Middle Dutch is a collective name for a number of closely related West Germanic dialects (whose ancestor was Old Dutch) spoken and written between 1150 and 1500. There was at that time as yet no overarching standard language but they were all mutually intelligible. During this period a rich Medieval Dutch literature developed, not yet present during the period of Old Dutch. The various literary works of that time are often very readable for modern Dutch speakers, since Dutch is a rather conservative language. By many non-linguists, Middle Dutch is often referred to as Diets.
Several phonological changes occurred leading up to the Middle Dutch period.
The consonants of Middle Dutch differed little from those of Old Dutch. The most prominent change is the loss of dental fricatives. The sound [z] was also phonemicised during this period, judging from loanwords that retain [s] to this day.
For descriptions of the sounds and definitions of the terms, follow the links on the headings.
Most notable in the Middle Dutch vowel system, when compared to Old Dutch, is the appearance of phonemic rounded front vowels, and the merger of all unstressed short vowels.
The lengthening of vowels in open syllables, and often before /r/, created a contrast between originally long (“sharp-long” â, ê, ô) and lengthened (“soft-long” ā, ē, ō) vowels. These have all merged in modern standard Dutch, but they were still distinct in Middle Dutch, and developed differently in different dialects, although the spelling does not normally reveal this. The following points can be noted:
/ʏi/ only occurred in a small number of loanwords from French, such as fruyt/froyt /frʏit/ (Old French pronunciation [frɥit]). It is known that it eventually merged with /yː/ when the latter began to diphthongise.
The diphthongal character of /iə/ and /uə/ (spelled ⟨ie⟩ and ⟨oe⟩ in most texts) is not clear.
Despite unclear pronunciation, /iə/ ⟨ie⟩ clearly never merged with the long vowel /iː/ ⟨ij⟩. The two sounds were never allowed to rhyme, and developed differently into early modern Dutch. Thus, it is necessary that there was some contrast between the vowels, whether between opening diphthong and monophthong (in earlier Middle Dutch) or between monophthong and slight closing diphthong (in later Middle Dutch).
Phonological changes that occurred during Middle Dutch:
Middle Dutch was not a single homogenous language. The language differed by area, with different areas having a different pronunciation and often using different vocabulary. Often, the dialect areas were affected by political boundaries. The sphere of political influence of a certain ruler often also created a sphere of linguistic influence, with the language within the area becoming more homogenous. Following, more or less, the political divisions of the time, several large dialect groups can be distinguished. However, the borders between them were not strong, and a dialect continuum existed between them, with spoken varieties near the edges of each dialect area showing more features of the neighbouring areas.
Brabantian was spoken primarily in the Duchy of Brabant. It was an influential dialect during most of the Middle Ages, during the so-called “Brabantian expansion” in which the influence of Brabant was extended outwards into other areas. Compared to the other dialects
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, Brabantian was a kind of “middle ground” between the coastal areas on one hand, and the Rhineland and Limburg on the other. Brabantian Middle Dutch has the following characteristics compared to other dialects:
Flemish, consisting today of West and East Flemish and Zealandic, was spoken in the County of Flanders. It had been influential during the earlier Middle Ages (the “Flemish expansion”) but lost prestige to the neighbouring Brabantian in the 13th century. Its characteristics are:
Hollandic was spoken in the County of Holland. It was less influential during most of the Middle Ages but became more so in the 16th century during the “Hollandic expansion”, during which the Eighty Years’ War took place in the south. It shows the following properties:
Limburgish was spoken by the people in the provinces of modern Dutch and Belgian Limburg. It was not clearly tied to one political area, instead being divided among various area, including the Duchy of Limburg (which was south than modern Limburg). It was also the most divergent of the dialects, and today, it is no longer considered part of Dutch proper, but a separate Limburgish language.
Rhinelandic (“Kleverlands”) was spoken around the area of the Duchy of Cleves, around the Lower Rhine. It represented a transitional dialect between Limburgish and Middle Low German.
Middle Dutch was written in the Latin alphabet, which was not designed for writing Middle Dutch so different scribes used different methods of representing the sounds of their language in writing. The traditions of neighbouring scribes and their languages led to a multitude of ways to write Middle Dutch. Consequently, spelling was not standardised but was highly variable and could differ by both time and place as various “trends” in spelling waxed and waned. Furthermore, a word could be found spelled differently in different occurrences within the same text. There was the matter of personal taste, and many writers thought it was more aesthetic to follow French or Latin practice, leading to sometimes rather unusual spellings.
