New book by Nicoline van der Sijs: ‘I hope for less tension surrounding the words standard Dutch’

Date of news: 9 June 2021

In her new book Taalwetten maken en vinden (Making and finding language rules), Dutch linguist Nicoline van der Sijs (again) examines the origins of the Dutch standard language and shows how coincidental the formulation of some rules was. ‘People sometimes seem so concerned that we are throwing away our standard language nowadays.’

A Dutch language speaker has probably never wondered why they write 'naar Amsterdam' (to Amsterdam) and 'na 12 uur' (after 12 o’clock) and not 'na Amsterdam' (after Amsterdam) and 'naar 12 uur' (to 12 o’clock). Or why they write ‘hij vindt’ (he finds) but not ‘hij eett’ (he eats, in Dutch this is spelled ‘eet’). ‘Those are the rules!’ the language purist would say. But where do those rules come from?

Dutch linguist and etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs has previously written the standard work Taal als Mensenwerk (Language as human work) about it and has now published its successor Taalwetten maken en vinden (Making and finding language rules). In the book she discusses how noblemen in the 16th and 17th centuries discussed what the ideal standard language should look like and how they established the language norms and rules for Standard Dutch.


‘In my book I show how coincidental the outcome often was,’ says Van der Sijs.Cover Taalwetten maken en vinden Take the verb spelling in Dutch. In the 17th century, the idea of similarity spelling was introduced. ‘Hond’ (dog) is spelled with a d, because the plural ‘honden’ (dogs) is also spelled with a d. But how was that principle to be applied to verbs? Van der Sijs: 'One of the proposals was 'speeld’ (play, in Dutch ‘speelt’ is the correct spelling) with a d after 'hij speelde’ (he played), just like 'hond-honden'. Others found: 'hij eett' (he eats, in Dutch the correct spelling is ‘hij eet’) with double t, because we also write 'hij vindt’ (he finds) with dt. After much discussion, the current rules were formulated. But these could have been completely different. I hope that will make people look at it differently’, says Van der Sijs.

'The standard language is not a monolith. The variation it contains is there for a reason: we make good use of it and we must cherish it'

With ‘it’ Van der Sijs refers to the often fierce discussion about the deterioration standard Dutch. There was a row when the new edition of the Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst (ANS), the standard reference work in which the grammatical rules of Dutch are described, was published recently, as it now also includes the double negation 'nooit geen’ (never none). People tumbled over each other to comment on the alleged relaxed language rules. Van der Sijs: 'Nonsense, I'm sorry to say it. People are sometimes so afraid that we are throwing away the default language. But the standard language is not a monolith. The variation it contains is there for a reason: we make good use of it and we must cherish it. Moreover, we are no longer prescriptive, but descriptive. You find more nuanced descriptions in language advice books nowadays: if you want to apply for a job, you can use this construction, but if you are in a different situation, you can also use that construction. In hip-hop you can use very different language than in a presentation. The more language registers (the collective words of a language in one particular style, ed.) you have at your disposal, the more creative you can be. As long as you know which register you should use in which situation.'

Work of the elite

Variation in language is a natural phenomenon. In the 15th century, there were many dialects and there was no supra-regional language. That worked fine until people moved within their language area and more and more books were printed with a much greater circulation and distribution than the earlier handwritten texts, and which were also published in the national language instead of Latin. The large variation in language became too clumsy and the need for a standard language arose.

The people who came up with the rules came by definition from the higher circles. They wrote books or were publishers. Language laws were introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries. Van der Sijs: 'This is how, for example, the difference between ‘na’ (after) and ‘naar’ (to) came into existence. There was no such distinction before, both words were used interchangeably, but the idea was to link different meanings to different forms, following the Latin example. One of the gentlemen suggested: from now on, ‘na’ (after) is a direction. But another countered: well no, let's use ‘naar’ (to) for direction. This was discussed over and over, until it was decided: ‘naar’ is a direction, ‘na’ is a time indication. And that is now part of our standard language.’

From making to finding

In 1723, the Dutch scholar Lambert ten Kate proposed a new approach: language laws should not be made but found. In other words: look at the language that is used and formulate the rules based on that. 'Fine', said linguist Balthazar Huydecoper (1695-1778), 'but there are no fine diamonds on the heath, nor language laws along the road or on the street.' By which he meant that you have to look at the language use of those in higher classes. At great writers, for example, such as Joost van den Vondel. ‘Unfortunately, Van den Vondel did not always follow the rules at that time; Huydecoper did point this out, but he also condoned it’, says Van der Sijs with a laugh.

'We don't really know how great the variation was, because we almost only have printed texts'

Of course, the 17th- and 18th-century ordinary language users did not apply all those language laws neatly, but they gradually gained the upper hand in printed matter, also through education. If you want to find living language from those periods, you have to search carefully. For example, in old notary deeds. ‘I recently found a large number of swear words and colloquial expressions from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Words like that weren't in the standard books.’ Such finds are rare; official, printed texts have mainly been handed down from the past, in which the rules were followed. ‘We don't really know how great the variation was, because we almost only have printed texts and very few letters and the like’, says Van der Sijs.

The girl

And even now the Dutch language does not stand still. According to Van der Sijs, people a century from now will probably find the Dutch of today quite strange. ‘It is difficult to say for sure, but I suspect that gendered words will have disappeared by then, or will at least be classified in a different way,’ predicts Van der Sijs. ‘It's actually already in the workings. ‘De meisje’ (the girl, the ‘correct’ article in Dutch is ‘het’) is something you hear more and more often, even among native speakers. In any case, 'de' (the) is the most commonly used article in Dutch - in 75 percent of the cases - and it could very well happen that it is the only one in the future. That is already the case in English and South African.’

'I suspect that gendered words will have disappeared a century from now'

The formation of a standard language is human work, is the most important message of Taalwetten maken en vinden. ‘It is good to realize that there is a need for certain regulations’, says Van der Sijs. ‘But they shouldn't be too strict. You can express yourself in the standard language, but also in other language registers. Flexibility is very good and beautiful. I hope that my book will make people less tense with the word standard language. Education would also be much more enjoyable if there was less emphasis on right and wrong and more on variation and what you can do with it.'

Nicoline van der Sijs is a seniorNicoline van der Sijs researcher at the Institute for the Dutch Language and professor of historical linguistics of Dutch at Radboud University Nijmegen. She has published several books on the history of the Dutch language, including the Van Dale Groot Leenwoordenboek and the Chronological Dictionary. Her latest book 15 Centuries of Dutch Language was awarded the Dutch Language Book Prize 2020. She is the founder of and a permanent employee of Onze Taal.