Strategic Research Program – Growth Funding

Historical sociolinguistics
Towards a new history of Dutch in Flanders

Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Coordinator and PI: Rik Vosters
Co-PI: Wim Vandenbussche

As of 2019, our expertise in historical sociolinguistics was recognized as a university-wide strategic research priority with so-called ‘growth funding’ which should enable us to set up a solid research program between 2019 and 2024. This research program will group and bring together most of the ongoing and future research in historical sociolinguistics at VUB, and serve as a starting point for attracting external funding.

The relatively young discipline of historical sociolinguistics studies the relationship between language and society in the past: the aim is not to find out about the inner workings of language (grammar, pronunciation, lexicon, etc.) in its own right, but rather to study how the way in which language varies and changes is related to social or demographic factors, such as the gender, social class background or regional origin of the speaker – and by generally taking into account the larger context in which a language operates, for instance by not looking at a single language and its users in isolation, but by taking multilingualism and contact with (speakers of) other languages as a central starting point.

This discipline has made significant progress in a number of areas, for instance where the history of languages such as English or German are concerned, in helping us to correct the traditional histories of the language on several points. Some of these areas, such as the shift from merely focusing on printed texts produced by elite, highly literate and often male writers, to also incorporating handwritten texts from ordinary men and women from the lower ranks of society, have been explored for the history of Dutch in a fair amount of detail – Wim Vandenbussche was, in fact, one of the pioneers advocating such a shift in perspective, which later came to be known as ‘language history from below’, by focusing on meeting reports by trade apprentices and masters from the town of Bruges in the long nineteenth century. Although much work still remains to be done, such approaches have thoroughly changed the way we look at the history of the language, and have forced us to reconsider the history of specific linguistic features which were sometimes deemed to have gone from the written language completely, while they were still preserved in the writings of lower-order scribes.

Other areas of research within the field of historical sociolinguistics, however, have not found their way into the history of Dutch to the same degree, and the proposed research program sets out to tackle three such elements, integrating them by focusing on the implications for standardization as a socio-historical process – as is illustrated in the figure below.

Specifically, the research program sets out to re-evaluate several important themes in the history of Dutch, by applying current insights from historical sociolinguistics internationally to the language as it developed particularly in the Southern Low Countries. More specifically, we will take as a point of departure three domains on which significant progress has been made for larger languages such as English and German, but where these innovations have not fully made their way into the classic historiography of Dutch:

(1) the relationship between norms and usage as a basis for standardization ‘from above’,

(2) dialect contact and subsequent processes of dialect leveling and koineization which arise as a form of standardization ‘from below’ out of contact between speakers with different regional backgrounds;

(3) historical multilingualism and language contact, and the impact which the co-existence of different languages in an individuals’ linguistic repertoires had on the development of Dutch in Flanders.

For each of these – and other, related – themes, we will carry out a number of relevant case studies, and the different cases will be joined into a single and coherent whole by focusing on the standardization as a transversal theme: based on the different case studies, we will question and test existing models and theories of standardization as a historical and linguistic process, and we will offer alternatives which take the interrelatedness of language and society as their main point of departure.