Frans Van Coetsem

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Frans Van Coetsem (Summer 1982; Ithaca, NY, USA)

Frans (Camille Cornelis) Van Coetsem[1] (April 14, 1919 – February 11, 2002) was a Belgian (Flemish) linguist. After an academic career in Flanders and the Netherlands he was appointed professor at Cornell University in 1968, and consequently he emigrated to the USA, where, after a few years, he chose to become a naturalized American citizen.


Frans Van Coetsem was born on April 14, 1919 in Geraardsbergen, a small town in the southeastern part of the province of East Flanders, on the Franco-Dutch language border. His native language was the (Dutch) dialect of Geraardsbergen. At a very early age he lost both his parents, and the aunt and uncle who raised him sent him to a French-language boarding school. After finishing high school in 1939, he attended a Nivelles “régendat” (a type of teacher training college below university level), yet another French-language school. But he was dissatisfied with the education he was getting and in 1941 he broke it off and switched to the Catholic University of Leuven to study Germanic philology. (At the time “Germanic philology” included Dutch, English and German languages and literatures, as well as a number of courses in philosophy and history.) Even before graduating he worked as an interpreter for the British armed forces during the Allieds’ invasion of Germany. He graduated in 1946; his undergraduate thesis dealt with the sounds and the morphology of his native Geraardsbergen dialect. Less than a year later, on April 30, 1947, he married his childhood sweetheart. His Ph.D. thesis, which he defended in 1952, was also devoted to the sounds and the morphology of the Geraardsbergen dialect; his thesis supervisor was L. Grootaers.

But already before he had obtained his degree he was hired by the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT) as a trainee editor. This meant moving to Wassenaar, near his job in Leiden. At the WNT he was coached by K.H. Heeroma, who also assisted him in choosing the subject of his “Aggregatie voor het Hoger Onderwijs”, which he obtained in 1956.[2] His thesis, published by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in the same year, was a significant breakthrough in the comparative study of the Germanic languages, and established his international reputation in the field.

In 1957 he was appointed successor to his supervisor L. Grootaers [†1956] at the Germanic Philology department of the Catholic University of Leuven, and he moved back to Belgium. But from 1963 he was also Extraordinary Professor of comparative Germanic linguistics at Leiden University.

Cornell University invited him as visiting professor for the academic year 1965–1966. Its research facilities as well as the opportunity to teach mainly graduate students made him decide in 1968 to accept Cornell’s offer of tenure.

In Cornell he supervised a number of Ph.D. students who all went on to have academic careers. After his retirement in 1989, he remained active, supervising graduate students and continuing his research. It was mainly as an emeritus professor that he wrote his important works about language contact, some of which were unfinished at his death and were published posthumously.

Some five years after his wife’s death—she died on January 26, 1993—Frans Van Coetsem was diagnosed with cancer, which was the cause of his death on February 11, 2002.


As teacher[edit]

Frans Van Coetsem was able to hold his students’ attention, whether they numbered over two hundred, as in his introductory phonetics course at the Catholic University of Leuven, or less than a dozen, seated around the big table in his Cornell office. His lectures were well thought out, and he gave them with enthusiasm. In fact, he could argue a point with real passion, and then his blackboard was liable to look like an abstract expressionist painting—orthodox didactics was not his thing. Yet his argumentation was always limpid, and he never lost the big picture, even when a student’s question sent him off on a tangent. This often happened, for he welcomed questions: he took his students seriously. (The informality between teaching staff and students was another reason for him to move to Cornell.) He used these occasions to discuss problems that his research was focusing on and this often took his students to the outer edge of modern linguistic research.

As a thesis supervisor he was anything but heavy-handed. He respected his students too much to overcorrect what they wrote, and he did not mind their taking positions with which he disagreed or their following methods that were not his. (See also § 2.2.) On the contrary, if their work was solid, he would help them improve it on their own terms. The variety of Ph.D. theses he supervised is quite remarkable.

