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Meet the expert: Peter-Alexander Kerkhof

The turbulent year of 2020 has seen a pandemic and multiple lockdowns. However in between the chaos, a renewed interest in the Old Dutch language has emerged. LeidenGlobal spoke with dr. Peter-Alexander Kerkhof about his views on last year’s activities and to see what 2021 has in stall for the historical linguist.

Starting with his love for Medieval History, Peter-Alexander Kerkhof took it upon himself to study both History and Comparative European Languages. This double degree was the perfect match for him: “There are medieval sources in Old Dutch but historians do not use them because they do not master the language.” His past research has focused on the reconstruction of the Old Dutch language, which is interdisciplinary research, making it even more fascinating according to Kerkhof. “Old languages are like puzzles. You need to fit all the pieces together to solve them.”

Earlier this year, a collaboration with the organisation Archaeology Rotterdam brought about a video 'Taal in Rotta' in which Kerkhof showed how old Rotterdam language would have sounded like. The video came to the attention of the mainstream media and went Viral, with Kerkhof’s infectious enthusiasm no doubt being part of the reason why. “The knowledge of reconstructing languages is very old, and it is important to get that across to a wider audience. This puts the expertise of historical linguistics in a limelight.”, he says.

Lockdown may have been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Kerkhof: “I could research subjects that had been left on the shelf for a while.” When asked about what Kerkhof was most proud of finding, he talked about discovering the origin place of the old Sint-Catharinadal monastery, which hitherto had been unknown. He also mentioned his research on old Frisian words in South-Holland . In 2021, he is planning to build on onomastics (or the etymology of place names) by setting up a digital database on words used for places and other geographical indications.

Through his work, Kerkhof is looking at a people’s history in the Middle Ages as well as advocating a greater discussion on the connection of language and identity. “Different groups of people used to call themselves Frankish or Frisian and their different languages, undoubtedly had a role to play in the construction of their contrastive identities.” Kerkhof is passionate about people acknowledging that Old Dutch is a fundamental part of our shared heritage and this is what he wants to convey. “During these uncertain times, we should look for things that connect us and we must not underestimate the importance of the Dutch language, both modern day language and Old Dutch.”

To stay up to date on Kerkhof's research, visit his website or have a look at his Twitter.


Interview by LeidenGlobal intern Karianne Ooijevaar


>> After the interview, Peter-Alexander Kerkhof has started 2021 off with multiple interviews on his new podcast on the language of Johan de Witt.