Fluency in an English letter from Queen Wilhemina

Here is Jiayan Xu’s first blogpost:

During our visit to the Dutch Family Royal Archives in The Hague, I looked at one of the letters of Queen Wilhemina, intending to see how good her English was at that time. On 23 December 1896, she wrote a letter to Miss Saxton Winter (1857-1936), who was her English governess, and she appears to have written very fluent English.

Wilhelmina, two years after she wrote the letter (source: wikipedia

First, her sentence structure is comparatively complex, such as the use of adverbial clause of concession in the beginning: “Although I am sending you a card, I must just write you a very happy X mas”. There are also other complex sentences, such as it-cleft sentences for emphasis, as in “It is also for me a wide blame to know that you have no more helped me …”.

Second, almost all the spelling in the letter is almost entirely correct, except that she spelt describtion  for description, which might show that she was still in the process of learning English writing. (She was about sixteen at the time.) Another example of this is that some English words like handy and hearty in the letter do not have the meaning that we find the in OED. According to the OED, handy first appeared in 1673, meaning “A wooden pail, small tub, or (occas.) dish with an upright handle on one side; a piggin”; hearty has a list of meanings in the dictionary: as a noun, it refers to “an affectionate form of address”, e.g. “my hearty”). Apparently in Queen Wilhemina’s letter, hearty and handy seem to have the meaning of small heart and hand. I would consider this as an example of Dutch interference, which has diminutives such as handje and heartje. Therefore her writing seems still influenced by her first language and includes some interesting Dutchisms.

Wilhemina’s use of short forms not only shows her intimate relationship with the addressee, but also demonstrates that her English writing is very skilled. For example, she used the ampersand, as in “… for you & that both your mother & sister may be well …”. Furthermore, in the OED (online edition, s.v. “Xmas”), the list of the uses of Xmas contains five entries (from 1551-1875). Thus the abbreviated form Xmas had already been used well before this letter, which demonstrates at the same time that the 16-year-old former Dutch queen had already been very skilled in English writing. X-mas appears twice in this letter, though in the closing formula the complete form Christmas is still used, which seems to some extent formulaic.

Additionally, though people may consider two superlatives grammatically wrong today, I personally do not think most dearest in the opening of this letter a mistake. Evidence can be found already in the sixteenth century, when Shakespeare wrote in his play Julius Caesar “the most unkindest cut of all”. Although we need to take into account that in the course of several centuries English grammar changed and that double superlatives are no longer considered grammatically correct in standard English, it seems to me that this use of double superlatives by Wilhelmina expresses closeness with Miss Saxon Winter.

Overall, the 16-year-old former Dutch queen Wilhemina, as an L2 English learner, wrote very fluent English at that time, including the use of abbreviations, complex sentences and a deliberate exploitation of what is strictly speaking incorrect grammar. In this light the presence of a number of apparent Dutchisms is very interesting indeed.

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