March 25, 2012 | Dutch

Germanic Languages Can Be Fun!

Studying an unfamiliar language so closely related to English is both bizarre and amazing.

As I study along, I keep noting one amazing thing after another about Dutch, a language Americans are rarely exposed to, but one that has so many things in common with ours.

With German the situation is different. It, too, has many things in common with English (though far fewer, it seems to me, than Dutch), but we are exposed to it a lot, if not in school, then in popular culture. It is a much more familiar entity than Dutch. 

I Guess I Was a Little Rough on This Dutch Grammar Book

I Guess I Was a Little Rough on This Dutch Grammar Book

Making my way through my grammar books, I am shocked that I, and many other people here in the U.S., don’t know more about this language. It’s like a long-lost cousin that you meet for the first time at a family wedding whom you hardly knew about but who has all kinds of weird genetic traits in common with you.

“Where have you been all my life?” is how I feel about Dutch.

Here’s an example: the past singular form of “to have” in Dutch is had. Familiar, no? And the singular past form for zijn (“to be”) looks like this: was. I feel as though I am being punked.

I like “her hair” in Dutch: haar haar.

That just makes me giggle.

An image keeps popping into my head as I study along: three men talking together on a field in a European mist of centuries ago, and then the conversation comes to a close, and they turn slowly and walk away from one another. They represent German, English, and Dutch, respectively. There are many things wrong with my simplistic little image of the divergence of these languages, one being that I keep picturing the men as cavemen, but I do like the metaphor.

Even though German gets in the way of my Dutch sometimes, it is so, so helpful in getting me through these grammar explanations. The texts I found for Dutch really require some handholding (like a class, a tutor, etc.), but I am squeaking by because of my German exposure.

Oh, here is one example of something that I did not see coming: “past participle” in Dutch is apparently voltooid deelwoord. That term made me think not of grammar but of throat lozenges.

Another thing that is different from English: Dutch is diminutive-crazy. They stick diminutive endings everywhere—jetjeetje, etc.—to make things smaller, cuter, more beloved, and even (according to my Basic Dutch grammar by Jenneke Oosterhoff) more disdained. 

The Dutch Spend a Lot of Time Forming Diminutives

The Dutch Spend a Lot of Time Forming Diminutives

The Undertaking Requires Charts and Tables

The Undertaking Requires Charts and Tables

It strikes me as appropriate that a nation of tall people likes to stick diminutives on everything. Perhaps it reflects their relative altitude.

Comments (2)

Katherine • Posted on Tue, January 29, 2013 - 11:28 am EST

Have you ever read about the history of the English language? It is SO fascinating. I could talk about this for hours but I will try to keep it short.  Dutch is the closest Germanic language to English, except for Frisian, spoken on the northern shores of Nederlands.  English is fundamentally Germanic, the 100 most common words English speaker use on a daily basis are all of Germanic origin. The Germanic speaking Gothic tribes the Angles and the Saxons began arriving in England from Germany in the 5th century and began speaking English (that is really summarizing it.) English was completely Germanic until the (French speaking) Norman invasion of England in 1066. This is what gives us so many French, Latin and Greek words in our vocabulary (vocubulary- comes from French vocabulaire), which is why we think it’s easy to learn the Romance languages like Spanish, we see so many similar looking words. I strongly suggest reading “Our Bastard Tongue” by John McWhorter.  English is more diverse than most people could ever imagine!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, April 30, 2013 - 10:56 pm EST

I am currently reading “Our Bastard Tongue.” Thank you for the suggestion.

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