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The Dutch language is called Nederlands in Dutch. It is a West Germanic language, mainly spoken by the inhabitants of the Netherlands. A distinguishable form of Dutch is Flemish, which is the language of Flanders (the northern part of Belgium). Some Flemish is also spoken in neighboring France, where it is called “Vlaams.” Dutch is also spoken in former Dutch colonies, like the Netherlands Antilles, Suriname and Indonesia.

As of 2005 an estimated 21 million people in the world were Dutch speakers, most of them residing in the Netherlands and Flanders. Sometimes “Holland” is used as a synonym for the modern country of the Netherlands, even though it is just one of the several provinces (political subdivisions) of the Netherlands. Likewise, “Netherlands” means “Low Countries,” and the name is thus translated into some other tongues (like “Países Bajos” in Spanish). Care should be taken with those translations, as Flanders is also historically a “low country,” but it is part of Belgium, not the Netherlands. Even earlier, there were as many as seventeen defined “low countries,” some of which were independent duchies (like Luxembourg) or parts of France and Germany. Seven of them formed what became ultimately the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which today is subdivided into 12 constituent provinces, plus the remaining overseas holdings and affiliations.)

History of the Dutch Language

“Dutch” is related to the word “Deutsch” – the German word for “German.” An ancient Germanic word, “theodisk” was used to describe the language of the people (as distinguished from the parlance of clergy and royalty – usually Latin). (the “disk” part of this term has a very ancient connection with Latin-derived speech words, like “diction.”) In German, “theodisk” was compressed and corrupted into “Deutsch.” In Italian, “theodisk” became “Tedesco” – the modern Italian word for German. In the Netherlands, the word came to be pronounced “duits” for German and “diets” for Dutch, but it is no longer in use.

“Dutch” should not be confused with English usage of the term to mean “German” as in the settlement of the Pennsylvania Dutch in the New World. These settlers came from Germany, not the Netherlands. In the 16th century, prior to the independence of Holland, “Dutch” was the common English term for all things German, not restricted to something or someone exclusively from the Low Countries.

Dutch is derived from “Old Dutch,” a form of West Germanic speech evolved from “Old Franconian,” the language presumed to have been used by the Franks in the late Roman period and early Middle Ages. Old Dutch was spoken throughout the low countries until about 1200. A distinct form of Dutch, Middle Dutch, was spoken from about 1200 to about 1550. It had five distinct regional dialects, with distinguishing influences from the various neighbors to the areas:

  • Flemish (spoken in Flanders):
  • Brabantian (the language of North Brabant in the Netherlands and Walloon Brabant, Flemish Brabant, Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium);
  • Hollandic (spoken in North and South Holland and a part of Utrecht);
  • Limburgish, (the language of Limburg in the Netherlands and Belgium); and
  • Low Saxon, (spoken in Gelderland, Overijssel, Drenthe and parts of Groningen).

Limburgish had many influences of Middle High German, as it bordered on German-speaking areas. Likewise, he Low Saxon areas were much affected by Middle Low German. In fact, as one travels from the sea inland, informal or familiar Dutch gradually seems to morph into an informal or familiar German by the time it crosses the border. This linguistic spectrum is not necessarily due to any recent migrations, but rather to the natural evolution of language over centuries. If anything, modern travel and communication has tended to erase the subtle nuances of narrowly localized dialects.

As happened throughout Northern Europe, the Netherlands underwent a process of language standardization as culture emerged from the dark ages. At one time a person’s accent could identify him or her to a specific village or tiny geographical area. Eventually a standard form of Dutch emerged as Middle Dutch gave way to modern language. The earliest influences were surely political. Everyone aspired to imitate the language of the nobility, as best they could. The ruler of Dijon (in Belgium) established a Burgundian dialect in the late middle ages, which gave way to the speech patterns of Flanders and Brabant as trade emerged and became important. Then Antwerp arose in prominence in the 1500’s, and with it, the importance of its dialect.

The Protestant Reformation played a role, in that the northern provinces of the low countries were no longer Roman Catholic, even as the lands technically were still part of the Hapsburg Empire, overseen by Charles V and his heir, Phillip II of Spain. William of Orange revolted in 1568 against the absentee monarch, starting a conflict called the “Eighty Years’ War.” Then, in 1579 the northern provinces, mainly protestant, signed the Union of Utrecht. This led to the formation of a federation of seven Dutch provinces two years later, regarded as the beginning of the modern Dutch state. Four years after that, in 1585, Spain invaded Belgium. Many of its inhabitants fled to Holland, spreading their dialect there. This explains the expression, “Dutch was born in Flanders, raised in Brabant and matured in Holland.”

As in Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles, the standardization of the modern language occurred by the combination of the invention of movable type and the translation of the Bible. The Dutch Bible of the United Provinces was published in 1618, relying mainly on the grammar and syntax of the urban areas of Holland. (This compares with the almost contemporaneous King James Version of the English Bible, which bears the date of 1611).

