I preface this to say I am a dumb American. I don’t speak Nederlands or Vlaams well and only read it marginally better. As of early 2021, I require a lot of tools and resources to make my way through modern academic texts. The situation is made more complex if I was to understand primary sources in early modern Dutch.
Note the history of the era. One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the 16th century Dutch-speaking Low Countries is the evolution of language and identity that happened in this era. More and more people were writing in the local Dutch vernacular (more a point for scholars and poets, but we also must consider those household and business documents that had always been written in the local language).
While the vernacular Brabants-regional dialect became more and more standardized, there were still numerous words and non-standardized spellings everywhere. In the manuscripts (i.e. household inventories) there was also lots of abbreviations used that aren’t immediately obvious. And that’s not taking into account the use of Low Saxon (Nederlands Nedersaksisch) in the east or Frisian to the north! All that means that deciphering a translation can be tricky, but here are the tools that I’ve found helpful.
Please note that most of these sources will be in Dutch. Use your own Dutch-English translation tools as needed.
When looking to define or better understand a word that doesn’t translate well with a translation tool or is listed in my modern Van Dale Dutch-English dictionary, my usual next steps are to consult a searchable online database (hurray for digital humanities).
- Historical Dutch Dictionaries Database, or the Historische Woordenboeken: This is the go-to database for queries of old, middle, and early modern Dutch words. Digitized and maintained by the Institute for the Dutch Language (INT) and based on work by the Institute for Dutch Lexicology (INL), this database collects hundreds of thousands of words from Old, Middle, and Early Modern Dutch. See more about the Historische Woordenboeken here.
- Short Title Catalogues: Early modern books used long titles—very long titles. That can be helpful when encountering an unclear word. Searching collections of old books can sometimes provide much needed context (but is best used as a last resort). The Short-Title Catalogue, Netherlands (STCN) collects printed books from the modern Netherlands between 1540-1800, while the Flemish database, Short Title Catalogus Vlaanderen (STCV), covers Flanders with a focus on Antwerp and Leuven.
A Collection of Extant Dictionaries, Grammars, and Other Sources
Early Modern Dutch Dictionaries
As the vernacular Dutch language (and in particular its Brabantse dialect) saw wider use in print through the sixteenth century, efforts began to document the language and standardize its use. Much as dictionary efforts have been throughout the centuries, these were gargantuan efforts that took many decades.
The first Dutch-Latin dictionary was published in 1599, with the first Dutch-English edition following nearly fifty years later.
- 1599—Cornelis Kiliaan and the first Dutch-Latin dictionary: Kiliaan worked in the printing shop of the famed publisher Christophe Plantin. His effort to document the Dutch language (one of the first to reference etymology and comparative linguistics) became his life’s work, resulting in the Etymologicum Teutonicae Linguae, which was first published in in 1599. His work would go on to be the foundation for all major Dutch language dictionaries into the twentieth century. View digital and PDF versions of the Etymologicum Teutonicae Linguae at the DBNL (Dutch national library) here.
- 1648—Henry Hexam’s Dutch-English dictionary: Hexam was an English soldier with a skill for the Dutch language. He was the first to assemble and take to press a Dutch-English dictionary, which he gave the English title of A Copious English and Netherduytch Dictionarie… with the corresponding Dutch title of Het Groot Woorden-Boeck, Gestelt in’t Engelsch ende Nederduytsch…. The English-Dutch half was printed in 1648, while the remaining Dutch-English portion appeared a decade later. The DBNL also has a digital and PDF version of Hexam’s Groot Woorden-Boeck here.
Grammars were a more expedient affair: short, compact books that provided English soldiers, merchants, and university students in the Dutch Republic with a convenient reference—much like modern travel dictionaries and phrase books. These two are highly relevant works, but have not been digitally transcribed in the way the dictionaries above have.
- 1586—Gabriel Meurier and Perhaps the first Dutch-English grammar: Meurier was a French speaker (unknown if French or Walloon) who was a language instructor and writer. Though believed based in Antwerp, in 1586 he published a work through the what may be the first Dutch-English grammar through the Leiden-based English expat printer Thomas Basson. The Conjugations in English and Netherdutche, According as Gabriel Meurier… (De Conjugatien in Engelsch ende Nederduytsche, Also de Selve door Gabriel Meurier as it was also titled, in Dutch) may be the first Dutch-English grammar. This decision may make sense in light of a potential buying audience: Leiden’s robust English and Scottish community. The only extant copy I’m aware of is in the Leiden University archives, where it’s also been scanned into digital format.
- 1606—Marten le Mayre’s The Dutch School-Master: The first Dutch-English grammar published in England, Le Mayre’s work was a modest success, but set the stage for an increasing number of grammars to follow as the seventeenth century progressed. A facsimile was printed in 1972 by the Scholar Press Limited, but I am unaware of a digital version.
- The fantastic resource Lexicons of Early Modern English maintains a list of known grammars, dictionaries, and multilingual reference texts – including a list of 16th and 17th century texts that include Dutch.
Additional Reference Texts & Databases
- 1637—Statenvertaling: This Bible, the “States’ Translation,” equivalates to the Dutch version of the King James Bible in both linguistic and cultural impact. A Dutch-English side-by-side New Testament is available in print, but I am unaware of a digital source that offers the same.
- 1551—Herbal Treatise: English author William Turner wrote a treatise naming and describing various plants and herbs in “Greke, Latin, Englysh, Duch, Frenche,” and Latin. This was his A New Herbal (1551).
- c. 1608—Gerbrand Adriaensz. Bredero’s Archaic Words: J.R. van Wijk has compiled a list of archaic words used by the Dutch poet and author who worked in the vernacular. It’s not a robust or comprehensive look at the language as a whole, but it’s still a helpful and often curious reference. Part I and Part II.
Early Modern Dutch Paleography
The Study of Deciphering and Understanding Historic Handwriting
The handwriting systems and conventions of early modern Europeans presents a confusing minefield to most of us – even seasoned academics. But learning to read the handwriting of our forebearers opens up primary sources previously locked. To be clear, I have not yet begun to study paleography in earnest.
I feel I need to get a better handle on reading modern Dutch first, then digitized early modern Dutch, before I go trotting off to read handwritten letters and notes. But if you share that curiosity, here are two resources.
- Waat Staar Daer? (What Does It Say?): A collaboration between multiple museums and historical organizations for learning to read old Dutch manuscripts, complete with references and educational exercises. They also have a message board!
- Learning to Read 17th Century Dutch: Benjamin L. Mosely is a Ph.D candidate (as of 2019), and he’s written a helpful blog post sharing his experience with early modern Dutch paleography.
- Julie van den Hout: She’s a scholar of the 17th century Dutch Republic, with a specific focus on New Netherland. She’s set up a very helpful site called, simply enough, 17th Century Dutch. Therein you’ll find a small but eminently usable collection of references and exercises.
- BYU Paleography Resources: In keeping with what you’d fully expect and appreciate from the LDS university, BYU’s Script site has extensive content, including some English-language resources on Dutch.
Books & Articles on the History of Early Modern Dutch
If you want to go beyond primary sources and databases and move into the linguistic history, here are a few books and journal articles that may be helpful and/or interesting:
- Peter Burke. Towards a Social History of Early Modern Dutch. Amsterdam University Press: 2005.
- Alisa van de Haar. The Golden Mean of Languages: Forging Dutch and French in the Early Modern Low Countries (1540-1620). Brill, 2019.
- Christopher Joby. The Dutch Language in Britain (1550-1702): A Social History of the Use of Dutch in Early Modern Britain. Brill, 2015.
- P.L.M. Loonen. For to Learne to Buye and Sell : Learning English in the Low Dutch Area between 1500 and 1800. APA-Holland University Press, 1991.
- N. E. Osselton. The Dumb Linguists: A Study of the Earliest English and Dutch Dictionaries. Leiden University Press and Oxford University, 1975.
- Marijke Spies. ‘Developments in Sixteenth-Century Dutch Poetics. From “Rhetoric” to “Renaissance”.’ Renaissance-Rhetorik, 1993
- Gary K. Waite. “The Holy Spirit Speaks Dutch: David Joris and the Promotion of the Dutch Language, 1538-1545.” Church History, 1992.