Old Dutch

Old Dutch
Old Dutch
Spoken in the Low Countries
Era developed into Middle Dutch by the middle of the 12th century
Language family
Writing system Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-3 odt

In linguistics, Old Dutch (or Old West Low Franconian) denotes the forms of West Franconian spoken and written in the Netherlands and present-day northern Belgium during the Early Middle Ages. It is regarded as the primary stage in the development of a separate Dutch language. It evolved from Old Frankish around the 6th century and in turn evolved into Middle Dutch around the 12th century.

Old Dutch was spoken by the populace which erstwhile occupied present-day Netherlands, northern Belgium, parts of northern France, and the Lower Rhine and Westphalia regions of Germany. The inhabitants of present-day Dutch provinces—including Groningen, Friesland and the coast of North Holland—spoke Old Frisian, while those of the east (Achterhoek, Overijssel and Drenthe) exercised Old Saxon.



Relation with other West Germanic languages

Old Dutch (Old West Low Franconian) and Old East Low Franconian (cf. Limburgian) are very closely related, the divergence being that the latter shares more traits with neighboring Middle Franconian (e.g., Ripuarian and Mosel Franconian) while having fewer similarities to Old Saxon than does Old Dutch. While both forms of Low Franconian were instrumental to the framing of Middle Dutch, Old East Low Franconian did not much contribute to standard Dutch, which is based on the consolidated dialects of South Holland and Brabant.

In the Middle Ages, a dialect continuum subsisted between Old Low Franconian and Old Saxon; this was only recently interrupted by the simultaneous dissemination of standard languages within each nation and the dissolution of folk-dialects. Despite sharing some particular features, a number of disparities separate Old Saxon, Old English, and Old Dutch; one such difference is the Old Dutch utilization of -a as its plural a-stem noun ending, while Old Saxon and Old English employ -as or -os. Much of the grammatical variation between Old Dutch and Old Saxon is similar to that between Old Dutch and Old High German.

During the Merovingian period, the Middle Franconian dialects were influenced by Old Low Franconian, resulting in certain linguistic loans which yielded a slight overlap of vocabulary, most of which relating to warfare. In addition is the subsumption of the High German consonant shift, a set of phonological changes beginning around the 5th–6th century CE.

The other languages did not develop a uniform block discrete from Low Franconian as they do modernly. Today, nearly every continental European West Germanic language practices German as a standard, the only exception being the Dutch-speaking zone and Frisia.

Relation to Middle Dutch

Area in which Old Dutch was spoken.

Old Dutch naturally evolved into Middle Dutch, having some distinctions which approximate those found in most medieval West Germanic languages. 1150 CE is often cited as the time of its discontinuation, but the date actually marks the inceptive period of profuse Dutch writing wherein the language is patently different from Old Dutch.

The most notable variance between Old and Middle Dutch is in a feature of speech known as vowel reduction; while round vowels in word-final syllables are rather frequent in Old Dutch, in Middle Dutch, such are leveled to a schwa.


  • Old Dutch vogala → Middle Dutch vogele 'bird'
  • ODu dago/a → MDu daghe 'day'
  • ODu brecan → MDu breken 'to break'
  • ODu gescrivona → MDu ghescreven 'written' (past participle)

The following is a translation of Psalm 55:18, taken from the Wachtendonck Psalms; it demonstrates the evolutionary arc of Dutch language—from the original Old Dutch, written ca. 900 CE, to modern Dutch—but so accurately reproduces the Latin word order of the original that there is little information what can be garnered on Old Dutch syntax. In modern Dutch, recasting is necessary to form a coherent sentence.

Old Dutch
Irlōsin sal an frithe sēla mīna fan thēn thia ginācont mi, wanda under managon he was mit mi.
Middle Dutch
Erlosen sal hi in vrede siele mine van dien die genaken mi, want onder menegen hi was met mi.
Modern Dutch, using same word order
Verlossen zal hij in vrede ziel mijn van zij die genaken mij, want onder menigen hij was met mij.
Modern Dutch, using contemporary Dutch word order
Hij zal mijn ziel verlossen in vrede van hen die mij genaken, want onder menigen was hij met mij.
"He will deliver my soul in peace from those who attack me, for, amongst many, he was with me."


Early sound developments

Phonologically, Old Dutch stands in between Old Saxon and Old High German, sharing some innovations with the latter, and others with the former. Generally, it is less conservative than either, rarely preserving older phonological stages not shared by one of the others. This may also be a result of its late attestation, however.

Characteristics shared with Old Saxon:

  • The Old Germanic diphthongs ai and au become the long vowels ''ē and ō. Examples: hēm, slōt. There are however several examples which show that a diphthong ei remained in some cases, showing that the change was not quite complete as it was in Old Saxon.

Characteristics shared with Old High German:

  • The West Germanic ō (/oː/) and ē (/eː/, from Proto-Germanic ē2) become diphthongs uo and ie. Old Dutch fluot versus Old Saxon flōd, Old Dutch hier versus Old Saxon hēr.
  • The h-sound in consonant clusters at the beginning of a word disappears around the 9th century, while it is retained in the northern languages. Examples include Old Dutch ringis ("ring", genitive), Old High German ring versus Old Saxon and Old English hring, or ros ("steed") versus Old English hros ("horse").
  • j is lost when following two consonants, with -jan becoming -en. This is most prominent in ja- and jō-stem nouns and adjectives, and in verbs of the first weak class.

Uniquely Old Dutch characteristics:

  • h disappears between vowels. Old Dutch thion, Old English þēon versus Old High German dîhan, or Old Dutch (ge)sian, Old English sēon versus Old High German sehan.
  • The sound combination hs (chs) becomes a geminated ss. Example: Old Dutch vusso < West Germanic fuhs (fuxs).


The table below lists the consonants of Old Dutch. If two phonemes appear in the same box, the first of each pair is voiceless, the second is voiced. Phonemes written in parentheses represent allophones and are not independent phonemes. For descriptions of the sounds and definitions of the terms, follow the links on the headings.

Old Dutch consonants
  Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p  b   t  d   k  (ɡ)  
Fricative f  v θ  (ð) s  (z)   (x)  ɣ h
Nasal m   n   (ŋ)  
Trill     r      
Approximant       j w  
Lateral     l      


  • Most consonants could be geminated. Notably, geminated /v/ gave /bb/, and geminated /ɣ/ probably gave /ɡɡ/. Geminated /h/ resulted in /xx/.
  • In the course of the Old Dutch period the voiceless spirants /f/, /θ/ and /s/ gain voiced allophones [v], [ð] and [z] when positioned at the beginning of a syllable. This change is only faithfully reflected for [v], the other two allophones continued to be written as before. In the Wachtendonckse Psalmen this feature is very rare, while much later it can be seen in the spelling of Dutch toponyms which indicate the sound change was taking place during the 10th and 11th century.
  • /v/ also occurred word-medially as an independent phoneme, developed from Proto-Germanic [β], the fricative allophone of /b/.
  • [ɡ] is an allophone of /ɣ/ occurring after /n/.
  • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before velars (/k/ and /ɡ/).
  • [x] is an allophone of /h/ occurring after vowels.
  • /l/ was velarised as [ɫ] between a back vowel and /t/ or /d/. It might have also been velarised in other environments (as in modern Dutch today).

Final obstruent devoicing

Old Dutch experienced final obstruent devoicing much earlier than Old Saxon and Old High German. In fact, judging from the find at Bergakker, it would seem that the language already had inherited this characteristic from Old Frankish, whereas Old Saxon and Old High German are known to have maintained word-final voiced obstruents much later (at least 900).


  • wort ("word", nominative) versus wordes (genitive)
  • gif ("give!", imperative) versus geuon ("to give", infinitive)
  • weh [wex] ("way", accusative) versus wege ("way", dative)

Final devoicing has become systematic in modern Dutch. It is reflected in spelling for f/v (leef-leven), s/z (kaas-kazen) but not for t/d, i.e., woord, "word", is spelled with a /d/ but pronounced with a [t].


