Neha Patil (Editor)

Middle Dutch

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Region  the Low Countries
Writing system  Latin
Early form  Old Dutch
ISO 639-2  dum
Era  developed into modern Dutch by the middle of the 16th century
Language family  Indo-European Germanic West Germanic Low Franconian Middle Dutch

Middle Dutch is a collective name for a number of closely related West Germanic dialects (whose ancestor was Old Dutch) spoken and written between 1150 and 1500. There was at that time as yet no overarching standard language but they were all mutually intelligible. During this period a rich Medieval Dutch literature developed, not yet present during the period of Old Dutch. The various literary works of that time are often very readable for modern Dutch speakers, since Dutch is a rather conservative language. By many non-linguists, Middle Dutch is often referred to as Diets.


Differences with Old Dutch

Several phonological changes occurred leading up to the Middle Dutch period.

  • /uː/ > /yː/.
  • This change did not occur in all dialects; in some, /uː/ remained syllable-finally or before /w/.
  • /iu/ > /yː/, merging with the phoneme originating from Old Dutch /uː/.
  • This change did not occur in all dialects; some instead show /iu/ merging with /io/. This results in later pairs such as dietsc /diətsk/ versus duitsc /dyːtsk/.
  • Various dialects also show /iw/ > /yw/, while others retain /iw/. Compare southeastern Middle Dutch hiwen /hiwən/ with modern Dutch huwen /hywən/.
  • In word-initial position, some northern dialects also show a change from a falling to a rising diphthong (/iu/ > /ju/) like Old Frisian. Cf. the accusative second-person plural pronoun iu /iu/ > northern jou /jɔu/ versus southern u /yː/.
  • Old Dutch /ie/, /ia/, /io/ merge into a centralising diphthong /iə/, spelled ⟨ie⟩.
  • Likewise, Old Dutch /uo/ (from Proto-Germanic /oː/) becomes a centralising diphthong /uə/, spelled ⟨oe⟩ or ⟨ou⟩.
  • Phonemisation of umlaut for back vowels, resulting in a new phoneme /ʏ/ (from earlier Old Dutch /u/ before /i/ or /j/). Unlike most other Germanic languages, umlaut was only phonemicised for short vowels in all but the easternmost areas; long vowels and diphthongs are unaffected.
  • Voiceless fricatives become voiced syllable-initially: /s/ > /z/, /f/ > /v/ (merging with /v/ from Proto-Germanic /b/), /θ/ > /ð/. (10th or 11th century)
  • Vocal reduction: Vowels in unstressed syllables are weakened and merge into /ə/, spelled ⟨e⟩. (11th or 12th century) Long vowels seem to have remained as such, at least /iː/ is known to have remained in certain suffixes (such as -kijn /kiːn/).
  • /ft/ > /xt/
  • Dental fricatives become stops: /ð/ > /d/, /θ/ > /t/, merging with existing /t/ and /d/. (around 12th century)
  • The geminate /θθ/ (originating from Germanic *-þj-) develops into /ss/: *withtha > wisse, *smiththa > smisse.
  • All remaining /u/ > /o/, except in the southeast.
  • Along with the previous change, /uː/, /uw/ > /ɔu/.
  • This occurred only in those words where /uː/ and /iu/ had not developed into /yː/ earlier. E.g. būan /buːan/ > bouwen /bɔu(w)ən/.
  • The discrepancy in occurrences of /uː/ resulted in pairs such as modern Dutch duwen /dywən/ versus douwen /dɔu(w)ən/, or nu /ny/ versus nou /nɔu/.
  • L-vocalisation: /ol/ and /al/ > /ɔu/ before dentals.
  • Before dentals /ar/ and /er/ > /aːr/, /or/ > /oːr/. E.g. farth /farθ/ > vaert /vaːrt/, ertha /erθa/ > aerde /aːrdə/, wort /wort/ > woort /woːrt/.
  • Open syllable lengthening: Short vowels in stressed open syllables become long.
  • In descriptions of Middle Dutch phonology, Old Dutch (original) long vowels are called "sharp-long" and indicated with a circumflex (â, ê, î, ô). Lengthened vowels are "soft-long" and are indicated with a macron (ā, ē, ī, ō).
  • Lengthened vowels initially remained distinct from original long vowels, but â and ā usually merge early, and ī merges into ē. Thus, for Middle Dutch, only the distinction between ê/ô and ē/ō generally remains.
  • /ʏ/ lengthens to /œː/ or /øː/ (spelled ⟨o⟩, ⟨eu⟩ or ⟨ue⟩), but this does not result in any new phonemic contrasts until later on.
  • As a result, all stressed syllables in polysyllabic words become heavy. This also introduces many length alternations in grammatical paradigms, e.g. singular dag /dax/, plural dag(h)e /daːɣə/.
  • Consonants

    The consonants of Middle Dutch differed little from those of Old Dutch. The most prominent change is the loss of dental fricatives. The sound [z] was also phonemicised during this period, judging from loanwords that retain [s] to this day.

    For descriptions of the sounds and definitions of the terms, follow the links on the headings.


  • All obstruents underwent final-obstruent devoicing as in Old and Modern Dutch.
  • During the first part of the Middle Dutch period, geminated varieties of most consonants still occurred.
  • /m, p, b/ were most likely bilabial, whereas /f, v/ were most likely labiodental.
  • /n, t, d, s, z, l/ could have been either dental [, , , , , ] or alveolar [, , , , , ].
  • /n/ had a velar allophone [ŋ] when it occurred before the velars /k, ɣ/.
  • After /n/, /ɣ/ was realized as a plosive [ɡ].
  • /r/ was most likely alveolar, either a trill [r͇] or a tap [ɾ͇].
  • Vowels

    Most notable in the Middle Dutch vowel system, when compared to Old Dutch, is the appearance of phonemic rounded front vowels, and the merger of all unstressed short vowels.

  • The rounded back vowels /ʊ/ and /uː/ only occurred in the Limburgish dialects.
  • The exact height of /e, øː, o/ is unknown; they may have been close-mid [e, øː, o], mid [, ø̞ː, ] or open-mid [ɛ, œː, ɔ].
  • The backness of the short /a/ is unknown. It may have been front [a], central [ä] or back [ɑ], as in modern standard Dutch.
  • /eː, ɛː, aː/ and /ɑː/ are ad-hoc symbols; see below.
  • The lengthening of vowels in open syllables, and often before /r/, created a contrast between originally long ("sharp-long" â, ê, ô) and lengthened ("soft-long" ā, ē, ō) vowels. These have all merged in modern standard Dutch, but they were still distinct in Middle Dutch, and developed differently in different dialects, although the spelling does not normally reveal this. The following points can be noted:

  • For â (ad hocly transcribed /ɑː/) and ā (ad hocly transcribed /aː/):
  • In Limburg and other eastern dialects, originally-long â is backed to /ɑː/ and later rounded to /ɒː/. In some dialects, it also raised to /ɔː/ (both spelled ao in modern Limburgish), while lengthened ā is contrastively a front vowel /aː/.
  • In West Flanders, originally-long â was fronted to /æː/ (through Ingvaeonic influence) and also remained distinct from ā for a time.
  • In all other dialects, particularly Brabant and Holland, â and ā merged. The phonetic realisation ranged from back [ɑː] (in Brabant) to front [aː ~ æː] (in Holland).
  • For ê (ad hocly transcribed /eː/) and ē (ad hocly transcribed /ɛː/):
  • These two sounds remained distinct in all Middle Dutch dialects, but were realised differently.
  • In Brabant, Gelderland and some other areas, the distinction was likely one of vowel height alone, with ê closed and ē more open.
  • In Flanders, Zeeland and parts of Holland, ê had the character of an opening diphthong (/eɛ/, /ie/ or the like), and is occasionally found spelled ⟨ie⟩ or ⟨ee⟩ (even in open syllables) to reflect this in Middle Dutch texts from those areas. The lengthened ē is generally spelled with a single ⟨e⟩ in open syllables, although ⟨ei⟩ is also found occasionally in some areas of Flanders, indicating a closing diphthongal realisation ([ɛe], [eɪ] or similar).
  • In Limburg, many instances of ê appear as a diphthong ⟨ei⟩, as the old Germanic diphthong *ai never became a long monophthong there, just like in High German.
  • For ô (/oː/) and ō (/ɔː/):
  • The distinction between these two vowels paralleled that between ê and ē, but it was apparently not as strong or clear, as many texts allow words with ô to rhyme with words with ō. It's possible that the two vowels merged under some conditions, while remaining distinct in other cases.
  • In many areas, ô was probably relatively closed and/or an opening diphthong. In Brabant, it is occasionally found to rhyme with the vowel spelled ⟨oe⟩ (/uə/), reflecting this.
  • In Limburg and other eastern dialects, ō was relatively open and tended to be confused with â, so it was likely /ɔː/ or /ɒː/. ô was often retained as ⟨ou⟩ in Limburg, reflecting the original Germanic *au which failed to monophthongise there.
  • /ʏi/ only occurred in a small number of loanwords from French, such as fruyt/froyt /frʏit/ (Old French pronunciation [frɥit]). It is known that it eventually merged with /yː/ when the latter began to diphthongise.

    The diphthongal character of /iə/ and /uə/ (spelled ⟨ie⟩ and ⟨oe⟩ in most texts) is not clear.

  • The coastal areas (Flanders, Holland), probably had a long close-mid vowel /oː/, which was not clearly distinguished from other o-like vowels.
  • Further east towards western Brabant, the pronunciation seems to have tended towards close /uː/.
  • For eastern Brabant, and all of Limburg, the pronunciation was certainly diphthongal, at least in earlier Middle Dutch.
  • Despite unclear pronunciation, /iə/ ⟨ie⟩ clearly never merged with the long vowel /iː/ ⟨ij⟩. The two sounds were never allowed to rhyme, and developed differently into early modern Dutch. Thus, it is necessary that there was some contrast between the vowels, whether between opening diphthong and monophthong (in earlier Middle Dutch) or between monophthong and slight closing diphthong (in later Middle Dutch).

    Changes during the Middle Dutch period

    Phonological changes that occurred during Middle Dutch:

  • /mb/ > /mː/, /ŋɡ/ > /ŋː/. This eliminated the sound /ɡ/ from the language altogether.
  • /p/ and /k/ originating from /b/ and /ɡ/ through final devoicing were not affected. This therefore resulted in alternations such as singular coninc /koːniŋk/ versus plural coninghe /koːniŋːə/, singular lamp /lamp/ versus plural lammere /lamː(ə)rə/.
  • /sk/ > /sx/ (spelled ⟨sc⟩ or later ⟨sch⟩). It's unclear when this change happened, as the spelling doesn't seem to differentiate the two sounds (that is, ⟨sc⟩ and ⟨sch⟩ could both represent either sound).
  • /ɛ/ > /ɛi/ before /n/ plus another consonant, merging with original Old Dutch /ɛi/ (< Proto-Germanic /ɑi/). E.g. ende > einde, pensen > peinsen (from Old French penser). This change is found sporadically in Old Dutch already, but becomes more frequent in some Middle Dutch areas.
  • Epenthesis of /d/ in various clusters of sonorants. E.g. donre > donder, solre > solder, bunre > bunder. In modern Dutch, this change has become grammaticalised for the -er (comparative, agent noun) suffix when attached to a word ending in -r.
  • Shortening of geminate consonants, e.g. for bidden /bɪdːən/ > /bɪdən/, which reintroduces stressed light syllables in polysyllabic words.
  • Early diphthonisation of long high vowels: /iː/ > /ɪi/ and /yː/ > /ʏy/ except before /r/, probably beginning around the 14th century.
  • The diphthongal quality of these vowels became stronger over time, and eventually the former merged with /ɛi/ ei. But the diphthongal pronunciation was still perceived as unrefined and 'southern' by educated speakers in the sixteenth century, showing that the change had not yet spread to all areas and layers of Dutch society by that time.
  • Following the previous change, monophthongisation of opening diphthongs: /iə/ > /iː/, /uə/ > /uː/. The result might have also been a short vowel (as in most Dutch dialects today), but they are known to have remained long at least before /r/.
  • Beginning in late Middle Dutch and continuing into the early Modern Dutch period, schwa /ə/ was slowly lost word-finally and in some other unstressed syllables: vrouwe > vrouw, hevet > heeft. This did not apply consistently however, and sometimes both forms continued to exist side by side, such as mate and maat.
  • Word-final schwa was restored in the past singular of weak verbs, to avoid homophony with the present third-person singular because of word-final devoicing. However, it was lost in all irregular weak verbs, in which this homophony was not an issue: irregular dachte > dacht (present tense denkt), but regular opende did not become *opend /oːpənt/ because it would become indistinguishable from opent.
  • During the 15th century at the earliest, /d/ begins to disappear when between a non-short vowel and a schwa.
  • The actual outcome of this change differed between dialects. In the more northern varieties and in Holland, the /d/ was simply lost, along with any schwa that followed it: luyden > lui, lade > la, mede > mee. In the southeast, intervocalic /d/ instead often became /j/: mede > meej.
  • The change was not applied consistently, and even in modern Dutch today many words have been retained in both forms. In some cases the forms with lost /d/ were perceived as uneducated and disappeared again, such as in Nederland and neer, both from neder (the form Neerland does exist, but is rather archaic in modern Dutch).
  • Dialects

    Middle Dutch was not a single homogenous language. The language differed by area, with different areas having a different pronunciation and often using different vocabulary. The dialect areas were affected by political boundaries. The sphere of political influence of a certain ruler also created a sphere of linguistic influence, with the language within the area becoming more homogenous. Following, more or less, the political divisions of the time, several large dialect groups can be distinguished. However, the borders between them were not strong, and a dialect continuum existed between them, with spoken varieties near the edges of each dialect area showing more features of the neighbouring areas.


