Middle Dutch is a collective name for a number of closely related West Germanic dialects whose ancestor was Old Dutch. It was spoken and written between 1150 and 1500. Until the advent of Modern Dutch after 1500 or c. 1550, there was no overarching standard language, but all dialects were mutually intelligible. During that period, a rich Medieval Dutch literature developed, which had not yet existed during Old Dutch. The various literary works of the time are often very readable for speakers of Modern Dutch since Dutch is a rather conservative language.
|Region||the Low Countries|
|Era||developed into modern Dutch around 1500 or c. 1550|
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.
Long vowels and diphthongs cannot be clearly distinguished in Middle Dutch, as many long vowels had or developed a diphthongal quality, while existing diphthongs could also develop into monophthongs. Sometimes, this occurred only in restricted dialects, other developments were widespread.
Many details of the exact phonetics are uncertain, and seemed to have differed by dialect. The overall system is clear, however, as almost all the vowels remain distinct in modern Limburgish: /iː/, /iə̯/, /eɛ̯/, /eː/ and /aː/ appear in modern Limburgish as /iː/, /eː/, /iə̯/, /æː/ and /aː/ respectively.
The vowels /ie̯/, /yø̯/ and /uo̯/ developed from Old Dutch opening diphthongs, but their exact character in Middle Dutch is unclear. The following can be said:
The vowels /eɛ̯/, /øœ̯/ and /oɔ̯/, termed "sharp-long" and denoted with a circumflex ê ô, developed from Old Dutch long vowels. The opening diphthong pronunciation was probably widespread, and perhaps once universal, as it is nowadays still found in both West Flemish and in Limburgish, at opposite ends of the Middle Dutch language area. In the general area in between, including standard Dutch, the vowels merged with the "soft-long" vowels during the early modern Dutch period.
The vowels /eː/, /œː/ and /oː/, termed "soft-long" and denoted with a macron ē ō, developed through the lengthening of Old Dutch short vowels in open syllables, but also frequently before /r/. They were simple monophthongs in all Middle Dutch dialects, with the exception of western Flanders where /eː/ later developed into /ei̯/. They might have been close-mid but also perhaps open-mid [ɛː], [œː] and [ɔː], as in modern Limburgish.
There were two open vowels, with "sharp-long" â developed from the Old Dutch long ā, and "soft-long" ā being the result of lengthening. These two vowels were distinguished only in Limburgish and Low Rhenish at the eastern end, and in western Flemish and coastal Hollandic on the western end. The relative backness of the two vowels was opposite in the two areas that distinguished them.
The closing diphthong /ɛi̯/ remained from the corresponding Old Dutch diphthong. It occurred primarily in umlauting environments, with /eɛ̯/ appearing otherwise. Some dialects, particularly further west, had /eɛ̯/ in all environments (thus cleene next to cleine). Limburgish preserved the diphthong wherever it was preserved in High German.
The closing diphthong /ɔu̯/ has two different origins. In the vast majority of the Middle Dutch area, it developed through l-vocalization from older /ol/ and /al/ followed by a dental consonant. In the eastern area, Limburg in particular, it was a remnant of the older diphthong as in High German, which had developed into /oɔ̯/ elsewhere. L-vocalization occurred only in the modern period in Limburgish, and the distinction between /ol/ and /al/ was preserved, being reflected as ów and aa respectively.
Phonological changes that occurred during Middle Dutch:
Middle Dutch was not a single homogeneous language. The language differed by area, with different areas having a different pronunciation and often using different vocabulary. The dialect areas were affected by political boundaries. The sphere of political influence of a certain ruler also created a sphere of linguistic influence, with the language within the area becoming more homogeneous. 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.
Middle Dutch has four major dialects groups:
Flemish, Brabantic and Hollandic are known as West Franconian, while Limburgic is known as East Franconian (not to be confused with the High German dialect East Franconian).
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, 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 Zeelandic, was spoken in the County of Flanders, northern parts of the County of Artois and areas around the towns of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. Though due to their intermediary position between West Flemish and Brabantian, the East Flemish dialects have also been grouped with the latter. Flemish 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 areas, including the Duchy of Limburg (which was south of modern Limburg). It was also the most divergent of the dialects.
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 which 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).
