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The French Language in the Early Modern Netherlands

Updated on May 24, 2017

The Netherlands was during the 17th century the principal trading and commercial power of the European world, and it would continue to be the primary financial power for much of the 18th. This prestige of the Netherlands however, did not hold the same for the Dutch language, which despite its status as the vernacular of the Netherlands, had but a limited position as a high language. Instead, that position would go to the lingua franc of the era; French, which held a domination position in Dutch intellectual life.

The Dutch Republic, the government that ruled the Netherlands for much of this epoch.
The Dutch Republic, the government that ruled the Netherlands for much of this epoch.

Growth of French

France's increased influenced in the Netherlands was tied to several factors, some of which were European in scale, and others of which were tied to local influences. Internationally, French increasingly had taken on a role of a European lingua franca, growing in prestige and use. This would see French spread in its use from Russia, where the upper elite was largely francophone, to Spain, where French influence under the Bourbon dynasty started the Bourbon reforms. For the Dutch, a cosmopolitan trading nation, the development of French made learning the tongue a valuable tool.

This would be marked in 1684 by remarks that the French language had surpassed Latin in usage by the intelligentsia :

<< La langue française est si connue en ce pays-ci que les livres français y ont plus de débit que tous les autres; il n'y a guère de gens de lettres qui n'entendent le français, quoiqu'ils ne le sachent pas parler. Le latin n'est pas si connu; c'est pour cela que M. Jurieu fait à présent toutes les leçons en français, afin d'avoir pour auditeurs les gens mêmes qui n'entendent pas le latin. >> (Nouvelles lettres de Bayle, t. II : 20)

The French language is so well known in this country that French books are more numerous than all the others; there is hardly a man of letters who does not understand French, even if he does not know how to speak it. Latin is not so well known, it for this that M. Jurieu presently does all lessons in French, so as to have for an audience even those people who do not speak Latin.

So too, it was entirely possible for Francophones to live in the Netherlands without ever coming to know Dutch. Saint-Évremond (1614-1703) would pass the last years of his exile in the Netherlands, but never learned Dutch.

Like other European nations, diplomacy would be conducted almost entirely in French, making it universally known among men of government. For the aristocracy and for the bourgeois, it was the language of sophistication and for cultivation. French formed a vital part of the system of education, distinguishing the educated classes. Even newspapers would be written in French. Justus van Effen, an important Dutch writer of the 18th century, started his career by writing Le Misantrope, in French. Commerce too, would be directed in French, with men such as Lubbert Jan von Eck, a high functionary of the Dutch East India Company, writing in French.

"Dragoon missionaries" proved more successful at converting Protestants at gunpoint and expelling them than their less martial brethren.
"Dragoon missionaries" proved more successful at converting Protestants at gunpoint and expelling them than their less martial brethren.

French exiles

Peculiar to the Netherlands however, would be the expulsion of French-speaking peoples into the Netherlands. During the 16th century Walloons would flee before persecutions, arriving in the Netherlands, while Huguenots would join them too nearly two centuries later. Huguenots were French protestants, and had been granted the right to live in France and practice their religion by the Edict of Nantes. The Edict of Nantes, proclaimed in 1598, would protect French Huguenots from prosecution for the better part of a century, but in 1685 Louis XIV revoked it, under the Edict of Fontainbleau. Although it technically forbid most French protestants from leaving France, over 400,000 would choose to flee, and many of these would go to the Dutch Republic, a bastion of protestantism. These refugees would bring an influx of French-speakers to the Netherlands, many of whom would never truly abandon their language in their hearts. The Walloon church would continue as a vital way to maintain community among these refugees; for those like the mother of A. Bosboom-Toussaint, herself a descendant of exiled Huguenots, only the French language would be the language of religion and it was impossible to truly pray in Dutch. So too, exiled French intellectuals in the Netherlands both spread the French language in the Netherlands, and increased the international status of French.

The French Language, but not France

An important note to be aware of is that while French was an important language in the Netherlands, it was not in the same sense that we might think of a "foreign language" today. Most languages today are in a sense the possession of their nation of origin; German is the possession of the Germans, Polish the Poles, Chinese the Chinese, so on and so forth. French for this period might be better viewed as more akin to Latin in the way it is visualized. Who after all, possesses Latin? Latin is not a language which is the object of a nation-state or a people, but rather a high language. Thus, French could be spoken in the Netherlands, while simultaneously not being just French; rather, it was the lingua franca of a pan-European elite.

Other elements increased the distance between the Netherlands and France. A vital tool for the education of children of the aristocracy and the elite were Francophone governesses. These were however, by the second half of the 18th century, most commonly Swiss and not French - the French being viewed as too frivolous and with bad mores. The French language, while simultaneously a representation of civilization and sophistication, also represented sins counterposed to manly Dutch virtues - these sins including softness, precociousness, and mannerisms.

So too, education in French was more than just learning French. French schools, increasingly secondary schools in the 19th century, not only taught French, but also commerce, geography, history, navigation, and education in English and Germany. These French secondary schools would serve as the model for the creation of modern secondary schooling in the Netherlands by the Thorbecke law in 1863. This would make France one of three foreign languages, French, English, and German, marking the process of the decline of French as a true second language in the Netherlands.

French and other languages

A note of irony is that French, which would be later supplanted by English as the principal second language in the Netherlands in the present day, would be at first a principal tool for the establishment of English there. Until the middle part of the 18th century, English literature arrived in the Netherlands by French translation. French would be the language of instruction for teaching English and Germany in many schools.

There were also liberating effects for the French language. For many women, Latin was not taught to them, but French was. As classical literature started to be replaced by French and French translations, access to antiquity and high literature could start to become more egalitarian. Thus, while being a high language, French was also simultaneously one that started to break down old barriers of access to knowledge.


By the second half of the 19th century, the status of French would start to waver. Other languages were raised to an equal setting, the status of Dutch would rise, and French would move from being the language of the educated elite to being a foreign language to be learned.

Currently, English is the most learned secondary language in the Netherlands, at over 90% of the population fluent in it, trailed behind by German at around 70% and French at 30%. The glory days of French when it served as the universal high language in the Netherlands are far behind, even if French continues to be a well-respected and influential tongue in the country.

Recommended reading

Le français aux Pays-Bas (XVIIe-XIXe siècles): de la langue du bilinguisme élitaire à une langue du plurilinguisme d'éducation by Madeleine Van Strien-Chardonneau and Marie-Christine Kok Escalle

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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