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Middle Dutch: 1200-1500

We are much better informed about the development of the language in 1200-1500, which linguists refer to as the the Middle Dutch (>link) period (Middelnederlands), simply because we have many written records of that time. This period saw a number of important socio-economic changes which also affected the language. Cities such as Bruges and Ghent in Flanders, and Utrecht and Delft in the North became booming centres of trade, industry, and culture. The rising class of merchants and tradesmen did not speak any Latin, so their business correspondence and contracts were written in their native language, i.e. Dutch, or as contemporary sources called it, 'Diets' (>link)

However, there was much variation between the language spoken in, for instance, Bruges and the language used in Utrecht. At this time, the Low Countries was not a unified, central state, but a collection of provinces each with their own legislation, local customs, coins, and regional variant of Dutch. Indeed, there was no standard language, but an intricate patchwork of widely different dialects (>link) . Spelling at this time was also very phonetic (>link) , which means that the spelling of a word is a fairly accurate representation of the way in which it is pronounced. Therefore, each Dutch dialect did not only sound differently, but also looked different on the page. This could lead to much confusion. For instance, when a group of West Flemish monks received a copy of a religious text by the famous mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (>link) , they had to commission a Latin translation because they did not understand the Brabant dialect it was written in.

As the political bond between the various areas strengthened and the trade contacts increased, so did the need for a language that would be intelligible for people living beyond the borders of one's own province. Yet, it would be an exaggeration to claim that people were now consciously forging a standard language.

A very important tool which helped the spread of a more uniform kind of Dutch was the printing press (>link) , invented around 1450. The invention meant that texts did no longer have to be copied by hand, but could be reproduced many times and in a short space of time. In order to be profitable, a printer tried to reach the largest possible reading audience. He was therefore keen to avoid words and constructions that were unique to his own geographical area. Though the variation in pronunciation remained, the differences in spelling, as well as vocabulary and grammar, at least in the written language, started to disappear.

Question 8:

Why do Middle Dutch texts from different regions in the Low Countries look different?

Check your answer (>link)

Click (>link) to study some characteristics of Middle Dutch.


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