Dutch and German are two deeply related languages, both belonging to the Germanic language family. Since they belong to a sort of dialect continuum spanning a certain geographical area with a diverse and storied history, there are some scenarios in which the two languages can be mutually understood between speakers. Although not every dialect of German or Dutch will be mutually intelligible, there is plenty of evidence that speakers of these two languages can at least understand some semblance of what each other are talking about.
That being said, it can be a good exercise to examine the similarities and differences between these two languages, and get an idea of why some Dutch speakers can understand German, and vice-versa. Studying these relationships will give us an idea of how these languages have developed side-by-side throughout the centuries. Understanding these types of linguistic threads throughout history is a huge part of understanding and learning language.
In terms of relationships and history, the two languages have both been reformed by different government initiatives at different times throughout history, and so reflect different linguistic ideas. There are common dialects spoken in both languages, as well as regional dialects that can be quite unintelligible to speakers of the common dialects. At the same time, these dialects can end up showing certain commonalities between the two languages, especially in areas where the two cultures intersect.
The Netherlands shares a border with Germany, its people have developed alongside the Germans for centuries. This relationship shows in certain regions in the form of dialectical similarities as mentioned earlier. Examining these types of similarities forms a huge part of linguistic study, and can give us a lot of useful insight into how different linguistic cultures understand each other.
That being said, despite the deep linguistic history between these two countries, the eventual result is that individuals from certain regions of The Netherlands and Germany will be able to understand each other. This is especially true of written language, since similarities between morphemes and other vocabulary traits are easier to recognize. Although different people report different levels of common understanding, examining the linguistic relationships behind this common understanding can be interesting and enlightening.
In this article, we’re going to go in depth describing the relationships between these two languages. We will be examining the historical and linguistic relationships between them, and examining why speakers of these languages are sometimes able to understand the commonalities that both languages share. By doing so, we hope to glean and share some knowledge of how language develops, and how language learning ties into the study of language development.
Germany And The Netherlands
The Netherlands has a long and storied history together with Germany. Throughout much of history, both Germany and the lowlands that form the modern day the Netherlands were part of loosely associated states that belonged to a number of political entities controlling the area throughout the middle ages and renaissance. The main entities were France and the Holy Roman Empire (which would eventually become modern-day Germany).
The Netherlands went through several periods of rule, at times being part of either German or French empires. Prior to the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, there was a Kingdom established in the area of the modern-day Netherlands known as the Kingdom of Frisia. Modern Frisian is the closest living relative of the English language, and old Frisian is the historical language which eventually developed into Dutch.
The Germanic language family to which Dutch and German have retained varying amounts of mutual intelligibility throughout history. That is, speakers of the different Germanic languages have historically been able to understand at least some of each other’s speech and writing. The amount of mutual intelligibility has differed between different languages, and the most commonly spoken dialects in both Dutch and German are not easily understood between speakers today.
However, as stated before, some dialects that are closer to the regions where these two cultures have historically mingled with one another show more similarities, and the people in these areas are also more used to hearing each other speak. As a result, some German speakers have a very easy time understanding Dutch, and vice versa. Major challenges to this mutual understanding include separate government efforts in both Germany and the Netherlands to reform their individual languages.
What’s The Difference Between Dutch And German?
There is a myriad of differences between the Dutch and German languages. We can break many of these differences down into a few basic categories for the purpose of demonstrating our point. The main differences between languages can typically be categorized as pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Examining these differences will give us a very well-rounded idea of how these languages differ, and why they might be mutually intelligible.
Before we go over these differences specifically, it’s important to note a few things about the history of West Germanic languages. Being the largest of the three Germanic family branches, the West Germanic languages are surprisingly similar to each other. The major other Western Germanic languages, English and German, are both very closely related to Dutch.
Germany, having formed from the succession of many disparate states into a unified republic, has traditionally been home to a wide range of such languages. These languages form a dialect continuum, as mentioned earlier. A significant result of this is that there are many more German dialects than Dutch ones. The many German dialects were eventually standardized into “Standard High German”.
Standard High German has very few similarities with Dutch since the Dutch government oversaw a separate standardization of the Dutch language during a different time period. Some regional dialects from the low German areas are still somewhat mutually intelligible. Another important thing to consider is the actual mingling of the populations themselves since this has been a huge driving force for the difference between the two languages.
Throughout the history of both nations, they have had varying degrees of friendliness and communication. They were considered part of the Holy Roman Empire at one point, and Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to The Netherlands after World War 1. The Netherlands was seen as a good potential state of Hitler’s Greater German Reich during WW2 and was occupied by Nazi troops during this period.
Today, The Netherlands is home to a wide variety of different cultures, which variously migrated there during and after their colonial period. Despite this kind of migration, English and German remain two of the most commonly spoken languages in the Netherlands. Near the border with Germany, certain low German dialects can be heard between certain people who find them mutually intelligible.
The dialects of German closest to Dutch are the Low German dialects spoken in the Northwestern area of Germany. A version of this dialect (Dutch Low Saxon), is also spoken commonly in some areas of the Northeastern Netherlands. This Dutch Low Saxon, interestingly enough, is typically written with non-standard Dutch orthography.
In 2018, the census data shows that there were 13,209,225 Dutch and Frisian peoples living in the Netherlands, making up 76.88% of the population. This is contrasted with the 354,136 Germans living in the country, making up 2.06% of the total population. Although the number of Germans living in the Netherlands is relatively low (other populations, such as Turkish, are higher), The two cultures have been intermingling for centuries, which is why there is a decent area of mutual intelligibility.
Language can tell us a lot about how peoples and cultures have developed across the face of the planet. On the case of Germany and the Netherlands, we can see that the significant shared history of the two countries has greatly influenced the mutual intelligibility between their two languages. Similarities between other areas of their culture can be compared to one another, as well, such as aesthetic themes in cinema.
Recognizing these sorts of similarities, and studying how they have developed across a specific area, really demonstrates how languages can develop as a dialect continuum. Although different Dutch and German dialects change very slightly from place to place, they lead to great linguistic divides when measured across an entire continent. Indeed, this continuum, and the development of differences within it, is what drives the development and branching of new languages in and of itself.
To some people, such as English speakers in the US, the idea of people within the same country speaking the same language not being able to understand each other can be quite confusing. Similarly, the idea that some Dutch speakers can understand certain German dialects and vice-versa is interesting as well. When we take the time to understand how these different aspects of languages develop, it can give us a lot of enlightening insight into the heart of language itself.
Moving on with our analysis of Dutch and German, we’re going to go over some of the specific differences between the two languages, in order to more accurately demonstrate how they have developed differently from each other. For the purpose of simplicity, we will be dividing these differences into three categories: pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Although this will be more in-depth, we still won’t be able to cover all of the specific differences between Dutch and German; you will have to do your own research if you’re interested in learning more.
So, without further ado, let’s go over some of these differences!
One thing that will strike certain listeners when they first hear Dutch is that it actually sounds a lot closer to English in terms of pronunciation compared to German. Some dialects even use the same “R” sound like English, giving it a very distinct sound compared to the harsh, guttural German “R”. Many words are even spelled similarly to (or exactly) how they are spelled in English.
German, on the other hand, has many deep pronunciation differences compared with English. Of course, this changes based on the dialect of where you actually are, but it is generally difficult for English speakers to actually hear the similarities between German and English, without seeing them written. English aside, even though both Dutch and German have relatively large differences in pronunciation compared to similar language pairs (like Portuguese and Spanish), some regional dialects have fewer of these differences and can be mutually understood between different language speakers.
Although German and Dutch have a great deal of similarities in their vocabulary, they have vastly different trends and rules when it comes to spelling. Differences like this are quite common in the development of highly dialectical languages, especially ones that have had their orthography and spelling standardized as part of a government effort. Double letters typically do not go at the ends of Dutch words, for example, whereas this is common in German.
The lexical similarities between Dutch and German vocabulary are similar to the differences between Spanish and Portuguese in terms of scale, as we mentioned earlier. The differences between many German words and their Dutch counterparts typically arises due to grammatical differences which affect things like conjugation. If you have a good understanding of German vocab, there is a good chance you will be able to recognize large amounts of written Dutch vocab as well.
This is typically the area where languages are most different from one another, even within the same language family. German grammar and Dutch grammar have a lot of significant differences. Most people are aware that German grammar is relatively complex compared to other major languages, whereas Dutch is relatively easy.
One significant difference is the fact that German has 4 cases, while Dutch has none. This goes a long way towards demonstrating the difference in complexity between the two languages. Word order in Dutch is also significantly easier and less strict. German also has three articles compared to two in Dutch.
All of these things make German more complex to learn when we are just starting out. That being said, many aspects of difficult grammar become second-nature once we have achieved fluency. Thus, the differences in grammatical complexity do not typically have a deep effect on mutual understanding between languages.
What Do People Say About Dutch And German?
One of the easiest ways to get an idea of how mutually intelligible two languages are is to examine what speakers are saying about them. When we look at what German speakers say about understanding Dutch, we see a lot of them mentioning the Dutch Low German dialect. This dialect is spoken in areas of the Netherlands that are close to Germany and can be mutually understood easier than other dialects that are not as similar.
In general, German speakers say that Dutch is more mutually intelligible than English, due to the phonology and such being slightly closer. Dutch speakers tend to say that English is more simple, due to the similarities in pronunciation. Speakers of both languages acknowledge that there are many “false friends” between them (that is, words that look similar, but actually have different meanings between languages).
So, Can You Understand Dutch If You Know German?
The question itself is very complex and will be dependent on a lot of specific individual factors that make it difficult to give a definitive answer. Basically, there are a lot of variables that affect whether or not a German speaker will be able to understand Dutch or not. As with many similar language pairs, a good rule of thumb is that written words can probably be understood to a decent degree between languages.
Of course, the question itself requires a lot of deeper understandings of dialects and how they form, in order to arrive at a meaningful answer. Now that we’ve taken the time to study many of the relationships between German and Dutch, we have gleaned a significant amount of information on how the two languages are related, and why some speakers may be able to understand each other between the two tongues.
If you’re asking this question, chances are that you don’t speak either Dutch or German, since it is likely that you would already know the answer if you did. Still, we hope that you were able to learn a lot about how languages interact and develop alongside one another. Hopefully you’ve become inspired to learn either German or Dutch, as well.
For students that already speak English, Dutch is considered the easier language to learn, although it has fewer speakers. For students who already speak some other Germanic language, it may be easier for you to start with German. In the end, the language you will want to study depends on your own personal preference.
If you’re curious about other languages that can be examined as a dialect continuum, you can look up the Romance continuum, the Slavic continuum, or the Anglic continuum. Wikipedia has a great page on dialect continua here.
As always, remember to always keep a well-rounded and open-minded approach to your language studies. Language learning is a diverse and vibrant world, and it only gets wider as you progress. Good luck and happy studying!