Can Dutch and German speakers understand each other?

Can Dutch and German speakers understand each other?

by Anne Walther

Updated November 7, 2022

Given how close both Dutch and German are geographically, it is a common assumption that speakers of both languages understand each other. After all, many European languages are so similar that native speakers in some countries can understand their  neighbors’ languages as well – think of Spanish and Portuguese, or Finnish and Swedish. Even looking at the name of the Dutch language feels almost like a giveaway: German is translated as Deutsch, almost the same word as Dutch. But are Dutch and German essentially the same language, or are there differences? Let’s take a closer look.

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Do Dutch and German have the same roots?

Dutch and German both are considered West Germanic languages and share some historic background. Both languages have developed throughout the centuries from different dialects in Europe and were once mutually intelligible. As a result, some basic words such as “yes” or “no”, for example, are almost the same in both languages. With Germany being a much larger country than the Netherlands and a direct neighbor, many Dutch people speak basic German due to the historic and economic ties between the two countries. However, the Dutch language has some phonological differences from German, likely stemming from the Franks that lived in what is now the Netherlands in the 9th century.

How are Dutch and German different?

The main difference between both languages is their pronunciation. Dutch is famous for its rough pronunciation of the g, while German is known for its harsh pronunciation of the s. Please note that Belgian Dutch speakers don’t have the rough g, though!
In addition, German grammar is much more complex than that of the Dutch language. For example, a commonly known feature of the German language is the use of compound words, making the language hard to understand for beginners or foreigners. The difference in grammar between both languages may also cause some confusion: Both languages have slightly different sentence structures, making the meaning of a sentence hard to understand. Lastly, a big source of confusion is the German Umlaute ä, ö and ü, which are used in both languages, but in a completely different way: In German, the Umlaute changes the pronunciation of certain letters, while in Dutch it simply means you have to pronounce the letter even stronger.

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What do Dutch and German have in common?

While the languages have many differences, there are also a lot of similarities between them. For example, the shared historic roots mean that many words in both languages are very similar, either in their spelling or pronunciation or both. This means that while it can be hard to understand one another, speakers often still can catch the topic of a conversation by picking up a few words. In addition, both countries have many different regional dialects, which are often a bit more similar to the languages of neighboring countries. Frisian dialect speakers in Germany for example may, as a result, understand some Dutch. 

So if I speak German – will I understand Dutch?

Although Dutch and German are related, it is very difficult for speakers of the two languages to understand each other. Unlike for example Slavic or Scandinavian languages, which are often so similar that native speakers understand one another, the differences in pronunciation make it extremely difficult to know what the other person is saying. However, many Dutch people learn German in school and understand some of the language as a result. Vice versa, Germans who live close to the Dutch border often speak some basic Dutch, as well. 

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Anne is a German freelance writer and communication and data protection consultant. In addition to her job, she is founder and coach of the Dutch non-for-profit organization CLUB Coaching. Due to her work, she resides in both Germany and the Netherlands. Whenever her time is not occupied with communication in all its forms, she spends time with her six pets, gardening or being creative with fashion and design. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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