Dutch speakers today make up only a small part of the world’s population but they have played a dramatically disproportionate role in the history of western culture, from the Middle Ages to the present. Present-day Belgium, where more than half the population is Dutch-speaking, was the center of northern Europe’s commercial revolution in the later Middle Ages, and the site of artistic, social, and political creativity that left permanent marks on European culture and society. In the wake of the so-called Dutch Revolt during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the newly formed Dutch State to the north of Belgium entered its “Golden Age,” when the country’s art, its science, and its political culture were admired, envied, and even copied throughout Europe. In the same period, and considerably less gloriously, the Dutch established themselves as one of the major imperial powers in the world, for a more than a century dominating trade in the Indian Ocean and controlling the greater part of present-day Indonesia. During the same century the Dutch settled New York City, leaving an indelible memory of their presence in the form of architecture, vocabulary, religious institutions, and culture. Dutch speakers have made their mark on the modern centuries as well – both for bad and good — whether in the Republic of the Congo where first the Belgian King and then his government extracted fortunes, in South Africa where Afrikaans survives today as the language of the original Dutch immigrants, and in Suriname, one of the many places in Latin America where the Dutch once had colonies. Dutch and Belgian artists, dancers, musicians, and designers today continue to attract audiences throughout the world, way out of proportion to the relatively small size of their populations. Their educational institutions and research facilities compete on the world stage, and their experiments in multi-cultural and multi-linguistic democracy provide instructive models for the rest of the world.
The Dutch language provides access to this rich and complex culture and its history. Without Dutch, one can examine the architectural and artistic treasures that have survived from the past – or created just yesterday – and one can easily find people who speak English among the world’s Dutch speakers. But to understand how this small region developed as it did, has had the effect it has, or even what is unique about the cultures of the world’s varied Dutch-speakers, one needs to be able to read and speak Dutch. To appreciate the uniqueness of the political culture, today and yesterday, of these regions, one needs Dutch. In fact, to understand what the Dutch brought to the Americas and what is still deeply rooted in our own culture, one needs Dutch.
Columbia University has a long history of scholarship and teaching about the Dutch-speaking world, thanks in large part to our location in what was once named New Amsterdam. Our library collections concerning the Dutch-speaking world are arguably the best in the country; our faculty includes scholars in several disciplines who concentrate on the history and culture of the Dutch-speaking world; our university is surrounded by museums and galleries that contain some of the best collections of art from Belgium and The Netherlands; our concert halls, dance studios, and fashion emporia regularly feature artists whose language is Dutch.