Middle Dutch

Middle Dutch is a collective name for a number of closely related West Germanic dialects (whose ancestor was Old Dutch) which were spoken and written between 1150 and 1500. There was at that time as yet no overarching standard language, but they were all mutually intelligible.

In historic literature Diets and Middle Dutch (Middelnederlands) are used interchangeably to describe this whole of dialects from which later standard Dutch would be derived. Although already at the beginning several Middle-Dutch variations were present, the similarities between the different regional languages were much stronger than their differences, especially for written languages and various literary works of that time today are often very readable for modern Dutch speakers, Dutch being a rather conservative language. By many non-linguists Middle Dutch is often referred to as Diets.

Unity within Middle Dutch

Within Middle Dutch we can distinguish five large groups, all believed to be mutually intelligible:

  1. West, East Flemish and Zealandic, was spoken in the modern region of West and East Flanders and Zeeland and also in the Département du Nord of what is now France but was then part of the County of Flanders ;
  2. Brabantian was the language of the area covered by the modern Dutch province of North Brabant and the south of Gelderland; and the Belgian provinces of Flemish Brabant and Antwerp as well as the Brussels capital region;
  3. Hollandic was mainly used in the present provinces of North and South Holland and parts of Utrecht;
  4. Limburgish, spoken by the people in the provinces of modern Dutch and Belgian Limburg;
  5. Low Saxon, spoken in the area of the modern provinces of Gelderland, Overijssel, Drenthe and parts of Groningen.

The last two of the Middle Dutch dialect groups mentioned above gradated into, respectively, Middle High German and Middle Low German, since these two areas border directly onto the German language-area in the narrow sense (i.e. that area where today German is the standard language). There was a dialect continuum, which was even more fluent than it is today.

Hollandic experienced a slow but steady transition from an Ingvaeonic variant to true Low Franconian, through the influence of the more prestigious Brabantic and Utrecht dialects. Flemish and Brabantic started to diverge in the late Middle Ages.

Middle Dutch Grammar


Contemporary Dutch, like the majority of languages on earth today, has a standard form. Middle Dutch had no such thing as it was not until the middle of the 16th century that efforts were made to standardize the language. As a result, the Dutch speakers of the Middle Ages had a very free way of writing. In fact in some old books, the same word appears in different spellings on the same page. Another difference was that every writer wrote in his own dialects, and often in a very phonetical way and different pronunciation led to different ways of writing. The modern Dutch word "maagd" ("maiden") for example was sometimes written as "maghet" or "maegt", but also "meget", "magt", "maget", "magd", and "mecht". Another important difference is that a medieval Dutch speaker tried to write down far more different sounds than the contemporary speaker, which is logical as people in those days read texts out loud.

Then there was the problem with the letters themselves. The Dutch language used the Latin alphabet which is perfect for writing Latin, but wasn't for the Dutch language. Dutch for instance has far more vowels and consonant sounds which meant people literally ran out of letters. Several adjustments were therefore needed and it took quite a while before the letters "j", "ij", "k", "w" and "v" made it into Dutch spelling. Then there was the matter of personal taste, many writers thought it was more esthetical to use a "c" (like Latin) instead of "k". Examples include ic (ik, I) copen (kopen, to buy) and coninc (koning, king). And finally, there was no difference between short and long vowels, so that people had to find a solution for that as well. Sometimes they just duplicated the vowels, but more often they added an "i" or "e" at the end. Both forms are still present in modern Dutch, although the former is more common than the latter.


Middle Dutch pronouns differ little from their modern counterparts. The main differences are in the second person. Second person singular is "du" the plural in this case was "ghi" which later evolved into second person singular "gij/jij" and "ge/je". This was because middle Dutch also used "ghi" for a polite form and this in time replaced the informal "du", and thus became singular instead of plural. For the second person plural a new word was created by contracting "gij/jij" and "lui" (people) forming "gullie/jullie" which literally means you people.

1 sing. 2 sing. 3 sing. masc. 3 sing. fem. 3 sing. neut. 1 pl. 2 pl. 3 pl.
nominative ic du hi si het wi ghi si
genitive mijns dijns sijns harer 'es onser uwer haer/'re
dative mi di hem/hen/'n haer hem ons u hem/hen/'n
accusative mi di hem/hen/'n haer/se het/'t ons u hem/hen/'n

Middle Dutch case system

Middle Dutch had a case system, somewhat similar to modern written German. Since the Middle Ages Dutch has gradually lost an active case system, first in the spoken language, 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, among them the accusative. However, Middle Dutch and Modern Dutch were very similar, apart from the case system; one of the most prominent differences of contemporary Dutch is that it uses vast amounts of prepositions, far more than Middle Dutch, to compensate with the loss of the case system. It has to be noted, though, 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 (e.g. 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")). This is still common in some southern dialects. 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").

Strong inflection
(adjective clein = small, noun worm = worm, daet = deed/action, broot = bread)

Grammatical Case Male Female Neuter
Nominative (sing) die cleine worm die cleine daet dat cleine broot
Genitive (sing) des cleins worms der cleiner daet des cleins broots
Dative (sing) den cleinen worme der cleiner daet den cleinen brode
Accusative (sing) den cleinen worm die cleine daet dat cleine broot
Nominative (pl) die cleine worme die cleine dade die cleine brode
Genitive (pl) der cleiner worme der cleiner dade der cleiner brode
Dative (pl) den cleinen wormen den cleinen daden den cleinen broden
Accusative (pl) die clene worme die cleine dade die cleine brode

Weak inflection (Nouns ending in "-e")
(adjective clein = small, noun hane = rooster, wonde = wound, beelde = image)

Grammatical Case Male Female Neuter
Nominative (sing) die cleine hane die cleine wonde dat cleine beelde
Genitive (sing) des cleins hanen der cleiner wonden des cleins beelden
Dative (sing) den cleinen hane der cleiner wonden den cleinen beelde
Accusative (sing) den cleinen hane die cleine wonde dat cleine beelde
Nominative (pl) die cleine hanen die cleine wonden die cleine beelden
Genitive (pl) der cleiner hanen der cleiner wonden der cleiner beelden
Dative (pl) den cleinen hanen den cleinen wonden den cleinen beelden
Accusative (pl) die clene hanen die cleine wonden die cleine beelden


See also

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