history banner


Old Dutch Before 1200

When linguists want to refer to the Dutch language as it was spoken before 1200, they use the term Old Dutch (>link) (Oudnederlands). Very little is known about this early phase. There are two main reasons for this. First, we have hardly any written records dating back to that time. During the last millennium many valuable collections and archives were lost: libraries were looted by invaders or burnt down. Also, as the Dutch language gradually changed, people were unable to read and understand these early texts so they were simply thrown away. Second, the manuscripts (>link) that did survive are usually written not in Dutch but in Latin. (Old) Dutch was the language of oral, every-day communication, but when something had to be recorded, then Latin was used. Latin was the language of the Church, and because most writing was done by monks in monasteries, there was little or no demand for material in the native language of the people. That is also why so many early texts are of a religious nature.

Yet, these Latin manuscripts are not without interest for people who want to study the earliest stages of the Dutch language. Sometimes we find translations in Old Dutch of individual words or phrases scribbled in between the Latin text or in the margins of the page. These glosses (>link), as they are called, were meant for monks who had only a basic knowledge of Latin. As it happens, the most famous text in Old Dutch that has come down to us was discovered in 1932 on a flyleaf of a Latin manuscript produced in Rochester (UK). It was written by a Flemish monk as he tried out his new pen and reads:

Old Dutch

Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan
hinase hic enda thu wat unbidan we nu

Modern Dutch

Hebben alle vogels [hun] nesten begonnen
behalve ik en jij, wat beiden (= wachten) we nu?

English translation

Have all birds started with their nests
Except me and thee, what are we abiding now?

Though this text was written down almost 1000 years ago, we can easily recognize it as a form of Dutch: the first three words, for instance, are very similar to the corresponding words in the modern Dutch transcription.

Question 5:

Why are so many surviving manuscripts from before 1200 written in Latin?

Check your answer (>link)

Click here (>link) to study some linguistic features of Old Dutch.


History Home