The verse Hebban olla vogala with the Latin translation above | Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 340, fol. 169v

Borders, Language & Territory
End of 11th century
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Hebban olla vogala

Traces of the Earliest Dutch

‘Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic ande thu. Wat unbidan we nu?’ These scribbles on the last page of a manuscript containing Old English sermons are the oldest lines of poetry in Dutch. Put into present-day language: ‘Alle vogels zijn aan hun nesten begonnen, behalve ik en jij. Waar wachten we nog op?’ (All the birds have begun nesting, apart from me and you. What are we waiting for?)

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There is unanimity about the meaning, but we can only guess at the origin of these verses. Possibly they are from a love song. A monk jotted them down to try out his pen, a new goose quill. He lived in a monastery in Kent in England, but probably came from the west of the county of Flanders. The lines were written at the end of the 11th century, but were not discovered until 1932.

Schepenbrief van Bochoute

Oudenaarde, Archief OCMW, oorkonde nr. 542

This alderman’s letter from Bochoute is the oldest preserved Dutch-language property document (May 1249) which is not a translation from Latin. Boidin Molniser sells approx. 2.5 hectares of land to Henric van den Putte from Ghent, on condition that he cultivate it subject to payment of an annual rent of one hectolitre of wheat and two castrated cocks.

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Traces of the Earliest Dutch

Hebban olla vogala may be the oldest piece of literature we know, but it is not the oldest surviving Dutch. Place names and personal names show traces of an even older Dutch. The zele in for example Vlierzele or Dadizele means ‘dwelling place’. Zaal is still used in Dutch in the meaning of ‘large room’. In the medieval name Adelbrecht, we recognise the words adel,which still exists, meaning ‘nobility’, and the word brecht, which has fallen into disuse, which meant ‘magnificent’.

Researchers think that Old Dutch developed from West-Germanic from the beginning of the 5th century. The oldest words that we know, however, were not written down until the first half of the 8th century: these are the Old Dutch ‘glosses’, short definitions or translations of Latin terms, noted in the margin or between the lines. In addition, some Old Dutch incantations and legal formulas have been preserved. The longest text in Old Dutch is a commentary on a book from the Bible of about 1100.

Old Dutch is in fact a collective noun for the Germanic dialects spoken in the Low Countries. In the second half of the 12th century Old Dutch underwent a number of important changes. Clear end vowels became duller: hebban became hebben, vogala became vogele. After that change we speak of Middle Dutch.

Focal points

Oudste Nederlandstalige ambtelijke tekst.

Ghent, State Archives, fonds Rijke Gasthuis, temporary nr. B 4593

The statutes of the Lepers’ Hospital in Ghent provide the oldest official text in Dutch (c. 14 November 1236).



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The Limits of Dutch

Where Dutch began or stopped in the Middle Ages is not easy to say. In the west the North Sea seems an obvious border, but the similarities between the Old English of the county of Kent and the Old Dutch of the Flemish coast area were very considerable. That is why there is an ongoing discussion of whether Hebban olla vogala should be seen as English or Dutch. In the east the different dialects gradually shaded into each other. Only after the Middle Ages did a separate Dutch and German standard language emerge.

In the south a language border did appear. From the 3rd century on Germanic tribes invaded Northern Gaul. To the north of the Boulogne-Cologne road the Germanic dialects gained the upper hand. To the south the Germanic conquerors gradually switched to the Gallic Vulgar Latin of the local population, the predecessor of French. By about 900 we can speak of a division between a Germanic and a Romance area. In the west particularly that language border has moved north in the course of time. In the 10th century it still lay round the town of Boulogne (Bonen), today it coincides with the division between the Belgian province of West-Flanders and the French département du Nord. We find traces of that old language border in French Flanders, where there are still a few speakers of Old Flemish.

Memoriaal Leprozerie.

Bruges, State Archives, inv. nr. 3944

From 1323 to 1336 in his daybook the independent farmer Simon de Rikelike from the Brugse Vrije kept an account in Flemish of his income and outgoings (including those on his gambling debts, drinking and visits to brothels). On the last few pages he copied a number of verses from a French romance.

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Latin, French and Dutch

Until the 12th century almost all texts in the Low Countries were in Latin. The clergy were more or less the only ones who wrote and they used Latin, the language of the church. In the second half of the 12th century literature in the vernacular began to flourish, at first in French and later in Dutch too. From the 13th century also official documents were drawn up in the vernacular. That was more practical for laymen who knew little or no Latin. In addition, Latin lacked the vocabulary to describe all economic customs or material objects. The oldest official documents in the vernacular come from the county of Flanders.

The choice of language depended not only on the area in which the document was drawn up, but also on the preference of the clerk and most of all of the receiver of the document. High nobles, for example, mostly spoke French, because that language had a more chic image. They generally received their documents in that language, although many of them knew Dutch. In international trade centres, like Bruges and Ghent, documents were drawn up in Dutch, French of Latin. If addressing the inhabitants of a town or village, one did it in the local language. The most important principalities in the Low Countries extended across the language border: large parts of the county of Flanders were French-speaking, the Dutch-speaking town of Halle belonged to the county of Hainaut, and the county of Loon, which to a large extent coincides with the present-day Belgian province of Limburg, formed part of the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.

Luc Van Durme and Danny Lamarcq

This map shows Germanic colonisation in Northern Gallia (today Belgium and Northern France) in the 6th and 7th centuries. The circles and triangles refer to place names which contain Germanic personal names, but there is an important contrast between north and south. In the north one sees pure Germanic name types (yellow), in the south the Germanic personal names are combined with a Romanic ending (red). This is an early indication of the Germanic-Romanic language border. The light-grey lines indicate the Roman road network, already old by this time, those in blue the rivers.

Franstalige oorkonde.
Douai, Archives Municipales, FF 900

The oldest preserved French-language property document in the county of Flanders comes from Douai and dates from February 1204. Willaume de Hornaig admits that he owes 83 hectalitres of grain to three inhabitants of the town.

Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque Municipale, 126, Orosiushandschrift, fol. 4r, CC BY-NC 3.0., 1st half 11th century

This manuscript contains the Old Dutch names for the points of the compass, entered above the Latin terms (ostan, sutost, suth, suthuuest, uuestan, northuuest, northan, northost, uuestuuind).

Dialecten middelnederlands.

Middle Dutch is the collective name for a large number of dialects, which fell into 5 main groups: Flemish-Zeelandish, Brabantish, Hollandish, Limburgish and Eastern Middle Dutch. This map shows clearly where Middle Dutch dialects were spoken. The pie chart shows the relative distribution of dialect speakers around 1450.

Leeuwarden, Provinciale Bibliotheek, ms. 149

In 1591 the Leuven and Leiden professor and humanist Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) found, at the house of canon Arnold Wachtendonck, a manuscript of around 900 containing the Psalms, in which above the lines of the text were literal Old Dutch translations of the Latin, probably as an aid in teaching Latin in an abbey school. A few copies and copies of copies have been preserved.

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