Dutch and German are both parts of the West Germanic language family, which includes English, Yiddish, Afrikaans and more. Both Dutch and English have regional dialects, yet have standardized versions that are recognized as the official language. Culturally both the Netherlands and Germany share much in common with each other, although there are many subtle yet important cultural differences between the two.
To put it simply, the Dutch language sits roughly halfway between German and English. Dutch is certainly one of the closest languages in the world to English, but also shares sounds and words with Scandinavian languages. The region now known as the Netherlands was at one time occupied by the Spanish and French, and their influence on the language we know as Dutch is also evident. Native speakers of Dutch or German have a distinct advantage in learning each other's language over those who aren’t. Both languages share many language similarities, be they grammar-based or word-based.
One interesting difference between Dutch speakers and German speakers is their varying levels of proficiency in English. Both Dutch and Germans get plenty of exposure to British/American culture, yet Germans are far more likely to resort to subtitles when watching films and television series. The result is that Dutch people are far more fluent in English than their neighbors, although this is changing as more German youth embrace the internet.
Let’s take a look closer at the differences and similarities between these two neighboring languages so that we can gain an appreciation for what makes each language special.
How are German and Dutch different?
One of the most immediate differences between the two languages is the pronunciation of Dutch. The ‘g’ in Dutch is always pronounced with a guttural sound, similar to the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’. Vowel pronunciation in German and Dutch differs too, as well as spelling and the use of uppercase letters. You see a lot of double letters in Dutch, for example, ‘advocaat’ or ‘gaan’. In Dutch, words beginning with ‘c’ are always borrowed from the German language. Someone attempting to learn German can make a passable attempt at pronouncing the language through simple reading it, but Dutch pronunciation requires more careful learning.
As with any neighboring languages, sometimes the differences are minor, and sometimes they’re huge. For example, while ‘haus’ (haʊs) and ‘huis’ (hœys) resemble the English word ‘house’, ‘geburtstag’ (gəbu:rtsta:k), the German word for ‘birthday’, is not similar to the Dutch word ‘verjaardag’ (vər'jardɑx). Similarly, the German word for butterfly ‘smetterling’ (smɛtɐlɪŋ) is vastly different from the Dutch word ‘vlinder’ (vlɪndər).
The German case system
One of the big differences, particularly for learners, is that Dutch does not have a case system as German does. Much like English, Dutch nouns, articles, and adjectives never have cases applied to them. The Dutch language has only two genders — neutral and a common gender. The German language has masculine, feminine and neutral genders, and this has a big influence on the language’s case system. German differs massively in that there are the genitive, accusative and dative cases which affect how the language is spelled and spoken. The articles ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’ change slightly when used in different contexts. This differs from the Dutch language, in that the articles ‘de’ and ‘het’ never change no matter where they are used in the sentence. It is notoriously difficult for German learners to grasp the concept of cases, and even native speakers freely admit to making mistakes with the language.
What similarities do both languages share?
There are many linguistic similarities between the two languages, and this goes beyond sharing the same words for many different things. German and Dutch also share plenty of grammar structures, even if they don’t see eye to eye on the need for cases. Placing the second verb at the end of the sentence is standard in both languages, and placing ‘-ge’ at the beginning of the verb to indicate past tense is also standard. Pluralizing words are also similar in both languages. A German or Dutch speaker will easily be able to read each other’s language, and many of the words have the same etymology.
Dutch is similar to English in the sense that it doesn’t have cases, and thus writing the language is far easier than German. It’s also similar in that it shares many of the same words as English, words such as ‘open’ ‘sorry’ and ‘week’. These same words in the German language are all very different. Furthermore, the use of future tenses in Dutch is also similar to that in English. ‘I am going’, when referring to plans in the future, is not easily translatable in some languages, with many choosing to use the present tense to refer to the future. This is the case in German, but with Dutch, you can use ‘ik ga’ to refer to something planned for the future.
Comparing two linguistic siblings is always going to be interesting, especially given outside factors involved in shaping the languages.
For those interested in taking the discussion further, analyzing the Afrikaanse language will throw up other interesting facts. Known as the ‘daughter’ of the Dutch language, Afrikaanse was developed during the Dutch colonial period. Eighteenth-century Dutch colonists brought their language with them to South Africa, where it developed and mingled with the local languages. It shares over 90% of its words with Dutch and is spoken today in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.