Dutch and German: what do they have in common?

Learning a new language is always very exciting. Especially when the new language we’re learning is similar to one we already know. These similarities can be at different levels (phonetical, lexical, syntactical etc.).

The Dutch language belongs to the West-German branch of the Indoeuropean languages and is actually close to German (and Swissgerman).


[The simplified relation between the languages Dutch, English and German. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)]

For many foreigners the pronunciations of “Scheveningen” or “Gouda” are a challenge. It’s especially the way the and the intervocalic is pronounced that creates some articulatory problems. For Swissgermans the voiceless velar fricative [x] or [ɣ] for the or the uvular fricative [χ] are very well known. They sound similar to the German in “ach”, “Bach”, “Fach” etc.. Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce. In the southern Dutch dialects these sounds are softer and and represent the palatal fricatives ([ʝ] and [ç]).

Something I personally found important to learn are the false cognates – words that look like they are etymologically related but are not (like Feuer  and feu, the German Feuer comes from Proto-Indo-European *péh₂wr̥ whereas the French feu comes from Latin focus) –  and false friends (that look like they have similar meaning but don’t, like aktuell in German that means “currently” and actual in English that in German means “wirklich, tatsächlich”).

People already fluent in German when learning Dutch, need to be aware of words that are phonetically similar and sometimes even have similar roots but can be different in meanings:

The Dutch aandacht means “Aufmerksamkeit” (attention) in German, and the German “Andacht” means “devotion”.

The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German “Sattel”), the winkel is a shop (“Laden”) and not an angle, like in German.

With vaart you don’t design the journey or trip (“Fahrt”), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only.

Tot is not “tot” (dead) but only means “until” and is pronounced with a short /o/ (whereas the german “tot” has a long one /o:/.

A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box (“Postfach”).

The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation (germ.”Quartier”) but defines a quarter of an hour; and it’s often used in its diminutive form kwartiertje.

Glazuur has nothing to do with baking (germ.”Glasur”; icing) but is dental enamel (“Zahnschmelz”).

Blaffen does not mean to snap at someone, like the German “anblaffen” but the barking of the dog. In German this way to snap is comparable to the barking of a dog though and both words have the same etymon. When a Dutch says that he’s going to call you on the phone, i.e. bellen (ik ga je bellen), which is the abbreviated form for opbellen, or ring at your door, a German would think that this person would bark at him (germ. bellen). For an English speaking person it doesn’t seem too weird, as the English bell (noun) is producing a similar sound although the English verb to bell has a different meaning i.e. the semantic fields for the Dutch bell and the English one are slightly different.

The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: te huur (which means “to rent”) seems very similar “to whore” (“huren” in German), but once you learn that is pronounced like [yː] you’ll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like the word for “overcooked” in German (“verkocht”).

Te huur in Huizen

Te huur in Huizen (Photo credit: CorporatieNL)

Verkocht onder voorbehoud

Verkocht onder voorbehoud (Photo credit: the_riel_thing)

What were the analogies or similarities you found between German and Dutch? Or another language you know and Dutch?

2 Comments

    • Thank you, J.A. Brown, for your comment. I did not say that they are the same. Anyways, I chose to not go too much into linguistic details, but added some explanation that might be clearer for those who are linguists ;-).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *