Learning to Read 17th Century Dutch

This past summer, I participated in a month-long series of courses and workshops based at Columbia University as well as various museums and archives across the Netherlands. The primary purpose of this program was for me to learn seventeenth century Dutch vocabulary and paleography (historical handwriting) and to familiarize myself with resources in the Netherlands. Needless to say, the task was, and continues to be, daunting.

My Dutch language ability is a constant work in-progress and, unless you attend one of a handful of universities in the United States, there are few resources or opportunities to learn even Modern Dutch. Neither the University of Hawaiʻi, my current institution, nor the University of Washington, my previous institution, offer classes in the language. In the past, I have taken a summer course at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and have done my own independent study which largely consists of me using various apps (such as Duolingo) and slowly reading academic articles with a Dutch-English dictionary opened on my internet browser.

An excerpt from a 1611 missive from Ambon, Indonesia

Yet, aside from this study of modern Dutch, I reached the point where I needed to start reading seventeenth century Dutch….sometimes in its original handwriting, which can be very migraine-inducing. The Columbia University program, brilliantly taught by senior lecturer Wijnie de Groot and Dr. Frans Blom (University of Amsterdam), introduced me to a great number of resources on how to slowly decipher the language. Their program in New York City and the Netherlands was fantastic as it introduced me to the tools of specific archives (some of which I included on my resources page), put me in contact with other graduate students of early modern Netherlands or Dutch colonial history, and gained us behind-the-scenes access in some very exciting institutions in the Netherlands, such as the Rijksmuseum and the National Archives. You can click here for Columbia’s newsletter post on our workshop in the Netherlands.

Rather than review the specifics of the course, I want to give some anecdotes of reading these seventeenth century Dutch sources. After the archives workshops, I stayed in the Netherlands to do research and here are some of my experiences.

My “work station” in the National Archives reading room.

To begin, seventeenth century Dutch handwriting, while still using the Roman alphabet, has some very different styles for letters from what we employ today. Their “e”s and “c”s are frequently backwards. Their “g”s sometimes look like figure eights. The “h”s sometimes look like “y”s and the “s” sometimes look like our cursive “f”. Let’s not even get into their “w”s.

This word is worden (“to be” or “to become”)
qualijc would today be spelled kwalijk (“bad” or “resentful”)

To add on to that, there are numerous differences between the spelling conventions of modern Dutch and seventeenth century Dutch, which sometimes did not have a standard spelling for a word. The prefix ge– could be spelled ghe-. Words ending with -d in modern Dutch will often use –t in seventeenth century Dutch. The modern combination kw was qu. The modern vowel combinations of oo and aa, which denote the long “o” and long “a” vowel sounds, respectively, were written as oe and ae in seventeenth century Dutch. The list goes on. For the record, early modern and modern English have similar differences. One of the sources I read recently included the name of a seventeenth century English ship in Southeast Asia, the Darlyngh. Even as a native English speaker, I had to do a double-take on that spelling. (Darling?) Thus, even after you have managed to decipher the letters, you may be left with a jumble of letters that you do not even recognize as a word. In these cases, you can work back from the early modern spelling to the modern spelling according to the general rules such as those mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph (weynich = weinig; “few” or “a little”) or consult a historical dictionary (Historische wordenboeken).

A great resource for practicing Dutch paleography is Wat Staat Daer?

Spelling is a big concern and people make mistakes or they did not know the correct spelling. In one document we read in the Columbia course, a Dutch settler and carpenter in Fort Oranje (present-day Albany, New York) comments on the 1664 English occupation of Manhattan in the Dutch colony of New Netherland (Nieuw Nederland; present-day New York [Long Island and Hudson Valley], New Jersey, and Delaware) and refers to the British king [Charles II] using the word conijn. The modern Dutch word for “king” is koning. Historically, it may have been spelled coning or coninck or a hundred other ways. Conijn, however, is “rabbit” (modern Dutch konijn). This error may reflect a certain pronunciation or it may be indicative of the carpenter’s level of education or it may be a simple mistake. These misspellings or alternative spellings show up very often in the sources.

A 1664 Dutch carpenter relays a rumor that Governor Stuyvesant of New Netherland was willing to give the English and their conijn (underlined in red) the territory. Notice the way he wrote “Stuyvesant” or Stuuesant (underlined in blue) as well. In writing, “v”s and “u”s were often written the same way. This is not necessarily a misspelling.

Side note: Confusion stemming from the similarity between konijn and koning is well-established in the Dutch historical memory. Allegedly, in 1807, the Corsican-born Louis Bonaparte (born Luigi Buonaparte; known in the Netherlands as Lodewijk I), who was installed as the king of the Netherlands by his younger brother Napoleon the previous year, announced to a crowd in Leiden, “Iek ben konijn van Olland” or “I am rabbit of Holland.”

