Old Dutch

For the potato chip company, see Old Dutch Foods. For the restaurant in Rotterdam, see Old Dutch (restaurant).
Old Dutch / Old Low Franconian
Region the Low Countries
Era 5th to middle 12th century, when it developed into Middle Dutch
Language codes
ISO 639-3 odt
Linguist list
Glottolog oldd1237[1]

In linguistics, Old Dutch or Old Low Franconian[2] is the set of Franconian (or Frankish) dialects spoken in the Low Countries during the Early Middle Ages, from around the 5th to the 12th century. Old Dutch is mostly recorded on fragmentary relics, and words have been reconstructed from Middle Dutch and loan words from Old Low Franconian.[3] It is regarded as the primary stage in the development of a separate Dutch language. By the end of the 9th century, the Franconian (or Frankish) dialects spoken by the descendants of the Salian Franks had developed into what is recognisable today as an early form of Dutch, but that might also have been the case earlier.[4] Old Dutch in turn evolved into Middle Dutch around the 12th century.

Old Dutch was spoken by the populace that occupied what is now southern Netherlands, northern Belgium, part of northern France, and parts of the Lower Rhine and Westphalia regions of Germany. The inhabitants of northern Dutch provinces, including Groningen, Friesland and the coast of North Holland, spoke Old Frisian, and some in the east (Achterhoek, Overijssel and Drenthe) spoke Old Saxon, a language that had much in common with Old Dutch.


Before the advent of Old Dutch, North Sea Germanic was spoken in most of the Netherlands and Belgium. Elements of this language in the Netherlands survived longer through the Old Frisian language, but in the rest of the country it was mostly replaced as it retreated to England along with the migrating Angles and Saxons. Instead the more widespread Common Germanic tongue spoken in the area became more popular and evolved into the Low Franconian languages that included Old Dutch. Linguists typically date this transition to around the 5th century.[5]

Several words that are known to have developed in the Netherlands before Old Dutch was spoken have been found, and are sometimes called Oudnederlands in a geographic sense (where Nederlands means "Netherlandic", not "Dutch"). The oldest known example, wad, was already mentioned in 108 AD by Tacitus. The word exclusively referred to the region and ground type that is now known as the Wadden Sea. However, since this word existed long before Old Dutch did, it can not be considered part of its vocabulary. Linguists Nicoline van der Sijs and Tanneke Schoonheim from Genootschap Onze Taal instead attribute the role of oldest Dutch word to the ancestor of the modern verb gunnen, a word that has no clear English cognate. Its modern meaning is roughly "to think someone deserves something, to derive satisfaction from someone else's success". They base their claim on a word found in the partially translated Bergakker inscription dating from around 400 ("haþuþuwas ann kusjam loguns"), where ann is commonly translated as "grant" and would have developed into gunnen through the addition of the prefix ge-.[6]


Relation with other West Germanic languages

Old Dutch (or Old Low Franconian) probably evolved primarily from Istvaeonic dialects in the West Germanic branch of Proto-Germanic in the 5th century. However, because Dutch has Ingvaeonic characteristics, some philologists put the language in that branch.[7]

Old West Low Franconian and Old East Low Franconian (compare Limburgian) are very closely related, the divergence being that the latter shares more traits with neighboring historical forms of Middle Franconian such as Ripuarian and Mosel Franconian. While both forms of Low Franconian were instrumental to the framing of Middle Dutch, Old East Low Franconian did not contribute much 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; that 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 relates to warfare. In addition is the subsumption of the High German consonant shift, a set of phonological changes beginning around the 5th or 6th century CE.

The other languages did not develop a uniform block discrete from Low Franconian, as they do now. Today, nearly every continental European West Germanic language has 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 with some distinctions that approximate those found in most medieval West Germanic languages. The year 1150 CE is often cited as the time of the discontinuity, but it actually marks a time of profuse Dutch writing whose language is patently different from Old Dutch.

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


Old Dutch Middle Dutch English
vogala vogele bird
dago/a daghe day
brecan breken to break
gescrivona ghescreven written (past participle)

The following is a translation of Psalm 55:18, taken from the Wachtendonck Psalms; it shows the evolution of Dutch, 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 that 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 (with old word order) Verlossen zal hij in vrede ziel mijn van zij die genaken mij, want onder menigen hij was met mij.
Modern Dutch (with new word order) Hij zal mijn ziel verlossen in vrede van hen die mij genaken, want onder menigen was hij met mij.
English 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. That may also be a result of its late attestation, however.

Characteristics shared with Old Saxon:

Characteristics shared with Old High German:

Uniquely Old Dutch characteristics:


The table below lists the consonantal phonemes of Old Dutch. For descriptions of the sounds and definitions of the terms, follow the links on the headings.

Old Dutch consonant phonemes
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d
Fricative sibilant voiceless s
non-sibilant f θ h
voiced v ɣ
Approximant l j w
Rhotic r


Final-obstruent devoicing

Old Dutch experienced final-obstruent devoicing much earlier than Old Saxon and Old High German. In fact, by 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).


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: woord, "word", is spelled with a /d/ but pronounced with a [t].


Old Dutch monophthong phonemes
Front Back
unrounded rounded rounded
short long short short long
Close i y u
Mid e ø o
Open a


In unstressed syllables, only three vowels seem to have been reliably distinguished: open, front and back. In the Wachtendonck Psalms, the e and i merged in unstressed syllables, as did o and u. That 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 the 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

That 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 maintained only in spelling traditions, but it had been mostly lost in speech. With the introduction of new scribal traditions in the 12th and 13th century, the practices were abandoned, and unstressed vowels were consistently written as e from that time onward.

