Leeuwenhoek's language: "untidy word avalanches"

What's the problem?

As we understand it today, Leeuwenhoek was not a good writer.

  • His spelling was inconsistent, sometimes within the same sentence.
  • His capitalization, especially of nouns, seemed a way to emphasize important words.
  • His diction (word choice) was full of French and scientific words that he probably never used in everyday speech.
  • His phrasing, especially at the beginning and end of letters, was heavily influenced by the excessively formal formulas used by the magistrates, notaries, and attorneys with whom he worked at the Stadhuis.
  • His syntax (sentence structure) was confusing.
  • His punctuation featured a lot of semicolons and colons and not so many periods, making for very long sentences, often in excess of two hundred words.

However, as they understood writing in the 17th century, Leeuwenhoek wrote like everyone else, though his tangled syntax probably even then puzzled and misled readers.

What did Leeuwenhoek say about his own writing?

What have his translators said about his writing?

What have the scholars said?

"The slowly growing national language"

Leeuwenhoek lived at a time of great turmoil in not only science but also in society, politics, and language. He was at the forefront of the seachange in science from received wisdom to empirical knowledge. He died wealthy and honored. However, he wrote at a time when the Dutch language was going through as many changes as the society it served.

In his 1982 article "Language and Leeuwenhoek", B. C. Damsteegt set the language into the larger social context.

The language which Leeuwenhoek wrote was the Dutch of the second half of the seventeenth century. In the course of that century a national language arose from the variety of dialects forming together Middle Dutch. ... About 1585 ... grammarians laid down rules for spelling and declension, and along with scholars and artists strove to purge the Dutch Ianguage of the abundance of French words incorporated in it.

In the social top layer of Holland, gradually a norm developed for the language used in the meeting-rooms of the government and the municipality, in the church, and at the modest court of the princes of Orange. Under the influence of the written Ianguage in official documents and owing to the growing traffic, which resulted in greater intermingling of the population, striking dialectal features were falling into the background to the advantage of the slowly growing national language.

"Very queer ... enigmatic"

What about below the top social layer, where Leeuwenhoek lived and worked? For example, was Leeuwenhoek simply a bad speller?

Damsteegt wrote that Leeuwenhoek's inconsistent spelling was not at all unusual.

[Spelling] was as yet anything but uniform. Probably different systems were taught at the schools, if "systems" could be spoken of at all, and those who had Ieft school could spell as they liked. Frequently there is even no uniformity within one and the same work of an author, and moreover a great many authors changed their spelling in the course of years. This was also true for Leeuwenhoek.

Setting aside spelling then, what about syntax? Didn't anyone follow the rules back then? Perhaps when writing Latin, but not when writing Dutch. The whole idea of "correctness" in language was still slowly gaining acceptance. Clifford Dobell, the first scholar to treat Leeuwenhoek's language at length for his 1932 biography, wrote that "correctness" was more a concern of the typesetters than the writers.

[Leeuwenhoek's] words often appear at first sight very queer, and occasionally even enigmatic. But this is merely due to certain peculiarities of spelling and speech to which one soon becomes accustomed -- peculiarities proper to his age and country, and not eccentricities or comicalities proper to himself. We see exactly comparable features in English of the same period, and inexperienced modern readers apparently tend to regard both as humorous.

In fact, Leeuwenhoek's writing may have been worse than what we read. Dobell continued:

I would also note that the spellings and punctuation are more "modern" and uniform in the Dutch printed letters than they are in the original manuscripts. But this is also true of English writings of the same period—so far as I have studied them. "Correct" and uniform spelling seems to be generally due to printers and compositors, rather than to scholars and authors, in all printed languages.

Note that in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters, the Dutch text that comes from Leeuwenhoek's manuscripts preserves that spelling. Some of those original letters, however, are copies in another hand. That person, perhaps Leeuwenhoek's wife or daughter only because they were so close by, would have had no reason to preserve Leeuwenhoek's exact spelling.

"An instrument given by God to man"

After 1678, only five years into his correspondence with the Royal Society, Leeuwenhoek wrote nothing directly about his own writing or education. What he perceived as limitations clearly did not deter him from writing hundreds of letters that have survived and no doubt many more that have not survived. The 1673 statement in his second letter -- "I have no style or pen to express my thoughts properly, ... because I have not been brought up in languages or arts, but in trade" -- contained perhaps some self-fashioning and showed his acute awareness of his audience, one of the key rhetorical skills that he had said he was not "brought up in". The statement surely showed his state of mind at the beginning of his career.

However, Leeuwenhoek wrote letters for fifty years, during which he developed. His tools, techniques, and confidence all improved. What about his writing? Did his writing improve with practice, if "improve" means more uniformity, greater "correctness", and clearer syntax? Damsteegt wrote:

It is difficult to tell whether a special development can be found in Leeuwenhoek's sentence structure and style, and it would call for a very complicated investigation if one were to be able to pronounce on this with any amount of certainty.

My impression is that the letters of the first five or six years betray the unpractised writer most frequently; this was to be expected after all. In the early 1680's his style is improving, and after about 1685 he has found his own form, a spontaneous style with many long, but mostly well-constructed sentences. ...

In the long run Leeuwenhoek purged his letters largely of foreign words. ... The typical features of the Delfland dialect decrease, and in the Send-Brieven (1712-1717) not many of them are left.

In the end, though, Damsteegt forgave all.

If, however, we judge Leeuwenhoek's language according to its expressiveness, it does not leave much to be desired.

Leeuwenhoek used language as an instrument given by God to man, and he did not consider it necessary to study the how and why of it. Who will be prepared to contest his right to this attitude?

So yes, in Damsteegt's expert opinion, having studied the letters word-by-word, Leeuwenhoek's writing improved. The investigation into Leeuwenhoek's sentence structure and style that seemed so complicated to Damsteegt in 1982 will be possible through computer-based textual analysis after we get a complete corpus of the letters digitized.

Burning Candle
Pieter Claesz, 1627