The Dutch Language

Even though Dutch is the 6th language in the European Union, not many people are familiar with it. In fact few have any clue of where it is spoken, if they even know that there is such a country as the Netherlands. Some think that the national language is English, while those with a better geographical knowledge imagine Dutch to be some kind of mixture between English and German, which isn’t actually that far from the truth. It must be acknowledged that the name of the language itself is rather misleading, as it resembles the German word ‘Deutsch’, which in fact means ‘German’. It is derived from an old word which originally referred to German speaking tribes, amongst which the - present - Dutch. At the beginning of the 17th century its meaning was narrowed down to the language spoken in the Netherlands only, as this was becoming a more and more united, independent state. Nowadays some 21 million people speak Dutch as a mother tongue, while 4 million people speak it as a second language. This number might have been even more had it not been for a few votes that, so legend has it, would have made Dutch the official language of what is now New York. ‘The Big Apple’ was in fact in Dutch hands, back in the 17th century, called New Amsterdam.

Dutch, English and German all belong to the West-German language group, though the Dutch language bares more resemblance to German than to English. This is because the Franks, a Germanic tribe which settled in the country after the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, had a greater impact on its development than opher tribes, such as the Frisians and the Saxons, who would soon settle in what is now Great Britain. Dutch and German are in fact considered part of the so-called continental German group, as opposed to Frisian and English.

It wasn’t until about AD 600 that the Dutch language started to distinguish itself from German, mainly because of the so-called German consonant shift - a process in which certain consonants changed slightly (the ‘p’ turned into ‘pf’, for instance) - which did not take place in the Dutch speaking area. From this moment onwards Dutch starts to develop itself into a more autonomous language and is also being written down. For a long time it is believed that the oldest piece of written text is a famous phrase written down in the 11th century, “hebban olla vogala nestas bigunnan hinase ic ende thu uuat unbidan uue nu” (“all the birds have started making their nests, except for you and I: so what are we waiting for?”). We now know however that there are psalms which date back to the 10th century.

Between 1200 and 1500 many official documents needed to be written in the national language, called Middle Dutch as opposed to Old Dutch which covers the period 900-1100, while ever more people started reading literature as well. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century helped the Dutch language develop itself further, though it still lacked a uniform spelling. In the 16th and 17th century, religious and political conflicts such as the war against Spain boosted the creation of a unified language greatly, and the printing of the so Statenbijbel, in 1627, was the first serious attempt to create a uniform spelling. This Bible translation aimed at bringing together a number of dialects which at the time were spoken in the country, and has brought forth expressions which are still in use today. The first official spelling hkwever was created in the early 19th century.

Dutch is spoken in the Netherlands and in the Northern part of Belgium, though here it is called Flemish. Dutch and Flemish are basically the same languages, with some minor differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. This may occasionally lead to funny misunderstandings: if in Flemish one speaks of people standing in a queue, for example, one uses the same expression Dutch people use when they speak of a traffic jam! Outside of Europe, the Dutch language is also spoken in former colonies Aruba, Netherlands Antilles and Suriname, though it is a second language here, and mother tongue speakers are a minority. In another former colony, Indonesia, Dutch is spoken only by older generations, while some official documents (i.e. laws) are still written in Dutch. Afrikaans, finally, was derived from Dutch and though it is a language in itself, Dutch people can understand it fairly well.

In the Netherlands, being a small country, dialects aren’t such a big issue as they may be in larger countries such as India or China. Nevertheless some 28 dialects can be discerned, excluded the Frisian which is considered a language in itself. These dialects are generally divided into five main groups, of which the most widespread are ‘Hollands’ and ‘Brabants’. The latter is spoken in the more southern regions, and tends to resemble Flemish pronunciation, while ‘Hollands’ is spoken in the North and middle of the country.