How to learn languages – Dutch

Of Western Europe’s “major national languages”, Dutch has by far the fewest native speakers (now numbering around 25 million). It is, however, a much understudied linguistic phenomenon, being a language close to German but which has ended up (for social as much as linguistic reasons) with a much less conservative grammar.

Spoken across almost all of the Netherlands and the majority of Belgium (by population), it is noteworthy that many traditional Northern German dialects are also closer (at least phonologically) to Standard Dutch than Standard German. Although they are not mutually intelligible, Dutch and German are close and many Dutch people can at least understand written German.

dutch

Dutch was also a colonial language. Although it has largely been displaced by local languages, creoles or English, it has left a notable mark in Southern Africa in the form of the generally mutually intelligible Afrikaans.

It is also, in practice, the closest national language out there to English…

Phonology

Dutch shares with German a fairly harsh sound, although less so as consonants are not pronounced with the same degree of aspiration. As a result of these frequent but soft consonants, it sounds almost robotic to non-speakers.

The Dutch of the Netherlands is marked for the particularly strong (and long) pronunciation of /x/ (similar to Scottish ‘loch‘). This is a softer and generally shorter sound in Belgium, and is an obvious marker of the distinction between the two varieties.

The termination -en is common in written Dutch, both as a general word ending and as a grammatical suffix. However, the /n/ is generally dropped in all but the most formal pronunciation.

Dutch also has a range of complex diphthongs which can cause confusion for learners whose native tongues do not include them. However, Dutch did not undergo the second consonantal sound shift, meaning that some words remain very close to English: appel ‘apple’, water ‘water’, zeven ‘seven’, wat is dat? ‘What is that?’

Standard

The current standard language dates from the late 1940s, and is thus much more up-to-date than that of most other major Western languages.

The result remained a frustrating system of double and single vowels depending on the environment (closed or open syllables): naam ‘name’, but namen ‘names’ (main vowel pronounced the same way).

However, the most noteworthy aspect of the recency of standardisation is the abolition of grammatical case (except for some pronouns) and the general merger of the masculine and feminine gender. Unlike in German, Dutch nouns (and their surrounding words) are not marked for case except in archaic set phrases or some place names. This reflected changes which had already taken place in most Dutch dialects, but does give the language a quite distinct flavour from German.

The Standard was adopted in both the Netherlands and Belgium at more or less the same time. Therefore, the Dutch of both countries (sometimes referred to as “Flemish” in the latter) is identical in formal settings, with some very minor variations in spelling preference.

Vocabulary

Dutch vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Germanic origin, although Dutch lacked the same purism as German through the 19th century and thus has generally allowed more borrowings, notably from French.

Key numbers:

  • 1 een, 2 twee, 3 dree, 4 vier, 5 vijf, 6 zes, 7 zeven, 8 acht, 9 negen, 10 tien;
  • 11 elf, 12 twaalf, 16 sestien, 17 zeventien, 20 twintig, 24 vierentwintig;
  • 100 honderd, 1000 duizend;
  • 456789 vierhonderd zesenvijftigduizend zevenhonderd negenentachtig

The core vocabulary of Dutch, given the absence of the second consonantal sound shift, is even closer to English than German’s. However, some key areas (such as pronouns) have undergone further changes versus Standard German.

Key personal pronouns (subject, [reduced], object – 1st; 2nd; 3rd person):

  • Singular ik, ‘k, mij; jy, je, jou; hij/zij/het or hij, ie/ze/’t, hom/haar/het or hem;
  • Plural wij, we, ons; jullie, jullie; zij, ze, hun or hen.

The polite ‘you’ form in either singular or plural is in all cases, taking a third person verb.

All common nouns are referred back to by hij or hem except if they are naturally feminine; all neuter nouns are het.

Dutch does retain, in the 3rd person plural, a distinction between direct object hen and indirect object hun (in spoken Dutch, either can be replaced by ze if referring to people).

The reduced forms are used usually as subjects or after prepositions. With the occasional exception of je and ze, they are generally not used in writing, particularly formally.

Dutch has its fair share of long words (combinations of other words), but marginally less so than German – in writing, hyphens are more often deployed: Noord-Duitsland (German Norddeutschland) ‘Northern Germany’.

Grammar

Nouns in Dutch can be one of two genders, common (with article de) or neuter (with article het), and have plurals typically in -s or -(e)n; there is no easy way of determining which but there are some patterns.

Verbs in Dutch are marked for present or past (which adds a dental suffix, typically -t-, before the ending). Generally plural verbs have a single ending -en; singular has -t in the present (except the first person which has no ending) and -e in the past. With some common verbs, second and third person singular can be distinct, although they are gradually merging even there. Other tenses are formed with auxiliaries plus either the infinitive (ending in -en) or past participle (with prefix ge- and ending -t): ik zou dansen ‘I would dance’; jij hebt gedanst ‘you have danced’; zij had gedanst ‘she had danced’; wij zouden gedanst hebben ‘we would have danced’. The subjunctive/conjunctive is rarely encountered in modern Dutch, with its use (expressing command or desire) restricted generally to archaic set phrases.

Typical verb endings (with maken ‘to make’):

  • Present: ik maak; jij maakt; hij maakt; wij/jullie/zij maaken;
  • Past: ik/jij/hij maakte; wij/jullie/zij maakten.

Note that the final -t is generally omitted in the second person in case of inversion: maak jij but maakt hij.

The indefinite article is een in all circumstances. However, adjectives behave differently after it, as they do not take the otherwise usual attributive -e ending with a neuter noun: de grote hond ‘the big dog’; een grote hond ‘a big dog’; het grote huis ‘the big house’; but een groot huis ‘a big house’ (this is called the strong declension and also applies after other determiners, e.g. geen ‘no’, elk ‘each’ – geluk heeft geen groot huis nodig ‘happiness does not require a big house’). Adverbs, as in most other Germanic languages, are unmarked, as are adjectives used predicatively: ik heb onwillig gedanst ‘I danced unwillingly’; dat was onwillig ‘that was unwilling’; de hond is groot ‘the dog is big’.

Word order is complex: fundamentally Dutch is V2. In fact, the main verb is placed second in main clauses and first in interrogative clauses; all verbs are otherwise final (though typically in Dutch, unlike German, the main verb always precedes any participles or infinitives even in subordinate clauses where they are all placed finally): vandaag doe ik dat ‘I’m doing that today [Today do I that]’; doe jij dat vandaag? ‘Are you doing that today?’; ik ben zeker, dat ik dat vandaag doe ‘I am certain, I am doing that today [I am certain that I that today do]’. The negative particle is niet, usually placed after the verb (and object): ik doe dat niet ‘I don’t do that’.

Character

Like German, Dutch is a largely noun-focused language. The prime difference is that Dutch is similar to what German would have become, had its Standard not adopted such a conservative grammatical form.

What next?

We are nearly done. Next week, we will cheat a little (given our focus is European languages) and take a quick trip to Southern Africa to see how Dutch developed there.

Onze vader die in de Hemel zijt, Uw naam worde geheiligd, Uw rijk kome, Uw wil gescheide op aarde zoals in de Hemel, geef ons heden ons dagelijks brood. En vergeef ons onze schuld, zoals wij ook aan anderen hun schuld vergeven. En leid ons niet in bekoring, maar verlos ons van het kwade.

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2 thoughts on “How to learn languages – Dutch

  1. […] arguably simplification, although linguists dislike that term) that entails. Alongside English, Dutch (from which Afrikaans is derived) in fact remained the official language of the Union of South […]

  2. […] less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter […]

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