Why Dutch? How to account for changes in language use over time

Ulrike Vogl, Matthias Hüning

Freie Universitaet Berlin, Inst. f. Deutsche & Niederlaendische Philologie, Germany


One attempt to explain internal language change is Keller's invisible-hand theory of language change. Keller (1994) argues that changes in the structure of a certain language are the non-intended causal consequence of the sum of intentional actions of different members of its speech community. In Middle Dutch for example, the second person pronoun du was gradually replaced by the pronoun gij and at a later stage by jij. According to Keller's theory, none of the speakers of Middle Dutch intended to replace du by gij or jij. Instead they sought to be polite or to gain prestige by selecting one of them. The sum of these choices ultimately brought about the loss of du.

When describing the external history of a language or the linguistic history of a certain region we also seek to discover why changes occurred. For example, to explain the development of today's standard languages in the Low Countries we would, according to Keller's theory, need to identify the actors who played an important role in the selection process and to investigate their motives to choose a certain language variety over another. A printer from the sixteenth-century Low Countries might have chosen a certain language variety for its intelligibility whereas an immigrant from the Southern Netherlands settling in Amsterdam might have retained his own language variety in order to preserve his identity. An inhabitant of sixteenth-century Friesland, on the other hand, possibly tried to speak a Dutch dialect instead of Frisian in order to gain prestige. The sum of these (and other) motives has finally, under specific conditions (for example the leading economic position of the county of Holland), led up to the present linguistic situation (cf. Van der Sijs, 2004 & Burke, 2004).

In our presentation we will further explore the suitability of Keller's approach to explain external language change by applying it to examples of changes in language use in the history of the Low Countries. We aim to demonstrate that Keller's theory lends itself to capturing the interplay between society and its ever-changing linguistic repertoires. Our paper is part of a research project within the framework of DYLAN, a EU funded integrated project (www.dylan-project.org). One objective of our research is to identify (a set of) factors which proved to be most relevant in the process of language selection in different European contexts through history.

Burke, Peter (2004). Languages and communities in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keller, Rudi (1994). On language change. The invisible hand in language. London: Routledge.

Sijs, Nicoline, van der (2004). Taal als mensenwerk: het ontstaan van het ABN. Den Haag: Sdu Uitgeverij.

Session: Paper session
Change / Variation
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 12