View Full Version : Nederlands tussen Engels en Duits: a typological comparison

Friday, November 18th, 2005, 12:12 AM

Thomas F. Shannon


It has often been observed that in some sense Dutch occupies a middle position linguistically between its closely related neighbors German and English. This point has been made perhaps most clearly and forcefully in C. B. van Haeringen’s brief but illuminating work entitled Nederlands tussen Duits en Engels, which in slightly altered form has provided part of the title for this paper.
Unfortunately, van Haeringen’s pioneering work has largely remained unknown in linguistic circles outside of the Netherlands and was only a beginning in defining the position of Dutch vis-ŕ-vis its close neighbors English and German. Other scholars have even attempted to rank the modern Germanic languages along a continuum of relatedness. Thus Hutterer (1975: 454) orders them as follows: 1) Icelandic, Faroese, German; 2) Dutch (and Low German), Frisian, Yiddish; 3) Norwegian, Swedish, Danish; 4) English; 5) Afrikaans (and creoles). On the basis of somewhat different criteria, Lass (1987: 318) too comes to a very similar scale: 1) Icelandic, Faroese, German; 2) Frisian; 3) Dutch; 4) Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Yiddish; 5) English, Afrikaans. Despite a few rather small differences such as the place of Yiddish or Frisian, by and large Hutterer and Lass agree on their
relative rankings, in particular in positioning Dutch intermediately between
German and English.

However, while such “simple-minded but indicative rankings [offer a
rough indication] of overall innovativeness, in terms of typological distance
from the archaic Germanic model” (Lass 1988: 318), they are at
the same time too coarse-grained and run roughshod over certain important
similarities and differences. For example, Afrikaans is always put at
the end of the scale, yet in some respects, e.g. in terms of word order, it
is much closer to German and Dutch than English. Moreover, criteria for
such rankings are seldom explicitly stated and defended. For this reason
the precise sense in which Dutch occupies a middle position between
English and German is not made clear, i.e in what important ways it is
more like English, more like German, or truly “in between” the two. Finally,
such scales offer no general, unifying framework from which to
view these contrasts.

For these reasons I would like to consider now in somewhat more
detail, albeit still all too briefly, some contrasts between these three languages, using proposals made recently by John Hawkins in his book A
comparative typology of English and German (1985) as a unifying background for our discussion and extending them to cover Dutch as well, as recommended in Shannon (1988b). In this work Hawkins argues that the
contrasts between English and German are: 1) often in a (proper) subset
relation, English having reduced or expanded the set of inherited possibilities
which German has retained; 2) sweeping, covering many areas of
the grammar; 3) related by general typological principles involving the
relation between surface form and meaning, which underlie the direction
of contrast. Hawkins' main claim is that where the morphological and
syntactic rules of English and German contrast, English shows less correspondence— and hence more “distance”—between meaning and surface form. The result is greater ambiguity, a greater collapsing of semantic distinctions in English surface forms. Here Hawkins sees an inherent tension between rules generating linguistic forms and the rules mapping them onto their meaning: simplicity in one area entails complexity in the other.

This forms a typological continuum along which languages can
differ synchronically and move diachronically. In this paper I will argue
that Dutch fits into an intermediate position along Hawkins’ cline, sometimes
closely resembling English, sometimes German, and at other times
holding the middle between the two. In this way we will begin to give a
more precise sense to the claim that Dutch is “tussen Engels en Duits.”

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