Old Dutch vowels
Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i  y u
Mid e  ø o
Open a


  • Phonetic realisation of /uː/ differed by area. In most areas it was probably realised phonetically as [ʉː], or [ʉw] before a vowel. But it was probably [uː] or [ʊw] in others. While there is no direct evidence for this in Old Dutch, it can be inferred by later developments in Middle Dutch.
  • Long vowels were rare in unstressed syllables and mostly occurred due to suffixation or compounding.
  • /y/ and /ø/ were originally umlaut allophones of /u/ and /o/ before /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable. They were however partly phonemicised when the conditioning sounds were gradually lost over time. Sometimes the fronting was reverted later, other times it remained. Regardless of phonemic distinction, they were still written as u and o.
  • /u/ and /o/ (as well as their umlauted allophones) were articulatorily close, as they eventually merged into one sound at the end of the Old Dutch period.
  • /i/ and /e/ were also similar in articulation, but did not merge except in some small and frequently used monosyllables (such as bin > ben, 'I am'). They did however merge consistently when they were later lengthened in open syllables.
  • /a/ probably had a rounded allophone [ɒ] before velarised [ɫ]. It eventually merged with /o/ in this position, as in Low Saxon, but in Dutch the velar [ɫ] vocalised, creating a diphthong.

In unstressed syllables, only three vowels seem to have been reliably distinguished: open, front and back. In the Wachtendonckse Psalmen with unstressed syllables the e and i merge together, as with o and u. This led to variants like dagi and dage ("day", dative singular) and tungon and tungun ("tongue", genitive, dative, accusative singular and nominative, dative, accusative plural). The forms with e and o are generally found later on, showing the gradual reduction of articulatory distinction, eventually merging into a schwa (/ə/). A short phrase from the gospel book of Munsterbilzen Abbey, written around 1130, still shows several unstressed vowels distinguished:

Tesi samanunga was edele unde scona
This community was noble and pure

This was a late monument however, as the merging of all unstressed short vowels was already well underway by that time. Most likely the difference was only maintained in spelling traditions, but had been mostly lost in speech. With the introduction of new scribal traditions in the 12th and 13th century, these practices were abandoned, and unstressed vowels are consistently written as e from that time onward.

Old Dutch diphthongs
Front Back
Opening ie  (ia  io) uo
Height-harmonic iu
Closing ei (ou)


  • The closing diphthongs /ei/ and /ou/ only occurred systematically in the southeastern dialects, having merged with /eː/ and /oː/ elsewhere. The other dialects retained only /ei/, in words where earlier /ai/ had been affected by umlaut (which prevented it from becoming /eː/ in many Old Dutch dialects, but not in Old Saxon).
  • The situation for the front opening diphthongs is somewhat unclear, but seems similar to the situation for unstressed short vowels. Words written with io in Old High German are often found written variably with ia or even ie in Old Dutch. They had likely merged with each other already during the Old Dutch period.
  • Similarly /iu/ eventually merged with the other opening diphthongs in some dialects. In the others it merged with /uː/ in most cases (after having passed through an intermediate stage such as [yu]).
  • There also existed 'long' diphthongs /aːu/ and /eːu/. These were however treated as two-syllable sequences of a long vowel followed by a short one, not proper diphthongs.

Spelling conventions

Old Dutch was spelled using the Latin alphabet. However, since early missionaries in the Low Countries were mostly Old English and Old High German speakers, Old English and Old High German elements do appear, even though they were never present in the spoken language.

The length of a vowel was generally not represented in writing probably because the monks, who were the ones capable of writing and teaching how to write, tended to base the written language on Latin which also does not make a distinction in writing. For example: dag "day" (short vowel), thahton "they thought" (long vowel). Later on, the long vowels were sometimes marked with a macron to indicate a long vowel, e.g. ā. In some texts long vowels were indicated by simply doubling the vowel in question, e.g. the placename Heembeke and personal name Oodhelmus (both from charters written in 941 and 797 respectively).

