A large number of different dialects are spoken in the Netherlands in addition to the standard language, i.e. standard-Dutch. Dialects, which lie very close to each other in geographical terms, are often fairly easily understood by people living in a particular area. As the distance between the dialects increases, it becomes more difficult for people to understand each other. It is therefore not easy to make a clear classification of separate dialects. Dialectologists often divide the Netherlands into a number of dialect groups (for an overview see Daan & Blok, 1969).
Within the Netherlands, the ‘Randstad’, which is situated in the provinces of Noord-Holland, Zuid-Holland and Utrecht, is the economic, demographic, political and cultural centre. The Randstad is a conurbation in the mid-west, which encompasses the four biggest cities of the Netherlands: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Outside that area the population density (largely rural areas) is much lower, in particular in the north (Friesland and Groningen) and the east (Drenthe ) and south-west (Zeeland ). In the latter provinces about half of the working population is employed in agriculture. The two southern provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg and the (eastern) provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland can be characterized as urbanized rural areas. Flevoland is the newest Dutch province, in fact a polder that has been reclaimed from an inner sea. In the west of the Netherlands, the area between Amsterdam, Utrecht, the Hague and Rotterdam, most people speak standard-Dutch. The dialects spoken in this area, in the provinces of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland, are closest to the standard language. Most people therefore do not see themselves as speakers of a dialect, even though their use of language has characteristics of a dialect (Van Hout, 1984; Hagen, 1989). Dialects have a relatively strong position in the north, east and south of the country. The general pattern is, the greater the distance from the west of the Netherlands, the greater the distance from the standard language (Hagen & Giesbers, 1988).
The Netherlands is one of the most urbanized areas in Europe. A lot of dialects are therefore also city dialects, which largely have a low prestige. City dialects are often associated with a lower social class. There are a few exceptions to this, such as the city dialect of Maastricht, which is spoken by all social strata of the Maastricht population and is more of an expression of regional or local identity (Hagen, 1989). The city dialects of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland (e.g. Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague) are judged most negatively because the link between dialect usage and socio-economic status is most evident here. One result of this stigmatization is a reduction in the size of the dialect-speaking group. We increasingly see this development taking place also in cities outside the west of the Netherlands (Hagen & Giesbers, 1988).
Dialect-usage is more common in rural areas and in small towns than it is in the cities. Rural dialects often have less of a stigma attached to them because they are an expression of regional identity rather than low social status. Here it is often the case that people learn the standard language without giving up their dialect (Hagen & Giesbers, 1988).
In Friesland, situated in the north of the country, a minority language is spoken. Despite the strong influence of the standard language, the Frisian Language also has a strong position in particular in rural areas. In the cities of Friesland a city dialect is spoken, which is a mixture of old Frisian dialects and Dutch. Thanks to efforts of the Frisian movement and the Fryske Akademy , Frisian has been recognized by a European Charter. One of the reasons for recognizing Frisian as a language is that there is a Frisian standard-language in addition to the Frisian dialects. This political recognition of Frisian as a language has had important consequences for instruction in the language and educational practice in the province of Friesland. Frisian has in the meantime become the language spoken at all primary schools in Friesland, with the exception of some exempted schools (Van Hout, 1984, Ytsma & De Jong, 1993). In addition to Frisian, Low Saxon and Limburgs have recently been recognized as vernacular by a European Charter. National figures on the use of dialects in the Netherlands, such as the ones that are available for Low Saxonin Germany (Stellmacher, 1994), do not exist. Careful estimates have been made, however, for example, by Boves & Vousten (1996).
According to their analyses on average 12% of all parents speak a Dutch dialect or Frisian with their child. They did however find major regional differences in this respect: in particular in the provinces of Overijssel, Drenthe, Limburg and Friesland a dialect is often spoken in the home situation. There are, furthermore, a number of sociolinguistic studies available carried out at a local or regional level, such as the one by Van Hout (1989) for Nijmegen.
In the Netherlands the use of dialect has declined considerably over recent decades. The reduction in the use of the ‘old’ dialects is not only evident from the smaller number of speakers, but also from the sociological and demographic characteristics of dialect- usage. The number of domains in which dialect is spoken has very much been reduced. There is a clear trend, which shows that dialect-speaking parents are increasingly starting to speak the standard language with their children. It is becoming less common for people to speak only dialect; they usually command the local dialect as well as standard-Dutch.
In addition, the linguistic structure of dialects is moving more closely towards that of the standard language: new linguistic variants are developing including varieties that lie somewhere between a dialect and the standard language. This development of interim forms, ‘regiolects’, is taking place at all levels of the language (Van Hout, 1984; Hoppenbrouwers, 1990).