What can be most interesting about the language is how it is one of the closest in the world to English, while also being in the same language family as German. So if you speak both you will clearly have a huge advantage. Linguistically, it’s more or less half way between the two (while leaning more towards German).
Saying that it is just a mixture between the two is terribly inaccurate though; there are many unique aspects of the language that set it apart, and in this post I want to discuss the similarities and the differences.
But the similarities certainly give you a huge advantage! For example, I don’t think I could have pulled off 25 completely unique speed dates and a professional interview just over a month after starting to learn most languages. I hate it when people dwell on difficulties and become cry babies that they have to learn the “hardest” language in the world, but I am also quick to jump on any advantages I have when learning particular languages, and I certainly had them with Dutch!
I could progress very rapidly into speaking Dutch comfortably thanks to these advantages! I had aimed for fluency in two months and I didn’t reach it, but that is due to cultural issues leading to lack of consistent intensive speaking opportunities that I’ll be discussing in another post, not difficulties with the language.
As “English” as a foreign language can get
What strikes me immediately as making Dutch stand out is how many similarities it has to English, especially if you think in terms of older Shakespearian English, and even Irish English. I’d also pronounce the as de and add in an extra syllable to the word film, and even random other things like conversationally (pejoratively, as if there’s any other way) to say “whore” as “hoor” (same pronunciation as in Dutch hoer).
Also, some dialects of Dutch have an exact replica of the English R! This combined with a strange antiquated version of English, almost makes it seem like they are speaking English sometimes as they pass you quickly in the street! (Although I never used this R as part of my strategy to make sure they wouldn’t speak English with me). This is only at the end of syllables, never at the beginning!
You will see “OPEN” in shop windows, as this is simply how it’s written in Dutch (it’s not copying English, it’s just the same word in both languages), although it’s pronounced differently.
People say Sorry (although this one could in fact be an English borrowing; it’s used both to indicate that you didn’t hear what was said and as an apology if you ram your bike into someone else’s in the middle of an intersection), and there are (as in other European languages) many loan words directly from English. However some native Dutch words sound and mean the same thing, like “do” (written “doe”) and “since” (written “sinds”). Many words are written the same, but pronounced differently (like week).
In fact, by taking any typical Dutch text and using your imagination a little like changing some vs to fs, removing double vowels and adding –e to the end occasionally (such as maak –> make), changing gs at the end to ys (vrijdag) and a few other tweaks, you could almost guess from the context what is being discussed, even without German to help! You’d need a lot of imagination though!
If it hadn’t been for the Norman conquest of England (Frenchifying English vocabulary quite a lot, thanks Norman!), Dutch and English would likely be mutually intelligible along the lines of Spanish and Portuguese.
Head-start with German
But at the end of the day, what really made Dutch make lots of sense for me right from the start was the fact that I speak German (at the C2 level).
I could communicate so much better than I usually do when I start a new language (since speaking from day one is always my priority) because I had a vast amount of vocabulary and a lot of the grammar structures (such as second verb to the end of the sentence, main verb always in second position, general order of the phrase is Time, Manner then Place etc.)
Listing all of the similarities would be somewhat pointless because there are so many of them. So many in fact that German and Dutch are mutually intelligible (to a point).
There are certain complications that are not there in Dutch, which could make it comparably easier, however I think the scale of “difficult languages” is too superficially presented by too many people. Yes, the grammar and vocabulary are easier in Dutch than in German, however I found it easier to learn German in Berlin.
In my opinion if I had started both from absolute scratch (no school background, and not having the other one already), I would have learned German quicker in Berlin than Dutch in Amsterdam because of the cultural differences, which people ignore far too quickly in cold humanless point by point comparisons. (This says nothing about learning German or Dutch in other cities or countries though).
But since I found it hard to actually find one of those point-by-point comparisons, I thought I’d create one myself to give you a little list of what struck me as the most obvious differences that stood out!
[Note that apart from somewhat regular conversations, I also learned my Dutch from the same books that I usually use for other languages, as described and linked to on this site’s language learning resources.]