  • c is used for [k] when it is followed by u, o or a: cuning [kuniŋk] 'king' (modern koning). In front of i or e, the earlier texts (especially names in Latin deeds and charters) used ch. By the later tenth century, the newer letter k (which was rarely used in Latin) was starting to replace this spelling. Example: kēron [keːron] 'to turn around' (mod. keren).
  • It is not exactly clear how c was pronounced before i or e in Old Dutch. In the Latin orthography of the time, c before front vowels stood for an affricate [t͡s]; it is quite likely that early Dutch spelling followed this pronunciation.
  • g represented [ɣ] or its allophone [ɡ]: brengan [breŋɡan] 'to bring', segghan [seɡɡan] 'to say', wege [weɣe] 'way' (dative).
  • h represents [h] and its allophone [x]: holto [hoɫto] 'wood' (mod. hout), naht 'night' (mod. nacht).
  • i is used for both the vowels [i] and [iː] and the consonant [j]: ik [ik] 'I' (mod. ik), iār [jaːr] 'year' (mod. jaar).
  • qu always represents [kw]: quāmon [kwaːmon] 'they came' (mod. kwamen).
  • s represented the consonant [s] and later also [z].
  • th is used to indicate [θ]: thāhton [θaːxton] 'they thought' (mod. dachten). Occasionally dh is used for [ð].
  • u represented the vowels [u] and [uː] or the consonant [v]: uusso [vusso] 'foxes' (genitive plural).
  • uu was normally used to represent [w], as the letter w didn't exist yet.
  • z rarely appears and when it does, it's pronounced [ts]: quezzodos [kwetsodos] 'you hurt' (past tense, mod. kwetste).



A clear characteristic is the survival of the Germanic four-case system, which by Middle Dutch had started to become less distinct as a result of the collapse of full vowels in final position.

dag "day" singular:

dag (nominative)
dages, -is (genitive)
dage (dative)
dag (accusative)


daga (nominative)
dago (genitive)
dagon (dative)
daga (accusative)

During the Old Dutch period, the distinction between the feminine ō-stems and ōn-stems began to disappear, with endings of one being transferred to the other declension and vice versa. This was part of a larger process in which the distinction between the strong and weak inflection was being lost, not only in feminine nouns but also in adjectives. This process is shown in a more advanced stage in Middle Dutch.


In its verb inflection Old Dutch reflects an intermediate stage between Old Saxon and Old High German. Like Old High German, it preserved the three different verb endings in the plural: -on, -et and -unt, while the more northern languages have the same verb ending in all three persons. However, like Old Saxon, it had only two classes of weak verb, with only a few relic verbs of the third weak class, while the third class had still largely been preserved in Old High German.

Surviving texts

Old Dutch texts are extremely rare, and much more limited when compared to related languages like Old English and Old High German. Most of the earliest texts written in the Netherlands were written in Latin rather than Old Dutch. Some of these Latin texts however contained Old Dutch words interspersed with the Latin text. Also, it is extremely hard to determine whether a text actually is written in Old Dutch as the Germanic dialects spoken at that time were much more closely related.

The most famous sentence

Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic
enda thu uuat unbidan uue nu.

Arguably, the most famous text containing "Old Dutch" is: Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan, hinase hic enda tu, wat unbidan we nu ("All birds have started making nests, except me and you, what are we waiting for"), dating around the year 1100, written by a Flemish monk in a convent in Rochester, England. For a long time this sentence was considered to be the earliest in Dutch. However according to professor Luc de Grauwe the text could equally well be Old English, more specifically Old Kentish. However, there doesn't seem to be a general consensus on this matter. It should also be noted that Old (West) Dutch and Old English were very similar. [1]

