A Few Words

Know Your Languages: Dutch, A Germanic Language With Far Reaching Influence

Posted by Joe Dougherty on Feb 11, 2015 3:21:55 PM

Dutch is a West Germanic language, which constitutes the largest of the three branches of the Germanic family of languages. Other languages in this branch include German, English, Scots, Afrikaans and Yiddish. Dutch is the native language of about 96% of the population of the Netherlands, and about sixty percent of the population of Belgium and Suriname. These three countries compose the Dutch Language Union, which was founded in 1980 to govern issues regarding the Dutch language. Most speakers of Dutch live within the European Union, where it is the primary language for approximately 21-23 million people and the second language for approximately five million more people. 

In the Caribbean, Dutch commands official language status for the countries of Aruba, Curacao and Saint Maarten. Upwards of half a million native Dutch speakers reside in the United States, Canada and Australia and there are small communities of speakers that exist within France and Germany. Afrikaans, which is a somewhat mutually intelligible daughter language of Dutch, is spoken today by an estimated 15-23 million people in South Africa and Namibia.

Dutch is closely related to German and English and can be thought of as existing somewhere in between them. There are some noticeable similarities between the vocabularies of English and Dutch, as well as Dutch1between Dutch and German. Letters that are indistinguishable in Dutch and German are pronounced, for the most part, exactly the same. The exception being that German has a variation in pronouncing some letters. For instance, when speaking German, an aspirate (a sound pronounced with an exhalation of breath) is used for the letter ‘K’, whereas for Dutch, aspiration is not used. In addition, ‘S’ in German is pronounced between ‘S’ and ‘Z’, and ‘G’ as ‘gamma’ just like in Greek, but in Dutch it is ‘kh.’

To further illustrate the difference between Dutch and German, here are some characteristic sound shifts:

German ‘CH’ becomes ‘K’ in Dutch: Auch/Ook (too)
German ‘IE’ becomes ‘E’ in Dutch: Viel/Veel (many)
German ‘T’ becomes ‘D’ in Dutch: Tier/Dier (animal)

The original Germanic case system, which is still present in Middle Dutch (the collective name given to a number of closely related West Germanic dialects which were spoken and written between 1050 and 1500) disappeared after the 16th century. It is in this regard that Dutch is more similar to English, a language in which cases also disappeared after the Middle English period. In contrast, German has preserved its case system into modern times. But Dutch developed a word order that is closer to that of German. Unlike English, the verbs are not all placed together. In main clauses, the conjugated verb is in the second position, and the remaining verbs are located at the end of the sentence. Dutch also has a different word order when it comes to dependent clauses.

Dutch and English are both considered West Germanic languages that linguists refer to as Low German. Here are some examples of consonant shifts in Dutch and English words and the differences found in High German (which is essentially modern German).


   English                              Dutch                                   High German

sleep, ship                      slaap, schip     p>pf           schlafen, Schiff
eat, that, out                 eet, dat, uit      t>s             essen, das, aus
make, book                   maak, boek     k>ch          machen, Buch

Dutch is derived from Franconian and Saxonian languages, which were not affected by the High German consonant shift. Seen from this angle, Dutch retains certain archaic traits.

The Dutch dialects that are spoken in Belgium are jointly known as Flemish. To a certain extent, they differ from the Dutch that is spoken in the Netherlands in regards to intonation and pronunciation. Minor differences also exist in vocabulary, including loanwords from English and French that are not found in Standard Dutch.

For those who are not privy to information discussed in linguistic circles, not much is known about the Dutch language. Interestingly enough, far less is known about Dutch than there is about the Netherlands and Belgium, those countries where Dutch is the standard language. Oftentimes, tourists visiting the Low Countries are surprised to discover that there exists a Dutch language that is fairly distinctive in relation to German and English. Further exploration into this topic would reveal that Dutch has been a civilized language for over a thousand years and exhibits an abundant array of literature. An example of this is the Woordenboek der Nerderlandsche Taal (“Dictionary of the Dutch Language”) which is the largest monolingual dictionary in the world currently in print, and has over 430,000 entries of Dutch words.
Some believe that it wasn’t until the 20th century that Belgian Dutch and the Dutch of the Netherlands began to develop at a similar rate. The influx of immigrants in Belgium and the Netherlands in recent decades has influenced pronunciation and changed usage by adding loanwords. Dutch has proven to be very capable of incorporating the borrowed words and phrases into its own phonetic system and its own morphological and syntactic rules. While Dutch language conservationists are not thrilled by this, it has increased the accessibility and overall usefulness of Dutch.

The ability to speak Dutch can increase a job searcher’s employment prospects. This is especially true in the UK which has close economic relations with its neighbors across the English Channel. As recent labor market research by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) states, U.K. industry demand exceeds the supply of graduates with Dutch language studies. Dutch is the fifth most requested language in U.K. job advertisements, after French, Spanish, German and Italian.

Topics: Know Your Languages

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