Differences between Dutch and German
- G is always guttural. In German G is like in English go (never like in general) but in Dutch it’s usually the guttural sound like the ch in loch.
- Also ch is guttural in exactly the same way (in the Netherlands, not in Belgium), but has various possibilities in German depending on the dialect.
- Different vowel sounds. I was warned about this, but told that I could actually mimic the ui sound pretty accurately when I was focused. (It’s like “oy” but said in the front of your mouth)
- Quite different spelling rules. In Dutch you must never end a (non-loan) word with two of the same letter. Even though ga (to go) has an “open” a sound you cannot write it as gaa. And wil (want, as in German) cannot be written as will. Also ‘c’ is used in Dutch at the start of words (corrigeren, certificaat etc.), and only ever done so in loan words in German.
- Capital (uppercase) letters follow more or less the same rules as in English (with some exceptions like days of the week), unlike German which capitalises every noun.
- Different phonetics. oe is the “oo” sound in Dutch (like in English boot), sj is the English “sh” sound (unlike in German sch), and somewhat confusingly for German speakers, sch is simply an s sound followed by a (guttural) ch sound (So Amsterdam’s well known airport Schiphol is S-[guttural]-ip-hol), w is almost like half way between a German and an English w (v & w) depending on the dialect. And n at the end of words/syllables is not pronounced in many dialects. So verbs like lopen, spreken, gesproken, ziekenhuis etc. are [lope, spreke, gesproke, ziekehuis].
- Easier plurals. In German, the irregular and quite varied plurals can be quite difficult for learners, but in Dutch it is consistently -en or -s, and the rules for which to use are easy to learn.
- Only two “genders”. German has masculine, feminine, neuter. Dutch has common and neuter, where common simply corresponds to both masculine and feminine. If you already speak German, this means that most of the time if you know the article in German you know it in Dutch (das Haus –> het huis). However, since common is twice as likely you can get by pretty well at first by guessing it will be common until you have learned which words are neuter. And indefinite (a/an) is always “een”. [Edit: one exception to masculine & feminine basically being the same for nouns that was pointed out in the comments is when referring back to nouns using the possessive, such as “De regering en haar leden” however most Dutch people do not apply this themselves. Belgians on the other hand may do it.]
- No cases! This one is great news for learners, as it operates exactly like in English, with no cases ever applied to articles, adjectives or nouns. In German you have tables of der, die, das… den, die, das… dem, der, dem etc., but in Dutch it’s always just de & het (plural always de). No need for accusative, dative, genetive etc. In het huis, over de computer.
- Lots of turns of phrase: today/tonight/this morning are all phrased as “van” (of) the word. Vanavond, vannacht, vandaag, [From avond, nacht, da(a)g] and of course many other expressions and a lot of vocabulary will be totally different.
- Use of gaan for future. Like in English you can say “go to” to express the future in Dutch. This is not possible in German, where present tense (plus context) or future “werden” (will) is used.
- Verbs ending in -eren require a ge- prefix in the past, unlike their corresponding -ieren verbs in German. So noteren –> genoteerd, activeren –> geactiveerd
- Different end-verb orders. While the second verb does go to the end in a lot of situations in both languages, Dutch is a lot more like English in some cases of the order of these end-verbs, like Hij komt niet, omdat hij vandaag moet werken (He is not coming, because he has to work today). In German this would have to end with arbeiten muss, which is reversed. Also in Dutch, in some cases you can do both, while you must do only the second form in a similar German sentence: Zij zei dat ze het niet (heeft gevonden)/(gevonden heeft) (She said that she hasn’t found it).
Now of course, there are a huge number of differences between both languages, the vast majority of which I haven’t touched on here. Each language is very unique, with its own history and evolution from when they broke up from a common ancestor.
There is no way I can summarise all the differences, or even a considerable percentage of them in a small article like this. But I hope this superficial look over the major differences that stood out for me in my short time learning Dutch in Amsterdam will help others!
If there are other differences that stand out for you, or if you have any thoughts on the Dutch language itself, share them with us in the comments below!