Believe it or not, until Roland Willemyns' Dutch: Biography of a Language four years ago, there had been no history of the Dutch language in English. In fact, Willemyns notes, there had been no up-to-date history of the Dutch language in any other language than Dutch.
Dutch has 23 million speakers in the Antilles, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Suriname. Willemyns delves into the language's history - including Afrikaans, the only extant daughter language of Dutch – and its future, grappling with the eternal question of whether language change equals decay.
Among the most interesting stories in the book is that of Joannes Goropius Becanus, born Jan van Gorp. In 1569, this physician from Brabant claimed in his book, Origines Antwerpianae, that his Dutch mother tongue was not only the best but also the oldest language in the world. Becanus maintained that Dutch was the language spoken by Adam and Eve in paradise.
"One of the 'arguments' to prove this claim was a pseudo-etymological one," recounts Willemyns.
"The name of the language, Duyts, was to be pronounced doutst, which means 'the oldest.'"
Becanus also asserted that Dutch was the language most fit for science, since it had the largest number of monosyllabic verbs. "To his count," writes Willemyns, "Dutch had 1,428 monosyllabic nouns and 742 monosyllabic verbs, whereas Greek had only 220 and 45, respectively, and Latin had fewer still.
"Although the relevance of the argument is not obvious, it went unchallenged, not only in the 16th century but also a long time thereafter."