The spelling was generally phonetic, and words were written based on how they were spoken rather than based on underlying phonemes or morphology. Final-obstruent devoicing was reflected in the spelling, and clitic pronouns and articles were frequently joined to the preceding or following word. Scribes wrote in their own dialect, and their spelling reflected the pronunciation of that particular scribe or of some prestige dialect by ehich the scribe was influenced. The modern Dutch word maagd (“maiden”) for example was sometimes written as maghet or maegt, but also meget, magt, maget, magd, and mecht. Some spellings, such as magd, reflect an early tendency to write the underlying phonemic value. However, by and large, spelling was phonetic, which is logical as people usually read texts out loud.
Modern dictionaries tend to represent words in a normalised spelling to form a compromise between the variable spellings on one hand and to represent the sounds of the language consistently. Thus, normalised spellings attempt to be a general or “average” spelling but still being accurate and true to the language.
The general practice was to write long vowels with a single letter in an open syllable and with two letters in a closed syllable. Which two letters were used varied among texts. Some texts, especially those in the east, do not do so and write long vowels with a single letter in all cases (as is the predominant rule in modern German).
Middle Dutch pronouns differed little from their modern counterparts. The main differences were in the second person with the development of a T-V distinction. The second-person plural pronoun ghi slowly gained use as a respectful second-person singular form. The original singular pronoun du gradually fell out of use during the Middle Dutch period. A new second person plural pronoun was created by contracting gij/jij and lui (‘people’) forming gullie/jullie (which this literally means ‘you people’).
Middle Dutch had a case system. Since the Middle Ages Dutch has gradually lost an active case system
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, first in the spoken language and much later in the written language so it is now mostly limited to fixed expressions. The spelling reform of 1947 removed most remaining parts of the case system such as the accusative. However, Middle Dutch and Modern Dutch ae very similar, apart from the case system; one of the most prominent differences of contemporary Dutch is that it uses great numbers of prepositions, far more than Middle Dutch, to compensate with the loss of the case system. It has to be noted that even in Middle Dutch the use of prepositions, especially van, was very common. Furthermore, Middle Dutch would often use an accusative form instead of a nominative (Doe quam den edelen prince daer (“Then the noble prince arrived”), Dezen man sel op zijn hooft hebben een stalen helme (“This man will have a steel helmet on his head”)). It is still common in some southern dialects and in the Belgian Tussentaal. Similarly, the -n was sometimes omitted where it would be expected: in levende live (Modern Dutch in levenden lijve), des levende Gods instead of levenden (“of the living God”), van den lopende water instead of lopenden (“of the running water”).
The weakening of unstressed syllables merged many different Old Dutch classes of nominal declension. The result was a general distinction between strong (original vocalic stem) and weak (n-stem) nouns. Eventually even these started to become confused, with the strong and weak endings slowly beginning to merge into a single declension class by the beginning of the modern Dutch period.
Definite Article (die, dat = the)
Strong noun inflection (adjective clein = small, noun worm = worm, daet = deed/action, broot = bread)
Weak noun inflection (Nouns ending in “-e”) (adjective clein = small, noun hane = rooster, wonde = wound
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, beelde = image)
Middle Dutch mostly retained the Old Dutch verb system. Like all Germanic languages, it distinguished strong, weak and preterite-present verbs as the three main inflectional classes. However, the weakening of unstressed syllables made the two classes of weak verbs that still existed in Old Dutch merge into one.
The seven classes of strong verb common to the Germanic languages were retained, but over time, the older distinction between the singular and plural past was lost, with the singular forms generally adapting the stem of the plural (except in classes 4 and 5, whose distinction was by length rather than vowel timbre). Some weak verbs that had a vowel change in the past because of Rückumlaut eventually became strong
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, such as senden (with original past tense sande, but later also sand or sond). By analogy some strong verbs were also turned into weak verbs, sometimes only by adding the weak past ending -de. That might have occurred only for poetic reasons, however, such as in Karel ende Elegast where the form begonde (regularly began or begon) is found near the beginning of the text
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The weakening also affected the distinction between the indicative and subjunctive moods, which had largely been determined by the vowel of the inflectional suffix in Old Dutch. In Middle Dutch, with all unstressed vowels merging into one, the subjunctive became distinguished from the indicative only in the singular but was identical to it in the plural, and also in the past tense of weak verbs. That led to a gradual decline in the use of the subjunctive, and it has been all but lost entirely in modern Dutch. The forms of verbal conjugation for Middle Dutch are: