Dutch, originally a Germanic language, is nowadays used by over 23 million people worldwide. The majority of these people come from the Netherlands (16 million speakers) and the Northern part of Belgium, Flanders (7 million speakers). Dutch is also one of the official languages in former Dutch colonies Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles, and while the former colony of Indonesia gained independence in 1945, Dutch is still spoken among some of the older inhabitants. In South Africa, Dutch was an official language until the end of the 18th century. Today, one of South Africa’s official languages, Afrikaans, is very similar to Dutch. This is due to the influence of the Dutch East India Company that settled in southern Africa in the middle of the 17th century. Afrikaans is now regarded as an independent Germanic language and a sister language of Dutch.

Dutch loan words can be found in many languages. These words include mainly but not exclusively maritime terminology. For example, there are the English words of Bluff, Boss, Coleslaw, Cookie, Landscape, Spook and Yacht , which all have Dutch origins.

Old Dutch (before 1150 AD)

In linguistic terms the Old Dutch period is defined as running from 700 AD to the start of the Middle Dutch period. The scope of Old Dutch includes, alongside Old Lower Frankonian, also the other language forms of the historical Netherlands. Old Dutch shows developments in its sounds which did not occur in the other Germanic languages. Whereas Gothic only used two tenses (present and preterite) Old Dutch knew a construction for the future tense. The verb endings in Old Dutch show the person, number, mood and tense. The dual, the indication of two people, which was part of the Gothic language, was no longer present.

The family tree for the Germanic languages (as developed by A. Schleicher) is as follows:

       ------------------- Ancient Germanic -------------------
      |                          |                             |
      |                          |                             |
Eastern Germanic          Northern Germanic          Western Germanic
      |                          |                             |	     
      |             -----------------------------          -------------------------
      |            |         |         |         |        |       |        |       |
    Gothic      Swedish  Norwegian  Danish  Icelandic   Dutch  English  German  Frisian

Since the 2nd century before Christ, the regions of the Netherlands and Belgium were inhabited by Germanic and Celtic tribes. These tribes were part of the so-called Wandering of the Nations, a large-scale tribal migration towards the west. When the Romans, under leadership of Caesar, conquered the provinces of the Netherlands in 57 BC they brought a network of roads and new-found towns with them. While the region was an outpost of the Roman Empire for 500 years, the Romans never managed to impose their culture completely on the Germanic tribes. With the Rhine forming a border between the two regions, the Roman side was rich and cultivated, while the German side was a collection of tribes with a common language, culture and religion, but without overarching institutions. The Wandering of the Nations signified the end of the Pax Romana. The Netherlands were gradually Christianized and the Germanic colonization accelerated. The Franks emigrated to the south, the Angles and Saxons left for Britain, the Frisians spread their area of influence to the north of the Rhine. The Saxons who stayed behind made Westphalia their centre. The Alemanni left for South Germany, and the west Goths (Visigoths) for Spain, while the east Goths (Ostrogoths) settled in Italy.

5th - 9th century

As a result of the German invasion of Gaul in 406 AD and the migration of the Franks, there was a large bilingual area occupied by Frankish invaders and Gallo-roman natives. Several tribal empires arose, of which the Frankish Empire became the most important. The Netherlands at that time consisted of two parts: Neustria and Austrasia. Pippin, head of a powerful Frankish family, was crowned King of the Franks in 751AD. Nearly fifty years later his son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), was crowned Roman Emperor. His empire spread from the Pyrenees to the Danube and from Friesland to the middle of Italy, with an economic centre in the basins of the Meuse and the Rhine. The administrative language of the Frankish empire was still Latin, but in the local dialect Old French took over from Gallo-Roman. A language boundary running from west to east now separated the two monolingual areas with Germanic in the north and Romance in the south. In 843 AD Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious proclaimed the Treaty of Verdun, and the area was split into three smaller parts, Middle Francia, West Francia, and East Francia, which were all led by his sons. The area of Middle Francia was in 855 AD once more split into three smaller areas.

10th century

Thanks to increasing feudal powers West Francia rapidly disintegrated. From the ninth century onwards the dukes of Francia were crowned King. At the same time the power of the counts of Flanders increased. In the German Empire the empire passed into the hands of Henry I: under his successors the Holy Roman Empire was restored. Between 800 and 1100 AD the recognition of a common Germanic language grew within the East-Frankish empire. The Franks, who had a dominant position in the empire, had been able to establish their own language as the leading language right from the eighth century. This "theodisca lingua" was also spoken in the Netherlands.

Middle Dutch (1150-1500)

It is hard to give the exact date that Dutch became a separate language, independent from German. The earliest Dutch texts date from the 11th century, though there could well have been earlier texts than these. The surviving texts were short phrases and fragments from direct translations of biblical texts. Of course, the existence of a first text does not imply that the language was not spoken in earlier times.

Within Middle Dutch five dialect groups are distinguished:

The oldest known Dutch text was found in 1932 by an English academic in Oxford. It was a love poem written by a Flemish monk who lived in Kent in England, around 1100 AD. The Latin translation was written above the sentences. It read:

    "hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan - hinase hi(c) (e)nda thu - uu(at) unbida(n) (uu)e nu"

    "All the birds have started their nests - except me and you. - What are we waiting for now?"
Other texts that date from the same period were mostly found in the southern area of Holland. They include the "Leiden Willeram", a translation of the Song of Solomon as written by abbot Willeram from Egmont (the original text, written in eastern Lower Franconion, is lost), and the "Wachtendonk Psalms", another translation of psalms from the tenth century. Later texts also originate from the southern area of Holland: for example there is "Van den vos Reynaerde" from Flanders, and the works of Jacob van Maerlant (Flanders and the islands of South Holland).

From 1150 to 1300

Before 1200, the Dutch written language was reserved for ecclesiastical officials. The regular written language at that time was Latin, but few people could actually read and write. After 1200 plenty of new towns arose. Burghers who moved to these towns brought their dialects with them - using them also in written documents such as laws and contracts - this is how particular regional dialects emerged. The new political and economic centers of the Dutch speaking region became the County of Flanders and the Duchy of Brabant (both under rule of Floris V), and the County of Holland. Meanwhile the area of Flanders flourished thanks to rich industrial towns such as Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres. The area now belonged to the French crown, which was also apparent in the spoken and written language: Dutch was heavily influenced by French, and Latin was supplanted as the administrative language.

At the end of the 13th century Western Europe had developed a culture of its own, and the economic situation was excellent. Administration was carried out by common people, those who could read and write were no longer only to be found in clerical circles. Education was still carried out by the church: from the 12th century onwards the rise of so-called "church-schools" was apparent - some church-schools eventually grew into universities.

From 1300 to 1500

The 14th and 15th centuries were influenced by crisis and economic stagnation, as bad harvests and diseases took many lives. At the same time the political unity of the Dutch-speaking regions increased rapidly. Districts were combined through marriages and conquests, and expanded themselves to form more powerful counties and duchies. The power of towns also increased, thanks to the growing trade between towns and regions. With it came an increased contact between the inhabitants of different areas. At first the most influential dialect was that of Flanders, then that of Brabant, followed later by the Holland dialect.

Around 1450 the use of printing using movable type was invented. Suddenly it was possible to publish books at a much faster rate. Moreover it became possible to reach a much larger audience, also in other regions. For the benefit of these foreign readers authors avoided the use of words that would be unknown to them. Book printing was therefore a big step towards a common Dutch language.

In this period the power of the Dukes of Burgundy increased, and many Dutch-speaking regions came under their control. After Maria of Burgundy married Maximilian of Austria, the entire region (including Spain) was annexed to the Habsburg Empire. Maximilian was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in 1486. His grandson Charles V followed him to the throne and became King of Spain and lord of the Netherlands. The economic situation in the Netherlands at that time was very favorable: the textile and book-printing sectors in particular were growing strongly.

16th, 17th, and 18th century

At the end of the 16th century the crisis set in, as new religious movements were becoming more important. Protestants who had moved away from Catholicism were pursued by the Spanish, which aroused much opposition among the Dutch population. The situation escalated and the so-called Iconoclasm (beeldenstorm) began in the churches. William of Orange's attempt to occupy Brabant started the 80-Years' War (the Dutch Revolt) in 1568. In 1585 the Spanish conquered Antwerp. In retaliation the Northern provinces closed the Scheldt, which blocked off the Flemish ports. This marked the definitive separation of the Netherlands. As a result of these conflicts great amounts of people emigrated from the south to the north. The dream of a single great "Netherlands" was over, and the 17 provinces were divided into two parts. Meanwhile a new religious war broke out between the followers of Arminius and of Gomarus. From 1618 this war merged into the 30 Years' War in Europe. Europe was now one great theatre of battle - the conflicts were not resolved until 1648, at the Peace of Munster. With the Peace of Munster Spain recognized the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, and the separation was confirmed definitively.

At the start of the 17th century the Netherlands were now once again an area with different dialects but without an overarching standard language. However, initiated by the Chambers of Rhetoric the reconstruction of Dutch found support in wide circles. The first attempts to build up a general language were primarily in the southern Netherlands. Under the influence of political changes these attempts shifted from the south to the north. Gradually a standard spoken language developed. The standard language was based on the language that was spoken in the Randstad (the area between Amsterdam and Rotterdam).

In the middle of the 17th century the conflicts resumed with trade wars between England and the Netherlands. On top of that France invaded the Netherlands and started a war with England. The appointment of William II as the new regent of the Netherlands changed the situation and a year later the French withdrew again. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) ended the War of the Spanish Succession. The Spanish Netherlands passed to the Austrian Habsburgs, where they stayed until 1794.

Modern Dutch (19th and 20th century)

The process of standardization of Dutch in the 17th century set foot for rapid development of the Dutch language and its dialects. In the 19th century interest grew in the history and future of the language, which led to the first dictionaries covering Dutch and its history. For the first time grammar rules were introduced, namely in Petrus Weiland's De Nederduitsche Spraakkunst (1805). Some of his principles are still in use today.

After World War II government-sponsored measures were taken to reach uniformity of usage in the Netherlands and Belgium. In 1980 the Dutch Language Union (Nederlandse Taalunie) was founded. The task of the intergovernmental (Dutch and Belgian) organization was to look after and promote the Dutch language and literature. Up till today it co-ordinates policies regarding Dutch spelling, grammar, terminology, the teaching of Dutch as a foreign language, and Dutch literature. In 1984 a comprehensive grammar of usage, the Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst (ANS), was published: it was edited by two Flemings and two Dutchmen.

The amount of varieties of Dutch that currently exist counts up to twenty-eight dialects (as distinguished by dialectologist Jo Daan). These can be subdivided into six main groups:

Literatuur geschiedenis bloemlezing I, H.J.M.F. Lodewick, 1976
Verboden op het werk te komen, Vlaamse taal- en andere eigenaardigheden, T. van der Wouden, 1998