The 'Volksgeist' concept in Dutch Linguistics: issues and controversies, old and new
In the history of Dutch linguistics it is difficult to find a precise description of the relationship that grammarians assumed existed between what was called 'Volksgeist' and the language spoken by the people. Although the concept of 'Volksgeist' has always maintained an unclear, even obscure character in Holland, it did play a role in various linguistic controversies in the Netherlands from the sixteenth century on until the late 19405. In this paper I discuss some typically Dutch issues, which, be it in various ways, might be connected with some underlying concept of 'Volksgeist' . After a brief exposition of the concept as commonly viewed in nineteenth and twentieth-century Dutch linguistics, I focus on two such issues. - The appraisal of Afrikaans. A descendant of seventeenth-century Dutch, Afrikaans was regarded as a form of simplified Dutch. The admiration the Dutch had for the struggle of the Boers against the British Empire in the late nineteenth century is part of the reason the relationship between the two languages has been the subject of so much interest. The Boer Wars created a wave of excitement in the Netherlands, and many a Dutchman idealised the simple life of the Boer community in South-Africa. The admiration for the Boers is often intermingled, however, with a certain disdain of Afrikaans as a language of arts and sciences. It was commonly found to be a deteriorated language, which reflected the childish mind of the Boers. It did not escape to the attention of contemporary Dutch linguists that the case of Afrikaans seemed to confirm Schleicher's doctrine of linguistic decay. - The Dutch spelling war. From the 1890's on, the Dutch "Society for the Simplification of our Spelling" united those who were in favour of reforming the Dutch spelling system. It took some nearly fifty years to achieve the first official results. Those who took a stand against spelling reform argued, among other things, that the spelling of Dutch was the bearer of 'national values' and of 'national unity' ; thus, spelling reform would cause a weakeniAg in the characteristics of the Dutch people, which could have political implications. The idea of an underlying 'Volksgeist' was one of the main factors which blocked spelling reform in Holland for nearly half a century.