“‘You must pardon me that which I did not write well’. 18th-century Flemish writing from below”.

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'You must pardon me that which I did not write well' 18th-century Flemish writing from below
Rik Vosters
Vrije Universiteit Brussel Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO)
The Dutch language in Flanders has long been thought to have undergone a process of 'linguistic degeneration' between the late 16th and early 19th century: in sharp contrast to the ongoing standardization of Northern Hollandic, Southern Flemish was left to 'regress' to the level of local dialects as French took over most of its prestige functions in society. Social arguments play a crucial role in this discourse: as French became the language of the upper social strata, Dutch was only being used among the lower ranks of society, where it could not develop into a full-fledged standard language.
Empirical analyses of 19th-century Flemish writing, however, show that the use of Dutch among the higher social classes was not as limited as has often been assumed, and the writings of members of all social strata mainly seem to differ in terms of when - not if - the idea of invariable language standards became important (Vandenbussche 2002; Vandenbussche 2004). Overall, writers from different social backgrounds in the 19th century display a remarkable linguistic competence in Dutch, which argues against the lack of standardization in preceding decades (cf. Rutten & Vosters 2011).
This paper will delve into the roots of this remarkable competence, examining Southern Dutch in the 18th century. In a new project on orality and literacy in this period, we aim to analyze private letters from writers with different social backgrounds. Because of their indirect ties to the spoken word, these sources offer excellent test cases to investigate the tension between formal writing conventions and traces from spoken everyday vernaculars. We will report on the first explorations of this material, with our main emphasis lying on letters from lower-class writers. By examining different linguistic features that would have been indicators of local, spoken dialects, we will weigh the hypothesis of linguistic degeneration against the idea of an ongoing process of standardization in 18th-century Southern Dutch.
Rutten, G. & R. Vosters (2011). "As many norms as there were scribes? Language history, norms and usage in the Southern Netherlands in the nineteenth century." In: Langer, N., S. Davies & W. Vandenbussche (eds.), Language and history, linguistics and historiography. Interdisciplinary approaches, Oxford / Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 229-54.
Vandenbussche, W. (2002). "Dutch orthography in lower, middle and upper class documents in 19th- century Flanders." In: Linn, A. R. & N. Mclelland (eds.), Standardization. Studies from the Germanic Languages, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 27-42.
Vandenbussche, W. (2004). "Triglossia and pragmatic variety choice in 19th century Flanders. A case study in historical sociolinguistics". Journal of Historical Pragmatics 5 (1): 27-47.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReading and writing from below: Exploring the margins of modernity. University of Helsinki, Finland. 20-22.08.2014.
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventReading and writing from below: Exploring the margins of modernity. - Helsinki, Finland
Duration: 20 Aug 201422 Aug 2014


ConferenceReading and writing from below: Exploring the margins of modernity.


  • historical sociolinguistics
  • writing from below
  • Dutch
  • intended standard


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