|/ə/||e||a (rare and early)|
|ai (occasionally, in closed syllables)||In discussions about pronunciation, originally-long a is represented as â, lengthened a as ā.|
|ei (West Flemish)||In discussions about pronunciation, written as ē.|
|ee (frequently in open syllables, especially in Flanders), ie (occasionally in some dialects)||In discussions about pronunciation, written as ê.|
|/øː/||ue||o, oe, eu (rare), u, uu (both very rare)||⟨oe⟩ and ⟨o⟩ are perhaps the most common, but normalisation uses ⟨ue⟩ to avoid confusion with /uə/. Normalisation generally undoes the umlaut of older /oː/, which was only present in the eastern dialects.|
|ii (actually graphical variant of ij), ie (rare)|
|/iə/||ie||ye (rare), i (fairly rare)|
|oe, a (Rhinelandic), oi, oy||In discussions about pronunciation, written as ō.|
|oe, oi, oy||In discussions about pronunciation, written as ô.|
|/uə/||oe||ou (Flanders), u, ue (both in Limburg), o (before /j/)|
|/yː/, /uː/||u (open)
|ue (usually before /r/), ui, uy||/uː/ only in Limburg.|
|/ei/||ei||ey||Occurs in place of ê in Limburg.|
|/ou/||ou||au (rare)||Occurs in place of ô in Limburg.|
|/j/||j||i, y, ij (very rare)|
|/w/||w||uu, u, v|
sc (in some normalisations)
|sk, ssc(h) (medially), s (occasionally)|
|/k/||k (before e, i, y)
qu (representing /kw/)
ck (for geminated /kː/)
|ch (Flanders, Brabant), k (eastern, in all positions)|
|/x/||ch||g, gh (when /ɣ/ devoices)|
gh (before e, i, y, only in some normalisations)
cg(h) (for geminated /ɡː/)
Middle Dutch nouns inflected for number as well as case. The weakening of unstressed syllables merged many different Old Dutch classes of nominal declension. The result was a general distinction between strong and weak 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.
The strong nouns generally originated from the Old Dutch a-stem, i-stem and u-stem inflections. They mostly had a nominative singular with no ending, and a nominative plural in -e or, for some neuter nouns, with no ending. Most strong nouns were masculine or neuter. Feminines in this class were former i-stems, and could lack an ending in the dative singular, a remnant of the late Old Dutch inflection. In some rare occasions, the genitive singular was also endingless. Some nouns ended in -e in the singular also; these were primarily former ja-stems, which were masculine or neuter. A few were former i-stems with short stems. Nouns of this type tended to be drawn into the weak inflection by analogy.
The following table shows the inflection of the masculine noun dach "day", feminine dâet "deed" and neuter brôot "bread".
|Genitive||dāechs, dāges||dāge||dâets, dâdes||dâde||brôots, brôdes||brôde|
Weak nouns were characterised by the ending -en throughout the plural. The singular ended in -e.
The following table shows the inflection of the masculine noun bōge "bow, arc".
Middle Dutch adjectives inflected according to the gender, case and number of the noun they modified.
The Germanic distinction between strong and weak, or indefinite and definite inflection, was fairly minimal in Middle Dutch, appearing only in the masculine and neuter nominative singular. These forms received an -e ending when a definite word (demonstrative, article) preceded, and had no ending otherwise. Adjectives were uninflected when connected through a copula. Thus, even for feminine nouns, no ending appeared: die vrouwe is goet "the lady is good".
Some adjectives, namely the former ja-stems, had an -e even in the strong and copular form, e.g. die vrouwe is cleine "the lady is small".
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 contraction of gij/jij and lui ('people') forming gullie/jullie (literally, 'you people').
Note: There are several other forms.
(die, dat = the)
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. Verbs were inflected in present and past tense, and in three moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative.
The weakening of unstressed vowels 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 seven classes of strong verb common to the Germanic languages were retained. The four principal parts were the present tense, first- and third-person singular past tense, remaining past tense, and the past participle.
|2||ie, û||ô||ō||ō||bieden, bugen|
|3||e, i||a||o||o||helpen, binden|
|5||ē, i||a||â||ē||lesen, liggen|
In classes 6 and 7, there was no distinction between the two different vowels of the past tense. In classes 4 and 5, the difference was primarily one of length, since ā and â were not distinguished in most dialects. The difference between ê and ē, and between ô and ō, found in classes 1 and 2, was a bit more robust, but also eventually waned in the development to modern Dutch. Consequently, the distinction was mostly lost. Class 3, which retained a clear distinction that did not rely on vowel length, was levelled in favour of the o of the plural.
In classes with a lengthened vowel in the present, the singular imperative often appears with a short vowel instead, e.g. les, drach. An alternative form, with final -e by analogy with the weak verbs, also occurs.
The eastern dialects occasionally show i in the second- and third-person singular present indicative forms, instead of e. This is a remnant of older i-mutation in these forms. Umlaut is also sometimes found in the past subjunctive in the east.
Middle Dutch retained weak verbs as the only productive class of verbs. While Old Dutch still had two different classes of weak verbs (and remnants of a third), this distinction was lost in Middle Dutch with the weakening of unstressed syllables.
The past tense was formed with a suffix -ed-, which generally lost its e through syncope and thus came to be directly attached to the preceding stem. This triggered voicing assimilation, so that t appeared whenever the preceding stem ended in a voiceless consonant. This phenomenon remains in modern Dutch. Unsyncopated forms, which retain the fuller suffix -ed-, are sometimes found, especially with stems ending in a labial or velar consonant.
Some former class 1 weak verbs retained so-called Rückumlaut. These verbs had undergone umlaut in the present tense, but the umlaut-triggering vowel was syncopated in the past tense already in Old Dutch, preventing umlaut from taking hold there. Thus, senden had the first- and third-person singular past tense sande. These verbs tended to be reinterpreted as strong verbs in later Middle Dutch; sande itself gave rise to the modern zond, mirroring strong class 3.