Jokes about the Dutch language abound. Many of them involve choking, strangling, cats, or a combination thereof. It also seems that Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand that Dutch and German are different languages. But with roughly 25 million speakers, Dutch is easy to learn.
This guide takes you through the history, geography, and development of the Dutch language:
- Where is Dutch spoken?
- Language diversity in the Netherlands
- Dutch language history and origins
- Dutch grammar and pronunciation
- Fun facts about Dutch
- Learning Dutch
Albert Both is also known as Mr. Dutch Brainwash, from his (in)famous Dutch-language teaching method. Talencoach offers different language course packages, from the seven-day immersive Brainwash class to the higher level Dutch Mastery – as well as individual sessions.
Where is Dutch spoken?
Dutch is the third most spoken Germanic language, after English and German. Still, only close to 24 million speak it as a first language, so it won’t win a popularity contest, by far.
It is the official language in the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium. Suriname and the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten) also speak Dutch officially. Outside of those areas, you’d be hard-pressed to find much interest in learning it.
But fear not – you’ll have no problem communicating in Dutch-speaking countries. Many Dutch speakers, especially those in business and in large cities, can hold their own with English and other languages.
Language diversity in the Netherlands
Close to 18 million people speak Dutch in the Netherlands, where it is the official language. And yet, there is incredible linguistical diversity, from accents and dialects to actually recognized languages, in the Kingdom of the Netherlands:
- West Frisian: West Frisian is an official language in the northern province of Friesland. It has close to 500 000 speakers, although numbers seem to be declining.
- Papiamento: it is an official language in the island municipality of Bonaire (off the coast of Venezuela). It is also the first language for many in Curaçao and Aruba.
- English: The special municipalities of Saba and Sint Eustatius are English-speaking. Most of the education does not include Dutch as a first language, there, in Curaçao and Sint Maarten.
- Dialects: There are several clusters of dialects, like Dutch Low Saxon and Limburgish. Practically everyone speaks Dutch alongside them.
In Belgium, people speak Flemish, a variant of Dutch, alongside French and, to a lesser extent, German. The Dutch Language Union sets the rules for the language and takes Dutch spoken in the Netherlands as the standard. However, there are still relatively large grammar and usage differences between the two variants of the language.
Dutch language history and origins
Dutch is part of the Germanic branch of Indo-European languages. Very much like its geography, it stands somewhere between English and German. The oldest record of a sentence in Dutch dates from 510, though a modern-Dutch speaker could not make sense of it (Maltho thi afrio lito is the sentence, which would translate to “I say to you, I free you, serf!”)
By 1150, Dutch had taken further shape as a distinct language, although there were still regional differences. The proper standardization of Dutch, and the start of Dutch as we know it today, had to do with rebellion. The low countries, which at the time included Antwerp, wanted to assert their independence from Spain. Around the 1500s, language became an important way to unify territories, giving people a common culture against the Spanish. Modern Belgium and Luxembourg followed a different route: French and Austrian rule imposed French and German as official languages.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands does have a colonial past, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on language:
- The closest language to Dutch in a former settlement is in South Africa. Farmers (boers), who settled there, soon began speaking their own variant of Dutch. Until the 1920s the European language rules were still valid. But under nationalist Afrikaner governments, there was a preference for the local “Afrikaans” customs, giving way to proper Afrikaans.
- In Indonesia, while historical – and particularly legal – documents are in Dutch, few people there can read, let alone speak, Dutch proficiently.
- Around 300,000 people in the US and Canada speak a variant of Dutch at home.
Dutch grammar and pronunciation
Dutch is relatively easy to learn, as it does not involve many articles, nor a case system.
Articles: There is one indefinite article ‘een’ (a), and two definite articles, ‘de’ and ‘het’. However, ask any Dutch person when to use which, and they will tell you that you just have to get a feel for it.
Grammar: Because there is no case system, you don’t need to use different articles or adjectives for subjects and objects. The hardest part of Dutch grammar for English speakers is the word order, which tends to be ‘reversed’. But again, the best way to learn, to get this under the knee, as the Dutch would say, is to read, read, read.
Officially, people speak Algemeen Nederlands (Standard Dutch). But, in such a small country, people are able to pinpoint where you hail from just by how you talk. There’s the plat Amsterdams, with colorful double entendre. Or the hard ‘r’ from Rotterdam, really different from the zachte (soft) g and r sound of the Brabanders.
And while Dutch is relatively easy to learn for English speakers, it is famously difficult to pronounce. If you are a native Spanish or Arabic speaker, you will not have any trouble pronouncing the guttural g. But almost everyone runs into trouble trying to differentiate between the ui, and u, or the ei and ij sounds.
Fun facts about the Dutch language
- If you have ever had coleslaw, or a cookie, or been to Brooklyn, you already speak some Dutch!
- There is a form of street slang that borrows heavily from Yiddish: bargoens. While mostly associated with travelling communities, some of the words have entered regular usage, particularly in Amsterdam. So if you ever take your misjpoge to Mokum‘s Jordaan neighbourhood, have some gotspe and order a pikketanisie!
- Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States, is the only U.S. president whose first language was not English: he was a native Dutch speaker.
- During World War II, Dutch people would try to identify German spies among them by asking them to pronounce the word Scheveningen, a seaside resort in The Hague.
If you live in the Netherlands, knowing some Dutch can make life much easier – and gezellig. But especially in larger cities, it is not a requirement for most everyday things. However, if you are planning to stay for longer, it may be handy to learn, as it will make your communication with Dutch government agencies, including the tax office which tends to send 27-page letters, much less difficult.
If you are ready to start, there are plenty of local and online resources. A good place to begin could be the Jeugdjournaal, offered by the NOS, the Dutch Broadcast Foundation. From apps to online courses, government-sponsored programs to intensive language lessons, there is a plethora of resources to learn Dutch up to the level you need.
The Dutch will try to be courteous and switch to English when they hear you struggle. You can always say ‘Ik ben aan het oefenen!’, dan komt alles goed.