German vs Dutch: Differences And Similarities For Learners

  • Fergus O'Sullivan
    Written byFergus O'Sullivan
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German vs Dutch: Differences And Similarities For Learners

Dutch and German can sound very much alike to the untrained ear, yet there are many differences between the two languages.

From the sounds they make, to the grammar and the vocabulary, it just goes to show that even in a single language group differences can be huge.

At the same time, though, there are also a lot of similarities between the two, and speakers of one can very easily learn the other.

Let’s take a look at what sets German and Dutch apart, and also what brings them together.

Dutch vs German: Where are they spoken?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, let’s take a look at where these languages are spoken and which dialects we’ll compare.

German and Dutch dialect map

German is a West-Germanic language spoken in Germany, unsurprisingly, as well as Austria, Switzerland and a few patches of northern Italy and even a small sliver of Belgium.

It has a lot of different dialects: if you learn German in say Berlin or Hamburg and then take your new-found knowledge to Vienna or Bern, you might find that you don’t understand a single word anybody is saying; that goes double for country dialects.

There is, however, an official version of German, called Hochdeutsch (High German) that is the kind taught in schools and used by broadcasters in Germany — not in Austria or Switzerland, though.

If you speak Hochdeutsch, then theoretically any German speaker should be able to understand you, even if you won’t understand what they’re saying back to you.

In this article, when I say “German” I’ll mean Hochdeutsch unless otherwise stated.

Dutch

Dutch is also a West-Germanic language and is spoken in the Netherlands, northern Belgium (better known as Flanders) as well as South Africa, where a variant called Afrikaans is spoken by the descendants of Dutch settlers.

There are a large number of different dialects in Dutch (we go over some of them in our article on Dutch dialects), which is kind of surprising considering how small an area the language is spoken in.

Much like with German, though, if you learn Dutch in Amsterdam and then go on down to Antwerp or Bruges, don’t expect to always be understood. Afrikaans is even weirder.

Dutch also has an official version, called Standaardnederlands (standard Dutch), but that’s not used in Belgium.

Generally speaking, though, if you know standard Dutch, you should be able to make yourself understood across the Netherlands and Belgium.

Much like with German, any time I refer to “Dutch” in this article, I mean standard Dutch.

Deutsch vs Dutch

Before we go on, though, let’s clear up one issue: many people seem to confuse the Dutch language with German because of some confusion surrounding nomenclature.

The word Dutch is what makes it all seem a little unclear: it’s the English word for the people and language of the Netherlands.

At the same time, the word Deutsch is the word the Germans use for themselves and their language.

However, since they sound very much the same, people will confuse the two. It’s just the way English evolved over time and jumbled the two peoples together.

To avoid confusion, linguists will use the term Netherlandic for the languages spoken in the Netherlands and Belgium, but since nobody besides them uses that word we’ll avoid it.

German vs Dutch: Sounds

The most striking difference between Dutch and German for people who know either will probably be the sounds.

If you’re unfamiliar with them, they both may sound the same — “like gravel thrown into an empty rain barrel” is one description that stands out for me — but there are a lot of differences there.

German is usually pronounced in the front of the mouth, giving it a very clipped, sharp feel.

If you imitate the bad-guy German accent from the movies — “ve haff vays of making you talk” — you’ll notice that the sounds move forward a lot more than you’re used to if you’re an English speaker.

Dutch, on the other hand, is spoken a lot more in the middle and back of the mouth, with one sound even reaching halfway down the throat (the G).

As a result, Dutch people will often call German scherp or hees (sharp or hoarse, respectively) while Germans will often dismiss Dutch as platt (flat, also the term for dialects. In English we usually use the term “broad”).

In all fairness, though, German is quite sharp, and Dutch is pretty broad, so there’s a fair bit of truth in each characterisation.

Accents

This difference of pronunciation shows when a member of either language learns the other. The accents aren’t too bad, there’s few muddled sounds, for example, but you can immediately tell that the speaker is from the neighboring country.

Germans often think Dutch people sound “cute” when speaking German because the sharp sounds get rounded out and the tight Teutonic vowels get flattened. It makes it seem like the speaker is very relaxed and chill.

When Germans speak Dutch, they automatically clip the hard consonants, which sounds a bit strange, and they often can’t handle Dutch’s weird diphthongs — then again, nobody can, not even all Dutch people.

It makes Dutch sound a little more intense than Dutch people are used to, but it’s nothing too weird.

In fact, spend enough time in the other’s country and the accent just fades away, the sounds of both languages are so similar. Even the Dutch diphthongs can be learned over time.

Grammar

If the sounds of Dutch and German aren’t too different, then the grammar is the polar opposite of that. As any beginner learning German will tell you, German grammar is brutal.

Unlike all other modern Germanic languages (Icelandic is the only other exception), it has retained its grammatical cases, so nouns can change form depending on how they’re used.

These cases are used in daily speech all the time, so not knowing them and using them will make it hard for you to speak. You will need to know your accusatives from your possessives or run the risk of speaking gibberish.

Conjugating verbs is also tricky in German, with irregular verbs changing the root of the verb in weird ways that you need to just know to make yourself understood.

On top of that, German also has some of the most byzantine rules surrounding prepositions I have ever come across, even Latin was simpler in this regard.

German counts as one of the tougher Indo-European languages to learn, and rightly so.

Dutch Grammar

In contrast, Dutch grammar is a joke. Besides the verbs, which have the same quirks and are probably just as hard for learners, Dutch did away with most of German’s intricacies over the past few hundred years.

Cases barely exist anymore outside of personal pronouns: much like in English they can still change.

Nouns don’t change anymore, except for some old-timey expressions that have kept the genitive, but they’re extremely rare.

Dutch prepositions are also a lot simpler, in fact we make fun of how ridiculous the German rules are, saying they’re the first thing you forget once you get your high-school diploma.

Learning Dutch and German

Learning Dutch from German or vice versa is pretty easy, though generally Germans have an easier time thanks to their grammar being harder.

They do run into some difficulties, of course: when you’re used to strict rules, going to a language that’s almost anarchic in comparison can be an adjustment.

Another example are the Dutch rules governing the informal “you.”

But overall, this is nothing compared to learning a true foreign language like French or something properly exotic like Arabic.

In fact, German is mandatory in Dutch schools, even just for a year or two, so on paper at least, all Dutch people know at least some German.

In practice, your mileage may vary.

It’s generally not a popular subject thanks to all the grammar you need to memorise (it’s called Duits stampen, or “ramming German” into your memory), but then it’s not like teenagers don’t like to complain about stuff anyway.

German states bordering the Netherlands have Dutch classes, too, though they’re usually electives. Still, they’re apparently quite popular as it’s seen as a bit of a gimme.

As a result, there are more and more Germans who speak at least some Dutch.

Dialects

Interestingly enough, though, it’s the people in the border areas that need the least coaching to speak one another’s language. That’s because in a weird quirk, Dutch and German share dialects.

So some of the border dialects of Dutch are the same as the dialect of German across the line.

Effectively, Germans and Dutch from these communities speak to each other in the same language, one which is intelligible by both Germans and Dutch from other parts of the country.

It’s pretty cool, and an interesting example of how the two languages are very similar.

Where to start learning them?

If you’re neither Dutch or German, learning either language can be a daunting prospect, and that goes double if you’ve decided to learn both.

You may find yourself wondering which one to learn first.

There are two trains of thought on that, both of them assuming you already speak English — natively or otherwise.

If you know English to a decent degree, Dutch isn’t too hard: much of the grammar is similar and you’d be surprised how quickly you’ll pick up the vocabulary.

Sure, there are some crazy sounds no other language has, but they’re going to be tough for anybody not born and bred in the Netherlands.

This train of thought is that you start with Dutch as the easy option and thus pave your way into German, so to speak.

Personally, I’m not so enamored of this approach as you still have the problem of German grammar to deal with.

Instead, I’d propose learning German first.

The grammar is tough, but once you get it, Dutch (and any other Germanic language) will be a lot easier in comparison.

Chances are that you’ll also understand a lot of the underlying structures of Germanic languages a lot better, so that’s another bonus. German emphasizes structure a lot more than the other languages in the group do.

Still, though, that’s all theoretical.

The best language to learn is the one you can learn now, by living in the country, knowing people who speak it, or using the right course.

Whatever way you decide to go, we wish you luck learning Dutch or German, and hopefully we’ve made the difference a little clearer.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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