Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
You’ve surely heard about language families — like the Romance languages or Slavic languages — and today we’ll be talking about Germanic languages. Once upon a time, what was initially a larger Germanic language became a family tree split into different branches: the Northern, Eastern and Western Germanic languages. From these three branches, we can group all the Germanic languages we know today. Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are Northern Germanic languages, German, English and Dutch comprise the Western Germanic languages and, unfortunately, all of the Eastern Germanic languages are extinct.
So how does this look today? We’ve already spent a whole article delving into the Scandinavian/Northern Germanic languages, but to what degree can we compare the similarities and differences between the Western Germanic languages? Let’s have a closer look at German, Dutch and Afrikaans!
German Versus Dutch
While quite a few people still believe that Dutch evolved from a German dialect, it would be more accurate to say that German and Dutch are linguistic siblings — they developed from the same source language, but they aren’t dialects. They are, however, more closely related than their other siblings English, Frisian, Low German, Luxembourgish, Yiddish or Pennsylvania Dutch. This is why they seem so similar! That said, here are some of the main differences:
I’ve often noticed that German speakers (at least those who are not familiar with the Dutch language) have this surprised, curious facial expression when they see Dutch words written out. That’s because, for German speakers, many words in Dutch look like incorrectly-spelled German words. For example, the German word finden (to find) is spelled vinden in Dutch. Or the German word Antwort (answer) is spelled antwoord in Dutch. Here are a couple other similarly spelled cognates (along with their English equivalents):
On the other hand, German for Dutch speakers doesn’t look as weird as it does difficult. Many things can be understood but, especially in terms of grammatical case endings and aspects like this, learning German can be challenging even for Dutch native speakers. In general, German is much more formal than Dutch.
Even if much of the language is readable right away for Dutch natives in German and vice versa, there are quite a few false friends! Just to mention a few: Whereas Germans love a Tafel Schokolade (chocolate bar), a Dutch person would give you a strange look when offered a tafel chocola, as this would mean that you offered a whole “table” of chocolate! Oops …
In German you use fahren (to go, to drive) in many situations: “mit dem Zug fahren” (to go by train), “mit dem Auto fahren” (to go by car) or “mit dem Schiff fahren” (to go by ship). However, the Dutch varen is only used to talk about transport on water! Another nice false friend is bellen, which simply means “to call” in Dutch. It’s commonly used in sentences like, “Zal ik je morgen bellen?” (Should I call you tomorrow?). The word bellen exists in German as well, but it means “to bark.” Imagine how this question might come across then!
Reading Is One Thing, Listening Is Another
If you’ve ever listened to German or Dutch, you might have guessed (correctly) that they can be a real challenge to learn. Learners of German know what a tough time it is to remember all the different grammatical cases and how they change in which combination — even if they can understand someone well. Meanwhile, Dutch has a lot of exceptions, but it is generally much easier to learn. For example, in Dutch there are only two articles de (for masculine and feminine nouns) and het (for neutral nouns) and they don’t change like der, die and das in German. Doesn’t that sound nice?
As you can see, Dutch is not just a German dialect, but an independent language like the other Germanic languages. It’s spoken in several countries — not only in Europe but also overseas. At the same time, when you learn German or Dutch, you can easily understand parts of the other language. How exciting!
So, what about Afrikaans?
Afrikaans, The Little Daughter Of Dutch
While Dutch people can, with a few challenges, read and understand Afrikaans, Germans will not be able to understand it except maybe some single words here and there. Afrikaans can best be considered as “the Dutch daughter” in the Germanic language family, as it evolved from Dutch. In fact, almost 90% of Afrikaans’ vocabulary is shared with Dutch. Today it’s spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but it developed during the Dutch colonial period.
Eighteenth-century Dutch colonists brought their language with them to South Africa, where it developed and mingled with the local languages. As a result, the structure of the language was significantly regularized and simplified. For this reason, it’s typically easier for Dutch native speakers to pick up on Afrikaans than the other way around. Now it can be considered its own separate language, though clearly descended from Dutch.