    Brabantian was spoken primarily in the Duchy of Brabant. It was an influential dialect during most of the Middle Ages, during the so-called "Brabantian expansion" in which the influence of Brabant was extended outwards into other areas. Compared to the other dialects, Brabantian was a kind of "middle ground" between the coastal areas on one hand, and the Rhineland and Limburg on the other. Brabantian Middle Dutch has the following characteristics compared to other dialects:

  • Merger of â and ā, articulated as a back vowel.
  • Use of the form g(h)i for the second-person plural pronoun.
  • /ft/ > /xt/
  • Early diphthongization of /iː/ and /yː/.
  • Tended towards Rhinelandic and/or Limburgish in the easternmost areas, with umlaut of long vowels and diphthongs. This in turn led to stronger use of umlaut as a grammatical feature, in for example diminutives.
  • Flemish

    Flemish, consisting today of West and East Flemish and Zealandic, was spoken in the County of Flanders. Though due to their intermediary position between West Flemish and Brabantian, the East Flemish dialects have also been grouped with the latter. Flemish had been influential during the earlier Middle Ages (the "Flemish expansion") but lost prestige to the neighbouring Brabantian in the 13th century. Its characteristics are:

  • Some Ingvaeonic influence, such as fronted realisation of â and unrounding of rounded front vowels.
  • Loss of /h/, with the occasional hypercorrection found in texts.
  • Opening diphthong articulation of ê and ô.
  • Old Dutch /iu/ developed into /iə/ instead of /yː/, thus giving forms such as vier ("fire") where other dialects have vuur.
  • Hollandic

    Hollandic was spoken in the County of Holland. It was less influential during most of the Middle Ages but became more so in the 16th century during the "Hollandic expansion", during which the Eighty Years' War took place in the south. It shows the following properties:

  • Strong Ingvaeonic influence from earlier Frisian presence in the area. This became more apparent closer to the coast and further north (West Friesland).
  • â and ā merged and had a fronted articulation (which forms the basis for the modern standard Dutch pronunciation).
  • Occasional occurrence of the Ingvaeonic nasal-spirant law. Seen in some place names, such as -mude ("mouth") where more southwestern areas retain the nasal: -monde.
  • Use of the form ji for the second-person plural pronoun.
  • Retention of /ft/.
  • Limburgish

    Limburgish was spoken by the people in the provinces of modern Dutch and Belgian Limburg. It was not clearly tied to one political area, instead being divided among various areas, including the Duchy of Limburg (which was south of modern Limburg). It was also the most divergent of the dialects.

  • Generally, a strong "southeastern" influence, tying it more to Middle High German in some respects ("Colognian expansion"). The effects of the High German consonant shift are occasionally found, and umlaut affects all vowels and is morphologically significant.
  • Retention of the older Germanic diphthongs /ɛi/ and /ɔu/ where other Middle Dutch dialects have monophthongized these to ê and ô.
  • Retention of /u/ (did not merge with /o/) and /uː/ (remained as a back vowel).
  • Orthography is also more eastern. ⟨u⟩ represents a back vowel, and vowel length in closed syllables is not marked.
  • Full use of du as the second-person singular pronoun.
  • Rhinelandic

    Rhinelandic ("Kleverlands") was spoken around the area of the Duchy of Cleves, around the Lower Rhine. It represented a transitional dialect between Limburgish and Middle Low German.

  • Like Limburgish, it had an eastern influence, with a more eastern-tinted orthography. Umlaut was a regular grammatical feature.
  • Stronger Middle Low German influence.
  • Back and often rounded articulation of â, with a tendency to confuse it with ō, a feature shared with Low German, to the north.
  • Orthography

    Middle Dutch was written in the Latin alphabet, which was not designed for writing Middle Dutch so different scribes used different methods of representing the sounds of their language in writing. The traditions of neighbouring scribes and their languages led to a multitude of ways to write Middle Dutch. Consequently, spelling was not standardised but was highly variable and could differ by both time and place as various "trends" in spelling waxed and waned. Furthermore, a word could be found spelled differently in different occurrences within the same text. There was the matter of personal taste, and many writers thought it was more aesthetic to follow French or Latin practice, leading to sometimes rather unusual spellings.

    The spelling was generally phonetic, and words were written based on how they were spoken rather than based on underlying phonemes or morphology. Final-obstruent devoicing was reflected in the spelling, and clitic pronouns and articles were frequently joined to the preceding or following word. Scribes wrote in their own dialect, and their spelling reflected the pronunciation of that particular scribe or of some prestige dialect by which the scribe was influenced. The modern Dutch word maagd ("maiden") for example was sometimes written as maghet or maegt, but also meget, magt, maget, magd, and mecht. Some spellings, such as magd, reflect an early tendency to write the underlying phonemic value. However, by and large, spelling was phonetic, which is logical as people usually read texts out loud.

    Modern dictionaries tend to represent words in a normalised spelling to form a compromise between the variable spellings on one hand and to represent the sounds of the language consistently. Thus, normalised spellings attempt to be a general or "average" spelling but still being accurate and true to the language.


    The general practice was to write long vowels with a single letter in an open syllable and with two letters in a closed syllable. Which two letters were used varied among texts. Some texts, especially those in the east, do not do so and write long vowels with a single letter in all cases (as is the predominant rule in modern German).


    Middle Dutch pronouns differed little from their modern counterparts. The main differences were in the second person with the development of a T-V distinction. The second-person plural pronoun ghi slowly gained use as a respectful second-person singular form. The original singular pronoun du gradually fell out of use during the Middle Dutch period. A new second person plural pronoun was created by contracting gij/jij and lui ('people') forming gullie/jullie (which this literally means 'you people').

    Note: There are several other forms.

    Middle Dutch case system

    Middle Dutch had a case system. Since the Middle Ages Dutch has gradually lost an active case system, first in the spoken language and much later in the written language so it is now mostly limited to fixed expressions. The spelling reform of 1947 removed most remaining parts of the case system such as the accusative. However, Middle Dutch and Modern Dutch are very similar, apart from the case system; one of the most prominent differences of contemporary Dutch is that it uses great numbers of prepositions, far more than Middle Dutch, to compensate with the loss of the case system. It has to be noted that even in Middle Dutch the use of prepositions, especially van, was very common. Furthermore, Middle Dutch would often use an accusative form instead of a nominative (Doe quam den edelen prince daer ("Then the noble prince arrived"), Dezen man sel op zijn hooft hebben een stalen helme ("This man will have a steel helmet on his head")). It is still common in some southern dialects and in the Belgian Tussentaal. Similarly, the -n was sometimes omitted where it would be expected: in levende live (Modern Dutch in levenden lijve), des levende Gods instead of levenden ("of the living God"), van den lopende water instead of lopenden ("of the running water").

    The weakening of unstressed syllables merged many different Old Dutch classes of nominal declension. The result was a general distinction between strong (original vocalic stem) and weak (n-stem) nouns. Eventually even these started to become confused, with the strong and weak endings slowly beginning to merge into a single declension class by the beginning of the modern Dutch period.

    Definite Article
    (die, dat = the)

    Strong noun inflection
    (adjective clein = small, noun worm = worm, daet = deed/action, broot = bread)

    Weak noun inflection (Nouns ending in "-e")
    (adjective clein = small, noun hane = rooster, wonde = wound, beelde = image)


    Middle Dutch mostly retained the Old Dutch verb system. Like all Germanic languages, it distinguished strong, weak and preterite-present verbs as the three main inflectional classes. However, the weakening of unstressed syllables made the two classes of weak verbs that still existed in Old Dutch merge into one.

    The seven classes of strong verb common to the Germanic languages were retained, but over time, the older distinction between the singular and plural past was lost, with the singular forms generally adapting the stem of the plural (except in classes 4 and 5, whose distinction was by length rather than vowel timbre). Some weak verbs that had a vowel change in the past because of Rückumlaut eventually became strong, such as senden (with original past tense sande, but later also sand or sond). By analogy some strong verbs were also turned into weak verbs, sometimes only by adding the weak past ending -de. That might have occurred only for poetic reasons, however, such as in Karel ende Elegast where the form begonde (regularly began or begon) is found near the beginning of the text.

    The weakening also affected the distinction between the indicative and subjunctive moods, which had largely been determined by the vowel of the inflectional suffix in Old Dutch. In Middle Dutch, with all unstressed vowels merging into one, the subjunctive became distinguished from the indicative only in the singular but was identical to it in the plural, and also in the past tense of weak verbs. That led to a gradual decline in the use of the subjunctive, and it has been all but lost entirely in modern Dutch. The forms of verbal conjugation for Middle Dutch are:


    Middle Dutch Wikipedia