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


Spelling conventions

Old Dutch was spelt 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 appear even if 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: 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: ā. In some texts long vowels were indicated by simply doubling the vowel in question, as in the placename Heembeke and personal name Oodhelmus (both from charters written in 941 and 797 respectively).



Old Dutch preserved at least four of the six cases of Proto-Germanic: nominative, accusative, genitive and dative. A fifth case, the instrumental, may have also existed..

The (a) declension

The -s ending in the masculine plural was preserved in the coastal dialects, as can be seen in the Hebban Olla Vogalla text where 'nestas' is used instead of 'nesta'. Later on, the -s ending entered Hollandic dialects and became part of the modern standard language.

Masculine - dag (day) Neuter - buok (book)
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dag daga / dagas –a / -as buok buok
Accusative dag daga / dagas –a / -as buok buok
Genitive dagis -is dago –o buokis -is buoko –o
Dative dage –i dagon –on buoki –i buokon –on

The (o) declension & weak feminine declension

During the Old Dutch period, the distinction between the feminine ō-stems and ōn-stems began to disappear, when endings of one were transferred to the other declension and vice versa, as 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. The process is shown in a more advanced stage in Middle Dutch.

Feminine - Ertha (earth)
Singular Plural
Nominative ertha –a ertha / erthon –a / -on
Accusative ertha –a ertha / erthon –a / -on
Genitive erthon –on erthono –ono
Dative ertho –o erthon –on

The (i) declension

Masculine - bruk (breach) Feminine - gift (gift)
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative bruk bruki –i gift gifti –i
Accusative bruk bruki –i gift gifti / gifte –i
Genitive brukis -is bruko –o gifti –i gifto –o
Dative bruki -i brukin –in gifti –i giftin –in

The weak masculine and neuter declensions

Masculine - balko (beam) Neuter - herta (heart)
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative balko –o balkon –on herta –a herton -on
Accusative balkon –on balkon –on herta –a herton -on
Genitive balkin –in balkono –ono hertin –in hertono –ono
Dative balkin –in balkon –on hertin –in herton –on


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, but 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 was written in Old Dutch, as the Germanic dialects spoken at that time were not standardised and were much more similar.

The most famous sentence

Main article: Hebban olla vogala

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

Arguably, the most famous text containing Old Dutch is translated to "All birds have started making nests, except me and you, what are we waiting for?", dating around the year 1100, written by a West Flemish monk in a convent in Rochester, England. For a long time, the sentence was commonly considered to be the earliest in Dutch. However, many older texts have since been discovered.[8][9]

Some larger texts

The Wachtendonck Psalms

The Wachtendonck Psalms are a collection of Latin psalms, with a translation in an eastern variety of Old Low Franconian which contains a number of Old High German elements; it was probably based on a Middle Franconian original.[10] Very little remains of them. The psalms were named after a manuscript, which disappeared, but out of it, scholars believe that 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, as well as – 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 of Ebersberg (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 letter 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.[11] It was likely composed in north-west Germany in the early 12th century, possibly in Werden Abbey, near Essen.

Further sources

Older sentences considered to be in either Old Dutch or Frankish

An earlier sentence of what could be considered Old Dutch comes from the "Lex salica", written in the early 6th century:[12]

"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 single words used when no Latin equivalent existed.

The Elder Futhark runes from the 5th-century Bergakker inscription, found in Netherlands.

In 1996, an even older (425–450) sentence was discovered on the sword sheath of Bergakker [13] that is perhaps better described as Frankish than Old Dutch (with the Frankish language being the direct parent language of Old Dutch).


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Old Dutch". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Cf. M.C. van den Toorn, W.J.J. Pijnenburg et al., Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse taal (1997), 37; G. Janssens & A. Marynissen, Het Nederlands vroeger en nu (2nd ed., 2005), 38; 54.
  3. Webster's New World Dictionary: Old Dutch
  4. de Vries, Jan W., Roland Willemyns and Peter Burger, Het verhaal van een taal, Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2003, pp. 12, 21-27. Page 27: "...Aan het einde van de negende eeuw kan er zeker van Nederlands gesproken worden; hoe long daarvoor dat ook het geval was, kan niet met zekerheid worden uitgemaakt." [It can be said with certainty that Dutch was being spoken at the end of the 9th century; how long that might have been the case before that cannot be determined with certainty.]
  5. Geschiedenis van het Nederlands (Dutch)
  6. Meer dan hebban olla uogala (Dutch)
  7. Verhaal
  8. 'Olla Vogala' nog even in woordenboek (Dutch)
  9. Geschiedenis van het Nederlands (Dutch)
  10. M.C. van den Toorn, et al., Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse taal (1997), 41, with reference to Gysseling 1980; Quak 1981; De Grauwe 1979, 1982.
  11. David A. Wells, The "Central Franconian Rhyming Bible" ("Mittelfränkische Reimbibel"): An early-twelfth-century German verse homiliary. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.
  12. https://books.google.com/books?id=JBu9lOijWYcC&lpg=PA41&dq=Maltho%20thi%20afrio%20lito&hl=en&pg=PA41#v=onepage&q=Maltho%20thi%20afrio%20lito&f=false
  13. Mees, Bernard (2002). "The Bergakker Inscription and the Beginnings of Dutch". In Vennemann, Theo. Amsterdamer Beitrage zur Alteren Germaninstik. 56. Rodopi. pp. 23–26. ISBN 90-420-1579-9.

See also

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