Hebban olla vogala

The Dutch language under development

“Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic anda thu” is one of the best-known sentences in the history of Dutch language and literature. The next line reads “Wat unbidan we nu?”. Its meaning: “All the birds are already nesting, except for me and you. What are we waiting for?” These are two lines from a medieval love song. A song of longing, some thousand years old.

“Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic anda thu. Wat unbidan we nu?” These thirteen words are famous yet shrouded in mystery. We know that they were written down around 1075 but we do not know for certain who the author is and which dialect he is using.

Most probably, the author is a monk from Flanders. At that time, he has already been living and working for quite a while in a monastery in Kent, in southern England. A large proportion of his working day is spent copying Latin and Old English texts. This is done in the scriptorium: a room with desks and all the materials required to write, such as parchment, ink, and quills. Every now and then, the quill that the monk is using needs sharpening. Before he continues his task, he tries out his newly sharpened pen on a separate piece of paper. When trying out your pen, you often write something that just happens to come to mind. For the monk, it is a rhyme that he perhaps remembers from his childhood in Flanders: “Hebban olla vogala…”

Old Dutch
At that time, the Dutch language has been developing for centuries. The earliest words and fragments from the Low Countries date back to the sixth century. In those days, Dutch is primarily a spoken language rather than a written language. Words written in Dutch rarely emerge. In many cases, they involve individual words in an otherwise Latin text. Or it is an Old Dutch translation of a Bible quote, such as “Thie wingardon bluoyent anda thie bluom macot suoten stank”’ (“The vineyards are blossoming, and the flower is spreading a sweet scent”).

Recognising Dutch in the old sentence “Hebban olla vogala” is far from easy. Perhaps it is a mix of Old Dutch, North Sea Germanic, and Kentish. In those days, Germanic languages such as German, Frisian, English, and Dutch resemble one another more closely than they do now. From the very beginning, the Dutch language and literature develop in continuous contact with the neighbouring peoples.

Over the past centuries, Dutch has primarily been influenced by French and Latin, and to a lesser extent, by German. Currently, new words and phrases frequently derive from English and the languages spoken by immigrants, such as Surinamese, Moroccan-Arabic, Turkish, and Berber.