Dutch 101

The West Germanic dialects can be divided according to tribe (Frisian, Saxon, Franconian, Bavarian and Swabian), and according to the extent of their participation in the High German consonant shift (Low German against High German). The present Dutch standard language is largely derived from Low Franconian dialects spoken in the Low Countries that must have reached a separate identity no later than about AD 700.

An early Dutch recorded writing is: "Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan, hinase hic enda tu, wat unbidan we nu" ("All birds have started making nests, except me and you, what are we waiting for"), dating around the year 1100, written by a Flemish monk in a convent in Rochester, England. For a long time this sentence was considered to be the earliest in Dutch, but since its discovery even older fragments were found, such as "Visc flot aftar themo uuatare" ("A fish was swimming in the water") and "Gelobistu in got alamehtigan fadaer" ("Do you believe in God the almighty father"). The latter fragment was written as early as 900. Professor Luc De Grauwe from the University of Ghent disputes the language of these sequences of text, and actually believes them to be Old English, so there is still some controversy surrounding them.

A process of standardization started in the Middle ages, especially under the influence of the Burgundian Ducal Court in Dijon (Brussels after 1477). The dialects of Flanders and Brabant were the most influential around this time. The process of standardization became much stronger in the 16th century, mainly based on the urban dialect of Antwerp. In 1585 Antwerp fell to the Spanish army: many fled to Holland, strongly influencing the urban dialects of that province. In 1618 a further important step was made towards a unified language, when the first major Dutch bible translation was created that people from all over the United Provinces could understand. It used elements from various (even Low Saxon) dialects, but was mostly based on the urban dialects from Holland.

The word Dutch comes from the old Germanic word theodisk, meaning 'of the people', 'vernacular' as opposed to official, i.e. Latin or later French. Theodisk in modern German has become deutsch and in Dutch has become the two forms: duits, meaning German, and diets meaning something closer to Dutch but no longer in general use (see the diets article). Theodisk survives as tedesco ("German") in modern Italian.

The English word Dutch has also changed with time. It was only in the early 1600s, with growing cultural contacts and the rise of an independent country, that the modern meaning arose, i.e., 'designating the people of the Netherlands or their language'. Prior to this, the meaning was more general and could refer to any German-speaking area or the languages there (including the current Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as well as the Netherlands). For example:

~ William Caxton (c.1422-1491) wrote in his Prologue to his Aeneids in 1490 that an old English text was more like to Dutche than English. In his notes, Professor W.F. Bolton makes clear that this word means German in general rather than Dutch.

~ Peter Heylyn, Cosmography in four books containing the Chronography and History of the whole world, Vol. II (London, 1677: 154) contains "...the Dutch call Leibnitz," adding that Dutch is spoken in the parts of Hungary adjoining to Germany.


To this day, descendants of German settlers in Pennsylvania are known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch".

Today some speakers resent the name "Dutch", because of its common root with the name "Deutsch", that is, German.

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