As researcher[edit]

Frans Van Coetsem considered doing research a true if non-religious calling. What he wrote was always the result of thorough study and his carefully worded argumentation was thought through to its furthest consequences. Two incidents in his life reveal the stringent requirements he thought research imposed, and show how demanding he was in his own work. (1) While writing his Ph.D. thesis, he had gradually come to see that the neogrammarian framework in which he was working was out-of-date. Consequently he categorically refused to publish his thesis, in spite of its excellence.[3] (2) The 1956 publication of his habilitation, highly specialist though it was, sold out fairly quickly, and the KNAW had it reprinted, unchanged, and published in 1964 without Frans Van Coetsem’s knowledge. When he eventually[4] found out, he demanded—and obtained—that all copies still unsold be called back and that a notice be inserted to the effect that he would have wanted to modify certain parts in view of recent research.

He could get very upset at researchers whose work was not up to scratch or who used it as a means of self-promotion. But he deeply appreciated and respected serious researchers, whatever their orientation or philosophy. The history of Toward a Grammar of Proto-Germanic is revealing in this respect.[5] He had planned the work as a modern successor to Eduard Prokosch’s 1939 A Comparative Germanic Grammar, and had brought together a number of distinguished historical linguists for the purpose. However, the chapters they contributed were very diverse in nature (some were suitable for a textbook, others contributed original and advanced research) and in approach (some were clearly structuralist, others worked within generative linguistics). Frans Van Coetsem respected his authors and published their contributions as they were, rather than imposing a format or an approach, though that meant that the original plan had to be abandoned. The book is a series of contributions Toward a Grammar of Proto-Germanic rather than a grammar of Proto-Germanic proper.

Frans Van Coetsem's research ranged wide; his knowledge of general linguistics was vast. His own research can usefully be assigned to four subfields of linguistics.

(1) His first research—his Ph.D. and his work at the WNT—was on Dutch, and he would work on Dutch throughout his career, focusing often on variation within Dutch: between the Netherlands and Flanders—his 1957 article on the national border between the Netherlands and Flanders as a language border, brief though it was, was cited extensively—and between the dialects and the standard language. He was also the linguistic expert behind a highly popular language program on the standard language that had a ten-year run (1962–1972) on Belgian (Flemish) television.[6] His interest in language variation was to come to full fruition after his retirement; see below, (4).

(2) Frans Van Coetsem was best known as a specialist in comparative Germanic linguistics. Instead of considering Proto-Germanic undifferentiated chronologically, he realized that “Proto-Germanic” had lasted a long time and that it should be divided into periods. That insight, in combination with his knowledge of phonetics and phonology [see (3) below] led him to a classification of the Germanic strong verbs that differs radically from the traditional one in seven classes and which explains a lot of their characteristics and evolution; cf. the title of his 1956 book (translated): ‘The system of the strong verbs and the periodization of Proto-Germanic’. An indirect consequence was a new explanation of an old crux in comparative Germanic linguistics, the so-called ē². This is a long ē that appeared in Proto-Germanic—in a later stage, according to Van Coetsem—and that differed from the long ē inherited from Proto-Indo-European, the ē¹. (The difference is still clearly recognizable in Dutch and German: hier ‘here' goes back to Proto-Germanic *hē²r, whereas waar, wahr ‘true’, to Proto-Germanic *wē¹ra .[7]) — All this led to his being asked to write the chapter on Proto-Germanic in the Kurzer Grundriß der germanischen Philologie bis 1500 (published in 1970) and it was probably the main reason why he was invited to Cornell. He continued to work out and refine these ideas until the end of his life; witness his 1990 and 1994 books. For more information on the latter, see Germanic Parent Language, a term he seems to have introduced.

(3) Frans Van Coetsem was trained in phonetics, but not in phonology, for when he was in college, phonology was a still a very young branch of linguistics. (Both N. van Wijk’s Phonologie and Nikolai Trubetzkoy’s Grundzüge der Phonologie were published in 1939.) But he would do outstanding work in both. He was a member of the team that made the first radiographic images involving the use of a contrast medium of the pronunciation of some standard Dutch vowels. They were taken at the institute of physiology of the Catholic University of Leuven, where he lectured in addition to teaching his courses in the department of Germanic Philology—even in the 50s he was in favor of interdisciplinarity. He was also a co-founder of the speech therapy program at the Catholic University of Leuven. — Phonology played an important role in almost all his publications on Germanic [see (2) above], and it was the first aspect he dealt with in his studies about language contact [see (4) below]. Problems pertaining to accent, too, interested him; witness his Towards a Typology of Lexical Accent as well as the last publication he was able to see through the press himself. In that 2001 article he proposed the following explanation of the “violent contrast” between the British and the American lexical accent (cp. the three-syllable British pronunciation of necessary with the four-syllable American one). In British English, stress is so strong that neighboring syllables are weakened or disappear altogether: it is a language with an extremely dominant accent. This is difficult for non-native speakers to imitate. America was populated by so many non-native speakers that the inadequately weakened syllables in their pronunciation ended up in the standard pronunciation of American English.

(4) Frans Van Coetsem's interest in linguistic variation led him to an in-depth investigation of language contact. Van Coetsem clearly distinguished between borrowing, which happens, e.g., when a Dutch speaker borrows the [ɡ] of English goal together with the word, and imposition, which happens, e.g., when a Dutch speaker imposes his articulatory habit on English, pronouncing goal with his Dutch [ɣ]. This distinction seems evident, but no one had ever formulated it so clearly as Van Coetsem, nor had anyone suspected its implications. A second fundamental factor that must not be lost sight of when studying language contact is the degree of stability of a language component. E.g., the lexicon of a language is not at all stable, whereas its morphology and syntax are much more so. A word like save can easily be borrowed into Dutch, but hardly its morphology: the Dutch principal parts of that borrowing are [ˈseːvən], [ˈseːvdə], [ɣəˈseːft]. In a number of publications Van Coetsem elaborated these ideas and used them to explain all kinds of contact phenomena.


This chronologically ordered selection, lists, besides his books, only the publications mentioned in this Wikipedia article.

  • Het dialect van Geraardsbergen: Klank- en vormleer (K.U.Leuven, 1952) (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis — see § 2.2; in the library of the Catholic University of Leuven.)
  • F. Van Coetsem, G. Forrez, G. Geerts, J. Tyberghein Fonetische Platenatlas (Leuven: Acco, s.d.)
  • Das System der starken Verba und die Periodisierung im älteren Germanischen (Mededelingen der KNAW, afd. Letterkunde, N.R. 19.1) (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1956) (Reprint 1964; see § 2.2.)
  • “De rijksgrens tussen Nederland en België als taalgrens in de algemene taal” in: A. Weijnen & F. van Coetsem De rijksgrens tussen België en Nederland als taalgrens (Bijdragen en Mededelingen der Dialectencommissie van de KNAW, XVIII) (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1957) pp. 16–28
  • “Zur Entwicklung der germanischen Grundsprache” Kurzer Grundriß der germanischen Philologie bis 1500, ed. L.E. Schmitt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1970) pp. 1–93
  • Frans van Coetsem & Herbert L. Kufner, eds. Toward a Grammar of Proto-Germanic (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1972)
  • Loan Phonology and the Two Transfer Types in Language Contact (Dordrecht: Foris, 1988)
  • Ablaut and Reduplication in the Germanic Verb (Heidelberg: Winter, 1990)
  • “The Interaction between Dialect and Standard Language, and the Question of Language Internationalization: Viewed from the standpoint of the Germanic languages” Dialect and Standard Language in the English, Dutch, German and Norwegian Language Areas = Dialekt und Standardsprache, ed. J. A. van Leuvensteijn & J.B. Berns (Verhandelingen der KNAW, Afd. Letterkunde, N.R. 150) (Amsterdam, etc.: North-Holland, 1992) pp. 15–70
  • The Vocalism of the Germanic Parent Language: Systemic Evolution and Sociohistorical Context (Heidelberg: Winter, 1994)
  • Towards a Typology of Lexical Accent (Heidelberg: Winter, 1996)
  • A General and Unified Theory of the Transmission Process in Language Contact (Heidelberg: Winter, 2000)
  • “A ‘Violent Contrast’ in Lexical Accent between British and American English” Leuvense Bijdragen 90 (2001) pp. 419–426
  • “Topics in Contact Linguistics” Leuvense Bijdragen 92 (2003) pp. 27–99


  • In 1964 Frans Van Coetsem was elected “Korrespondierendes Mitglied in Übersee für den Wissenschaftlichen Rat des Instituts für Deutsche Sprache” in Mannheim, which he remained until 1997, when he resigned.
  • On April 14, 1970, he was installed as a foreign correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences Division.
  • In 1976 he was invited by the University of Vienna as visiting professor, to teach a course on Proto-Germanic and one on the neogrammarian, structuralist and generative approaches to historical linguistics.
  • He was invited by the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam (a research institute of the KNAW) to give the keynote address at a colloquium about dialect and the standard language from October 15 through 18, 1990. His 1992 article is an expanded version of his address.[8]


Apart from what is in the Notes, the data of this article are taken from Van Coetsem’s publications and from the six In Memoriams published about Frans Van Coetsem. All electronic sources mentioned in this article were retrieved in the spring of 2010.

  • Buccini, Anthony F. “In memoriam Frans van Coetsem” Journal of Germanic Linguistics 15.3 (2003) pp. 267–276
  • Buccini, Anthony, James Gair, Wayne Harbert & John Wolff [Untitled In Memoriam] Memorial Statements of the Faculty 2001-2002 (Cornell University)
  • Leys, Odo “In memoriam Frans van Coetsem (1919–2002)” Leuvense Bijdragen 91 (2002) pp. 1–2
  • Muysken, P.C. “Frans Camille Cornelis van Coetsem” Levensberichten en herdenkingen 2005 (Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen) pp. 32–35, available here
  • Schaerlaekens, Annemarie “In memoriam Frans Van Coetsem (1919–2002)” L&A Alumni Logopedie en Audiologie (K.U.Leuven, 1992) nr. 3, p. 3; available here
  • Tollenaere, F. de “In memoriam Frans van Coetsem” Jaarverslag 2002 (Leiden: Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie) p. 6


  1. ^ This is the official spelling of his name, i.e., as it appears in the civil registry of his native Geraardsbergen and hence on his birth certificate. In his publications, Van Coetsem often adhered to the Dutch convention of spelling van (i.e., with a lower case v) when his first name or its initial preceded. Even then he alphabetized his name under V in his English language publications. American sources sometimes give his first name as Francis or spell his last name VanCoetsem.
  2. ^ One of only two such degrees ever granted in the department of Germanic Philology of the Catholic University of Leuven; see Marcel De Smedt Honderd jaar Germaanse Filologie in Leuven (1894–1994) (Leuven: Germanistenvereniging, 1994), p. 65; available here.
  3. ^ “The finest thesis on dialect I have ever seen," was de Tollenaere’s judgment.
  4. ^ Apparently after quite a while, for the notice he had inserted is dated February 1967.
  5. ^ See Herbert L. Kufner “Foreword” Toward a Grammar of Proto-Germanic.
  6. ^ Annie van Avermaet “Hier spreekt men Nederlands: een terugblik” Mededelingenblad van de Leuvense Germanisten 18 (2005); available here.
  7. ^ Reconstructions as in Marlies Philippa et al. Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands (Amsterdam University Press, 2003–2009).
  8. ^ This was also his last visit to Europe.