English by Dutch people

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve described a project which studies this use of English by Late Modern native speakers of Dutch. Here is a very interesting example of such a letter, in a blogpost by Marlies Reitsma, another student in my MA course on the sociolinguistics of Late Modern English letters:

It is not surprising to find letters in Dutch archives written by Dutch people – but an English archive might not be the first place that comes to mind where one would find such letters. And yet about 38,000 Dutch letters written during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were found just there, in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA), Kew. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, privateers conquered enemy ships and seized their cargo, which they could keep as loot when the rules for privateering were adhered to. In order to decide whether this was the case, the HCA confiscated all papers on board the ships: this is how the letters ended up in the archives. They were rediscovered in the 1980s, and since then, many letters have been transcribed for the Brieven als Buit/Letters as Loot corpus, initiated by Professor Marijke van der Wal.

Source: Wikipedia

As Marijke van der Wal’s assistant, I transcribe a selection of the 38,000 letters every week, which are usually written in Dutch. However, a while ago I also transcribed an English letter by a Dutchman, a certain Mr Roombergh (this letter has not yet been included in the online Brieven als Buit/Letters as Loot corpus):

Brief Roombergh

Even though I think it’s safe to say that Roombergh’s knowledge of English was quite good, his spelling and choice of words sometimes show that Dutch was his mother tongue.

Address James Barry

For example, the word sent in to sent some chests is spelled with a <t> instead of a <d>. In Dutch, final /d/ gets devoiced: the word paard (“horse”) for instance, is pronouned as paart, even though the word is spelled with a <d>. So we have an example of final devoicing in Roombergh’s letter.

The word maidhave in that any misfortune maidhave taken place to him is interesting too. Roombergh possibly pronounced might have in such a way that the /t/ (a voiceless plosive) softened to a /d/ (a voiced plosive), so this an example of intervocalic voicing of a voiceless plosive (lenition). It’s a case of intervocalic voicing, because the <d> in maidhave is located between a vowel and a weak consonant, <h>, which was very likely elided in pronunciation.

Two other spellings that attract attention are adress and Duplicaat. The latter is the Dutch word for “duplicate”, which Roombergh may have accidentally used because the Dutch and the English words look similar. Roombergh’s mother tongue may also have influenced his spelling of adress: the Dutch word adres (“address”) is spelled with one <d> and one <s>, whereas English spells double <d> and <s>. It looks as if Roombergh mixed both spellings up here.

So, in conclusion we may say that Roombergh had learned English fairly well, but  there are nevertheless a few things that remind us that English was not his mother tongue.

Closing formula letter to James Berry


Wal, M.J. van der, Rutten G.J. & Simons T.A. (2012), “Letters as loot. Confiscated letters filling major gaps in the history of Dutch”. In: Dossena M., Del Lungo Camiciotti (eds.), Letter Writing in Late Modern Europe. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 139-161.

(Images reproduced by permission from Marijke van der Wal.)

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