Late Modern Dutchmen writing English

For his MA thesis in Linguistics at the University of Leiden, Marijn Verschuure analysed two corpora of letters written in English by Dutch people. The first corpus consisted of 83 short commercial letters that were presumably written by the directors of the Dutch publishing house De Erven F. Bohn. These letters date from the period 1873-1920. The second corpus, which he used as a reference corpus, consisted of six letters from the Dutch clergyman Johannes Stinstra (1708-1790) addressed to the English writer Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), whose novel Clarissa had been translated into Dutch by Stinstra. The aim of this study was to examine if these two corpora were representative ofthe position of the English language and English language teaching in the Netherlands at the time when the letters were written.

To achieve this aim, Marijn chose to analyse native language interference errors in both corpora, with special attention to word order errors, which occur in quite large numbers in the letters written by Stinstra. He compiled a list of several word order errors, ranging from adverbials placed in the wrong position to SOV word order being used in subclauses, which is appropriate in Dutch but not in English. This list of errors was compiled on the basis of Swan & Smith’s Learner English. A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems (2001). Besides, he tried to comparethe number of errors found in both corpora, and thus the letter-writers’ proficiency in English, to the way in which they had acquired the English language, and to the position of English and English language teaching in the Netherlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the Bohn letters, he found only fifteen errors of the types that were included in my analysis, against as many as 104 errors in Stinstra’s letters. Besides, he found some differences between the two corpora in the types of errors made. Stinstra, for example, frequently used Dutch SOV word order in subclauses, an error that the writers of the Bohn letters did not make at all.

These differences in the errors made by the writers of both corpora can at least partially be attributed to different ways of learning English. The writers of the Bohn letters were taught English in school, and they had access to lots of English language textbooks, including commercial correspondence manuals. Moreover, one of the presumed writers of the Bohn letters spent a few years as a trainee at the London publishing house Fisher Unwin, which no doubt contributed to his proficiency in English. Stinstra, on the other hand, was entirely self-taught in English, because in the eighteenth century, English was not taught in Dutch schools and universities.

Marijn’s conclusion on the basis of his analysis was that, indeed, the English writing performance of Stinstra and the writers of the Bohn letters can be seen as characteristic of the role that the English language and ELT played in the Netherlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Many thanks for this summary, Marijn, and congratulations on completing your MA Linguistics at Leiden!

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