Aside from the issue of spelling, oftentimes unfamiliar or even foreign words appear in the text. In documents from the eastern islands in present-day Indonesia, Dutch administrators frequently refer to correcorren or corcorren. I was unfamiliar with this word and it did not turn up in the Dutch historical dictionary. It just does not appear to be a Dutch word.

een Corcorren” (“a Corcorren“)
op de Correcorren” (“on the Correcorren”)

However, after staring at the word for a long time, I realized that the word referred to kora-kora, a local word in Maluku for a type of regional warship with an outrigger. The word correcorren was simply a Dutch approximation of the word that I would not have figured out if I was not already familiar with the word kora-kora. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese had written the word as corquora.

A kora-kora
From the Atlas Blaeu-Van der Hem (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

These anecdotes may be leading some of you to ask: Why put myself through this?

Well, for starters, historians tend to be very particular, perhaps even snobbish, when it comes to research languages. One question we constantly face when presenting original research is whether we reviewed the sources in their original language or whether we consulted a translation. Obviously, we cannot know every language that our research may demand. For the record, as of 2019, my research languages are Indonesian/Malay, Portuguese, and Dutch. However, I am sure that there are important written sources for my research topics (present and future) which are in Arabic, Persian, Classical Chinese, Javanese, Bugis, or a host of other languages.

In the case of Dutch, the necessity to learn how to read its dizzying seventeenth century script (I’m told that I’ll get used to it, although certainly not in the near future) is based on the magnitude of records from the Netherlands East India Company (VOC; Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie). As much of Maritime Southeast Asia was under the influence or occupation of the VOC between the early seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, any student wishing to do research on that region during that time needs some familiarity with that period’s Dutch.

Stacks in the National Archives
in The Hague

Moreover, the VOC maintained many of their correspondences with rulers across Asia and Africa and their employees recorded their actions and observations in those places they conquered, administered, or resided in. In all, it is estimated that roughly twenty-five million pages of VOC records have survived in repositories in the Netherlands and some of the VOC’s former colonies. In 2003, UNESCO inscribed the VOC archives into their Memory of the World Programme writing “The VOC archives make up the most complete and extensive source on early modern world history anywhere with data relevant to the history of hundreds of Asia’s and Africa’s former local political and trade regions.” Unfortunately, in the case of diplomatic letters between the VOC and Asian rulers, the copies of letters written in Asian languages were generally not preserved. Meanwhile, many of their Dutch translations survive.

Many of the really important documents from these archives have since been published in modern typeface (ie. times new roman) in numerous source collections. For that I am indescribably grateful. That definitely makes my research easier. Nevertheless, many of the documents of the archives remain in their original forms. To read those, I need to keep practicing.

7 thoughts on “Learning to Read 17th Century Dutch

Add yours

  1. Dear Benjamin,

    I admire your efforts and patience to understand Dutch of the seventeenth century and decipher Dutch handwriting from this century! There are few online instructions in English on reading Dutch scripts between 1600 and 1700. Script Tutorials, https://script.byu.edu/, has tutorial in Engoish for Dutch documents, but the site is under revision. Julie van den Hout has created a blog in English, 17th Century Dutch, https://www.17thcenturydutch.com/, with a number of exercises. Henny Savenije offers his website about Hendrick Hamel and his description of Korea, http://hendrick-hamel.henny-savenije.pe.kr/transcription/index.htm, some line by line transcriptions. You can benefit also from the documents about and from Rembrandt and their transcriptions and English translations for the RemDoc project, http://remdoc.huygens.knaw.nl/.

    For the Dutch language in this period I found an online version of the booklet by L. Koelmans, “Inleiding tot het lezen van zeventiende-eeuws Nederlands” (Utrecht 1978), https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/koel004inle01_01/koel004inle01_01.pdf . You can combine of course online documents of the New Netherlands Institute with (online) editions and transcriptions of texts. but this you know already. Your last line about continuing to practice is absolutely right! This will help you over the years, and not only for reading old documents in Dutch.

    Kind regards,

    Otto Vervaart, Utrecht

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Otto,

      Thank you for your comments and those recommended resources. I was not aware that BYU had put together those guides. I am even having fun reviewing some of their sixteenth and seventeenth century English tutorials. The Hendrik Hamel website is also very fascinating and includes more than just the description on Korea, I see. Certainly, I lot of new opportunities to continue practicing and finding more resources.

      I also looked at your site’s resources page. So many useful links to explore.

      Hartelijke groet,



  2. Hi,
    Does anyone know any good resources specifically on the language and scripts of the Dutch in Ceylon (c.1640-1696)? If you do, please let me know. Many thanks!


    1. Hi Yvette,

      I do not know much about the specifics of the language and scripts used in Dutch Ceylon. My focus on mostly on what is now Indonesia. So, the documents I look at are mostly Dutch with the occasional Malay language diplomatic letter or sermon. Have you looked into the VOC archives (https://www.nationaalarchief.nl/en/research/index/nt00348?activeTab=nt&sortering=ove_vestiging&volgorde=asc)? They have been digitized and you may be able to explore some of the Ceylon related documents just to get a sense of what the language and script looks like.

      Best regards!


      1. Hi Benjamin,

        Many thanks! I hope to begin research on the Dutch in Ceylon, next year.
        My ancestors were members of the Dutch East India Co: who served in
        Ceylon, and their descendants, so I have a strong, personal interest in the
        Dutch era.

        All the very best with your research!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: