Negation in Norwich Dutch

Door Christopher Joby

St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich, which houses a wonderful Easter tapestry by Flemish weavers

Last month, I wrote a post about forms of address in Norwich Dutch (Norwichs Nederlands or Norwichs Vlaams). There I concluded we could tentatively talk of a Tu/Vos distinction in early modern Norwichs Nederlands. The dominant subject form of address in the letters written from Norwich to friends and family in Ieper in West Flanders (the Norwich Ieper corpus) was ghij. In this post, I return to those letters and discuss another linguistic feature that occurs quite frequently, namely negation in finite verb phrases.

In Old Dutch there was typically single negation, with the particles ne or en. This form of negation continued to be used in Middle Dutch in certain situations. However, by then negation was typically expressed by what some scholars refer to as ‘bipartite negation’, i.e., a two-part construction consisting of the negative particle ne or en before the finite verb and the negative adverb niet, e.g., ik en zie niet (‘I do not see’). In this construction niet is sometimes replaced by other words connoting the negative such as nooit (‘never’) and the article geen (‘not’/‘no’).

In Late Middle Dutch texts there is limited evidence for the use of niet, geen etc. on their own, e.g., Is Priamus niet dijn vader? (‘Is Priam not your father?’). In New Dutch (16th C. to present) this form gradually became more widespread until it emerged as the standard form of negation, although the shift towards the use of niet, geen etc. on their own happened at different times in the various parts of the Dutch language area. The Brieven als Buit (‘Letters as Loot’) project found that by the seventeenth century, bipartite negation was used in about half of all cases of negation in Zeeland and South Holland, whereas in North Holland it was only found in about a quarter of cases. However, in Amsterdam bipartite negation was used more frequently than elsewhere in North Holland. One possible reason for this is that there were many immigrants in the city from the Southern Netherlands, including Flanders, where bipartite negation continued to be used more often.

Of the 89 occurrences of negation in the Norwich Ieper corpus 76 (85%) involve bipartite negation. For example, in one letter (56) we read zoodat ic niet en vinde (‘so that I do not
find’) and ghy ne soudt nemmermeer peinsen (‘you would nevermore think’). The other 13 tokens exhibit single negation, all using niet, geen etc. on their own. One construction that occurs on several occasions is ‘wilt niet + infinitive’ for the negative imperative, e.g., Wilt niet vergeten (‘Do not forget’) (16). This is probably a function of the fact that imperatives lost the second negation particle earlier than other constructions.

From this evidence we can tentatively conclude that bipartite negation was the dominant form of negation among Norwich Dutch authors at this time. As these were personal letters, we might also tentatively conclude that it was a form frequently heard on the streets of early modern Norwich. This result is in line with other studies which found that bipartite negation persisted longer in the Southern Netherlands than in the Northern Netherlands. However, as there are few surviving collections of personal letters written in West Flemish from this period, it is, I would suggest, a useful addition to existing scholarship on this subject.

Further reading:

J. van der Horst: Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse syntaxis. Leuven, 2008.

C.M. van Kerckvoorde, An Introduction to Middle Dutch. Berlin, 1993, esp. p. 97.

J.A. van Leuvensteijn et al. ‘Vroegnieuwnederlands’. In: M.C. van den Toorn et al. (ed.), Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Taal. Amsterdam, 1997, p, 334.

J. Nobels, (Extra)Ordinary letters: A view from below on seventeenth-century Dutch. Utrecht, 2013

Dit stuk verscheen eerder op The History of Dutch.