constructional diffusion: Relative clauses in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch. In: Ronny Boogaart, Timothy Colleman & Gijsbert Rutten (eds), Extending the scope of construction grammar (CLR), Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter, 181-205.
  • Marijke van der Wal (2013): Gekaapte brieven vanuit historisch-sociolinguïstisch perspectief. Methoden, problemen en resultaten. In: Theo Janssen & Ton van Strien (red), Neerlandistiek in beeld, Amsterdam & Münster: Stichting Neerlandistiek VU Amsterdam & Nodus Publikationen, 221-230.
  • Marijke van der Wal (2013): ‘Brieven als Buit: het belang van het handschrift’. Textualscholarship.nl: zie https://www.textualscholarship.nl/?p=12886
  • Marijke van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (2013): The Practice of Letter Writing: Skills, Models and Early Modern Dutch Manuals. Language & History 56, 18-32.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (2013): Variatie, conventies en verandering: zeventiende- en achttiende-eeuwse buitgemaakte brieven onder de loep, Internationale Neerlandistiek 51, 122-138.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (2013): Ego-documents in a historical sociolinguistic perspective. In: Marijke J. van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (eds), Touching the Past. Studies in the historical sociolinguistics of ego-documents, Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1-17.
  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2013): Epistolary formulae and writing experience in Dutch letters from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In: Marijke J. van der Wal & Gijsbert Rutten (eds), Touching the Past. Studies in the historical sociolinguistics of ego-documents, Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 45-65.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Wim Vandenbussche (2013): Local and international perspectives on the historical sociolinguistics of Dutch. Taal & Tongval 65, 1-9.
  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2013): Change, contact and conventions in the history of Dutch. Taal & Tongval 65, 97-123.
  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2012): Functions of epistolary formulae in Dutch letters from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Journal of Historical Pragmatics 13, 173-201.
  • Marijke van der Wal, Gijsbert Rutten & Tanja Simons (2012): Letters as loot. Confiscated letters filling major gaps in the history of Dutch. In: Marina Dossena & Gabriella Del Lungo Camiciotti (eds): Letter Writing in Late Modern Europe. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: Benjamins, 139-161.
  • Judith Nobels & Marijke van der Wal (2012): Linking Words to Writers: Building a Reliable Corpus for Historical Sociolinguistic Research. In: N. Langer, S. Davies & W. Vandenbussche (eds), Language and History, Linguistics and HistoriographyInterdisciplinary Approaches, Bern etc: Lang, 343-361.
  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2011): Local dialects, supralocal writing systems. The degree of orality of Dutch private letters from the seventeenth century. Written Language and Literacy 14, 251-274.
  • Judith Nobels, Tanja Simons & Marijke van der Wal (2011): De reductievocaal in zeventiende- en achttiende-eeuwse sailing letters. Onzichtbare spelling, dubbele spelling en palatale uitspraak. Nederlandse Taalkunde 16, 103-119.
  • R. Vosters, G. Rutten & M. van der Wal (2010): Mythes op de pijnbank. Naar een herwaardering van de taalsituatie in de Nederlanden in de achttiende en negentiende eeuw. Verslagen en Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 120, 93-112.
  • Marijke van der Wal & Tanja Simons (2010): Tussen sociale en regionale variatie: n-deletie bij 18de-eeuwse briefschrijfsters in het Brieven als buit-corpus. In: JohanDe Caluwe & Jacques Van Keymeulen (eds). Voor Magda. Artikelen voor Magda Devos bij haar afscheid van de Universiteit Gent. Gent: Academia Press, 669-683.
  • Tanja Simons (2009): “Ik heb ook nu niet uijt mij alderbest geschreven”. Achttiende-eeuwse brievenboekjes en de gekaapte brieven van Aagje Luijtsen. In: De achttiende eeuw (41), 167-191.
  • Judith Nobels & Marijke van der Wal (2009): In: Tackling the Writer-Sender Problem: the newly developed Leiden Identification Procedure (LIP). Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (ed.) Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics vol.9 (Internet-Journal). 
  • Marijke van der Wal (2008): 18de-eeuwse brieven, taalverandering en de “language history from below”, T.N&A, Tydskrif vir Nederlands en Afrikaans 15, 93-101.
  • Marijke van der Wal (2007): Eighteenth-century linguistic variation from the perspective of a Dutch diary and a collection of private letters. In: Stephan Elspass, Nils Langer, Joachim Scharloth & Wim Vandenbussche (red). Germanic Language Histories from Below (1700–2000). Berlin/ New York: De Gruyter, 2007, 83-96.
  • Marijke van der Wal (2007): ‘Het is of ik met mijn lieve sprak’. Laat-achttiende-eeuws chatten in historisch-sociolinguistisch perspectief. In: Fons Moerdijk, Ariane van Santen & Rob Tempelaars (red.), Leven met woorden. Opstellen aangeboden aan Piet van Sterkenburg bij zijn afscheid als directeur van het Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie en als hoogleraar Lexicologie aan de Universiteit Leiden. Leiden: Brill, 2007, 467-476.

General audience

  • Boekje Daer wij ul hoogelijck voor bedancken. Brieven belicht voor Wikiscripta Neerlandica Leiden: Brieven als Buit, 17 december 2011, met daarin: Gijsbert Rutten Brieven (leren) schrijven, 8-11. Judith Nobels Tussen geluk in Suriname en ellende in Nederland: de verzoenende woorden van Sarah van Scharphuijsen, 12-17. Juliette Sandberg Op de vlucht met bloed aan zijn handen. Een noodkreet van Cornelis Graafland, 18-23. Tanja Simons ‘Mijn lighaam was in een gestadige rolling’. Reizen tijdens de zwangerschap in 1781, 24-30. Marijke van der Wal ‘Mie alma dousje & mi courasson’. Creools tussen Curaçao en Rotterdam, 31-37.
  • Marijke van der Wal (2011): Brieven boven Water. Genealogie. Tijdschrift voor familiegeschiedenis 17, nr. 3, 96-99.
  • Gijsbert Rutten & Marijke van der Wal (2011): “Waarde en seer beminde lieve man”. Buitgemaakte brieven tonen het gewone Nederlands van eeuwen her. Onze taal, 58-60
November 2012 An old Papiamentu text found in a confiscated Dutch letter PDF
October 2012 ‘We have to learn English now’: Dutch migrants commenting on the capture of New Netherland PDF
January 2012 A letter written by Petronella Moens in our corpus of confiscated letters? PDF
November 2011 It’s enough to make you weep. A heartbreaking letter from a mother to her son
October 2011 Heinrich Rode's captured ship PDF
August/September 2011 Michiel Heusch Jr. on a business trip in Italy  PDF
November 2010 A parent’s pride and joy: “that he loves his brother nonetheless” PDF
July/August 2010 A sense of drama PDF
May/June 2010 Seeds and bulbs; eighteenth-century gardening overseas PDF
April 2010 The song of (pro)longing: a message from a seized ship PDF
March 2010 ‘I like her a lot’. The marriage of D.H. Macaré and L.G.J. van Bercheyck PDF
February 2010 The emancipation of a captain's wife in Rotterdam PDF
November 2009 Widows in Leiden PDF
October 2009 The horrors of a hurricane PDF
September 2009 The Adventures of a Truant PDF
July/August 2009 A children's letter? PDF
May/June 2009 A letter from New-Netherland PDF
April 2009 Everyday Reality PDF
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