Some larger texts

The Wachtendonck Psalms

The Wachtendonck Psalms are a number of psalms written in Latin and an eastern variety of Old Franconian. It is unclear whether the dialect is Old Limburgish or a variety of Rhine Franconian. Very little remains of them. The psalms were named after a manuscript which has not come down to us, but out of which scholars believe the surviving fragments must have been copied. This manuscript was once owned by Canon Arnold Wachtendonck. The surviving fragments are handwritten copies made by the Renaissance scholar Justus Lipsius in the sixteenth century. Lipsius made a number of separate copies of apparently the same material and these versions do not always agree. In addition, scholars conclude that the numerous errors and inconsistencies in the fragments point not only to some carelessness or inattentiveness by the Renaissance scholars but also to errors in the now lost manuscript out of which the material was copied. The language of the Psalms suggests that they were originally written in the 10th century. A number of editions exist, among others by the 19th-century Dutch philologist Willem Lodewijk van Helten and, more recently, the diplomatic edition by the American historical linguist Robert L. Kyes (1969) and the critical edition by the Dutch philologist Arend Quak (1981). As might be expected from an interlinear translation, the word order of the Old Franconian text follows that of the Latin original very closely.

The Leiden Willeram

The Leiden Willeram is the name given to a manuscript containing a Low Franconian version of the Old High German commentary on Song of Solomon by the German abbot Williram (ultimately by Isidore of Seville). Until recently, based on its orthography and phonology the text of this manuscript was believed by most scholars to be Middle Franconian, that is Old High German, with some Limburgic or otherwise Franconian admixtures. But in 1974, the German philologist Willy Sanders proved in his study Der Leidener Willeram that the text actually represents an imperfect attempt by a scribe from the northwestern coastal area of the Low Countries to translate the East Franconian original into his local vernacular. The text contains many Old Dutch words not known in Old High German, as well as mistranslated words caused by the scribe's unfamiliarity with some Old High German words in the original he translated, and a confused orthography heavily influenced by the Old High German original. For instance, the grapheme <z> is used after the High German tradition where it represents Germanic t shifted to /ts/. Sanders also proved that the manuscript, now in the University Library of Leiden University, was written at the end of the 11th century in the Abbey of Egmond in modern North Holland, whence the manuscript's other name Egmond Willeram.

The Rhinelandic Rhyming Bible

Another important source for Old Dutch is the so-called Rhinelandic Rhyming Bible (Dutch: Rijnlandse Rijmbijbel and German: Rheinische Reimbibel). This is a verse translation of biblical histories, attested only in a series of fragments, which was composed in a mixed dialect containing Low German, Old Dutch and High German (Rhine-Franconian) elements.[2] It was likely composed in north-west Germany in the early 12th century, possibly in Werden Abbey, near Essen.

Further sources

  • Glosses
  • Place names
  • Personal names

Older Sentences

An earlier sentence of what could be considered Old Dutch comes from the "Lex salica", written in the early 6th century:

"Maltho thi afrio lito"
('I say, I free you, half-free')

This phrase was used to free a serf. Apart from this the Lex Salica also contains a number of loose words.

In 1996 an even older (425-450) sentence was discovered on the sword sheath of Bergakker that is perhaps better described as Old Frankish than Old Dutch. Given the paucity of the remains of either, the demarcation between the two is hard to make although often a date of 800-900 is given for the transition. In that case both the Lex Salica and the Bergakker find should be considered Old Frankish.


  1. ^ 'Olla vogala' is Engels
    'Olla Vogala' nog even in woordenboek
    Hebban olla uogala
  2. ^ David A. Wells, The "Central Franconian Rhyming Bible" ("Mittelfränkische Reimbibel"): An early-twelfth-century German verse homiliary. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.
  • A. Quak en J.M. van der Horst, Inleiding Oudnederlands. Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2002).
  • Maurits Gysseling m.m.v Willy Pijnenburg, Corpus van Middelnederlandse teksten (tot en met het jaar 1300) reeks II (literaire handschriften), deel 1: Fragmenten. 's-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1980.
  • M. Gysseling, "Prae-Nederlands, Oudnederlands, Vroegmiddelnederlands", in: Vierde Colloquium van hoogleraren en lectoren in de neerlandistiek aan buitenlandse universiteiten. Gent, 1970, pp. 78–89.
  • M.C. van den Toorn, W.J.J. Pijnenburg, J.A. van Leuvensteijn, e.a., Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse taal. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997.
  • Willy Sanders, Der Leidener Willeram. Untersuchungen zu Handschrift, Text und Sprachform. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1974.

See also

External links

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