The Dutch Alphabet

Like English, Dutch uses the Latin alphabet. Like German and English, and unlike Swedish, the letters that carry diacritical marks (like ü) are not considered separate letters, but are just variations of the single letter “u” (or whatever). There are 26 letters in all, the same ones as in English, with 5 of them being unambiguous vowels (a-e-i-o-u) and one (y) being either a consonant or a vowel according to context. “E” appears most often in Dutch (as it does in English) and “Q,” “X” and “Y” are the least frequent letters.

The following table provides the letter names and their pronunciation according to the International Phonetic Alphabet [link]. The pronunciation is according
to the accent in the Netherlands, not as it may have developed in Dutch lands in the Americas or Asia. Sometimes the diaphone “ij” is inserted before or with the “y” in more traditional transcriptions of the Dutch alphabet, indicating the use of the “y” as a vowel.

Letter Name Pronunciation
A /a/ /a/ or /ɑ/
B /be:/ /b/ or /p/
C /se:/ k/ or /s/
D /de:/ /d/ or /t/
E /e:/ /e/, /ɛ/ or /ə/
F /ɛf/ /f/
G /χe:/ /χ/
H /ɦa/ /ɦ/
I /i/ /i/, /ɪ/, /ə/ or /j/
J /je:/ /j/
K /ka/ /k/
L /ɛɫ/ ɫ
M /ɛm/ /m/
N /ɛn/ /n/
O /o:/ /o/ or /ɔ/
P /pe:/ /p/
Q /ky/ /k/
R ɛɺ /r/
S ɛs /s/
T /te:/ /t/
U /y/ /y/, /ʏ/ or /ʋ/
V /ve:/ /ʋ/ or /w/
W /ʋe:/ /ʋ/ or /w/
X /ɪks/ /ks/
Y /ɛ ɪ/ /ɪ/, /i/ or /j/
Z /zɛt/ /z/

Dutch Vowels

The vowels are A - E - I - O - U as well as “IJ,” if it is considered a separate letter. The “Y” is often a vowel. Double vowels (like “aa,” “oo,” etc.) are pronounced as a single, long vowel sound (like “feet” or “tool” in English). Vowel combinations (like “au,” “eeu,” “ooi,” etc.) are considered diphthongs, and pronounced as one quickly glides into the other.

Sometimes two vowels wind up as neighbors in a word, but require separate vocalization, that is, not as single, long vowels or diphthongs. In that case a “trema” is put on the first vowel of the next syllable. (A “trema” is also called a dieresis or an “umlaut,” following the term in German.) The trema is not used with neighboring vowels if they can not form a diphthong, or if they are separated by a hyphen (even a hyphen at the end of a line). For example “beamen” has no trema because the “ea” combination can not be a diphthong. If there’s no risk of confusion,
there’s no need for the mark. For that same reason, the “ij” combination and the “y” do not ever call for a trema.

Dutch Sample Text

Artikel 1: Allen die zich in Nederland bevinden, worden in gelijke gevallen gelijk behandeld. Discriminatie wegens godsdienst, levensovertuiging, politieke gezindheid, ras, geslacht of op welke grond dan ook, is niet toegestaan.

Translation: Article 1: All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination against religion, belief, political
opinion, race, sex or for any other reasons shall not be permitted.

Sample Dutch Phrases

Hello Hallo
Good day Goedemorgen
Good evening Goedenavond
Good night Goedenacht
Hi Hi / Dag
Good bye Dag
See you soon Gauw tot ziens
General Responses
Yes Ja
No Nee
That depends Dat hangt er van af
I don't know Ik weet het niet
I don't think so Ik denk het niet
I suppose so Ik denk het
I think so Dat denk ik
It doesn't matter Het doet er niet toe
I don't mind Het kan me niet schelen
Of course Natuurlijk / Zeker
True Waar
With pleasure Met plezier
Where? Waar?
When? Waneer?
Why? Waarom?
What? Wat?
Who? Wie?
How? Hoe?
How much/many? Hoeveel?
Is/are there? Is/Zijn er?
Congratulations! Gefeliciteerd!
Happy Birthday! Fijne Verjaardag
Happy Cristmas! Prettige kerstdagen!
Happy New year! Gelukkig NieuwJaar!
Happy Easter! Zalige paasdagen!
Good luck! Veel geluk
Enjoy the meal! Smakelijk eten
Have a safe journey! Goede reis!
Have a good holiday! Prettige vakantie!
Take Care! Doe voorzichtig!
Have a nice day! Een goede dag verder!
Please Alstublieft
Thank you (very much) Dank je/u (zeer)
Excuse me Neem me niet kwalijk
I'm sorry, but... Het spijt me, maar...
That's a shame Dat is jammer
May I... ? Mag ik... ?
Native name: 
ISO 639-1: 
Language family: 
Native speakers: 
Writing system: 
Latin alphabet
ISO 639-3: 

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