Dutch – Biography of a Language


Dutch – Biography of a Language

By Roland Willemyns

Oxford University Press – £22.99

Being half-Dutch, I was brought up bi-lingual as a child.

As a result, I have always retained a thorough interest in the language. In fact, according to natives of Holland, I suppposedly speak Dutch with an Amsterdammer’s accent, which, un-beknown to me, as well as being a fan of langauge in general, I continue to find intruiging. This may partially explain my thorough enjoyment in reading Dutch – Biography Of A Language by Roland Willemyns.

Apart from being ”the only English langauge history of Dutch,” it’s a book that caught my attention for a myriad of reasons; most noteably, my continuing fascination with and soft-spot for the langauge, simply because (speaking and hearing) it reminds me of my childhood.

I am also concerned for its well-being. Reason being, only twenty-two million people speak Dutch (primarily in The Netherlands, Belgium, Suriname and Antilles), and I have as such, often wondered how long it will continue to exist.
Upon reading this book however, it really does seem I don’t have a lot to worry about. In chapter nine, ‘Progress or Decay? The Future Development of Dutch,’ Willemyns reasurringly writes: ”Doomsayers predict that Dutch will disappear within the next few decades, swallowed up by English, Chinese, or some other language. Others fear that soon the langauge will have changed so profoundly under the influence of other langauges (e.g., those spoken by immigrants) that it will cease to be real Dutch, whatever that is. How real are those fears, or, put the other way around, how strong is the position of Dutch at this very moment?

In Europe, Dutch is the official language of the majority of the Belgians (over six millions) and of more than 16 million Dutch. These almost 23 million Dutch speakers occupy the 10th position in the 76-strong league of European langauges. Among the approximately 6,000 languages of the world, Dutch is ranked 42nd. That means that approximately 5,950 langauages lag behind Dutch, which makes it in the top 1 percent of languages in the world. It is hard to perceive this situation as threatening.”

Who’d have thought it? Well I for one wouldn’t have, that’s for sure, which again, underlines why this book has been such an eye-opener of a stimulating and interesting read.

It’s ten chapters covers an array of very well-researched, Dutch language related areas. From ‘Who Speaks Dutch and Where?’ to ‘Old Dutch: Its Ancestors and Contemporaries;’ from ‘Reunion and Secession: The Nineteenth Century’ to ‘The 20th Century: The Age of the Standard Language;’ from ‘Colonial Dutch’ to ‘Afrikaans’ (”the only extant daughter language of Dutch”) to the aforementioned chapter on the future of the language; Dutch – Biography Of A Language is bound to interest a global audience of students of Dutch, those of Dutch descent, and linguists and other scholars wishing to learn more about this most fascinating of tongues.

From a purely historical perpective alone, Willemyns sheds a profound enormity of more than persuasive light on the subject. In relation the the country’s Golden Age in the book’s Introduction, he writes: ”In 17th-century Holland (the Golden Age), it was increasingly felt that the norm of the standard language was to be found in the idiolect of the upper classes of both Amsterdam and The Hague. This is the start of a long-lived tradition: we see how the social variable unmistakably supercedes the regional one and how, until well into the 19th century, having a regional accent will be deemed less of a problem than having the wrong social accent. The Golden Age also saw
the publication of the (printed) Statenbijbel, not only a paramount theological but also linguistic achievement, since it turned out to be one of the most important standardization instruments ever.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this overtly enlightening book for a menagerie of reasons. That I’m half-Dutch, will undoubtadly have been somewhat instrumental in my reasoning; but to be honest, this book could well appeal to anyone and everyone (even remotely) interetested in language.

Simply becasue of the way it’s written, what it purveys and what it uncovers.

David Marx


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