The Netherlands is so much more than its windmills, clogs and passion (read: borderline obsession) for dairy products — or even its popular destinations Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague. Despite the fact that you can get around most touristy areas with English alone, it’s definitely worth taking the time to appreciate the country’s native language: Dutch. After English and German, it’s the third most spoken Germanic language in the world.
But don’t forget that the Netherlands is also a constitutional monarchy that spans not only the European mainland country, but also a few territories in the Caribbean Sea. Throughout its domain, multiple official and nonofficial languages and dialects, such as Papiamento or West Frisian, are commonly spoken. Many also regularly use Dutch Sign Language. Let’s take a closer look at the various ways people communicate in the Netherlands.
Pass That Dutch
The simple answer to which language is spoken in the Netherlands is Dutch. This language was formerly known as Netherlandic and is fittingly called Nederlands in Dutch. It belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Proto-Germanic language family tree, so following this family analogy, German is its linguistic sibling and English its cousin.
The word “Dutch” comes from its Medieval name, Dietsc or Duutsc, which more or less equates to the modern German word Deutsch, meaning “language of the people” (in contrast to the academic and religiously elite language, Latin). Old Dutch branched out around the same time as Old English and is spoken, both natively and as a second language, by roughly 27 million people today. In the greater Kingdom of the Netherlands, Standard Dutch is used for all official matters.
Mainland Dialects And Minority Languages
Besides the widespread Standard Dutch, there are a variety of dialects that can essentially be boiled down to these main subgroups: West Frisian, Low Saxon and Low Franconian. The Low Franconian Hollandic, for example, is the most common dialect in the Netherlands and can be found in urbanized areas like Amsterdam. Despite this, not all of these dialects are formally recognized and the everyday use of many is steadily declining.
Three minority languages are also officially protected, starting with the prevalent South-Eastern Limburgish, and followed by West Frisian and Dutch Low Saxon. In fact, the Northern province of Friesland operates bilingually in both Dutch and West Frisian, one of the three West Germanic Frisian languages. If Dutch and English weren’t similar enough, West Frisian is generally regarded as the shorter bridge between the two.
The Kingdom Of The Netherlands
So we’ve covered what’s spoken on the Dutch mainland — but what about the Kingdom’s Caribbean territories? Aside from the Netherlands itself, there are three other constituent countries (Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten) and three special municipalities (Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius) that constitute the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Though Dutch is the official bureaucratic language in all six, it’s not the universal, everyday language spoken in any of them.
All of these territories can be recognized as polyglot societies, with Papiamento, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch all found in varying degrees of use. If you travel to Aruba, Bonaire or Curaçao, you would most likely hear the Iberian Creole language Papiamento, a fusion of Spanish and Portuguese with some West African and Dutch influences.
Through various legislation, the parliaments of these islands deliberately determined that Papiamento, not Dutch, should be the main language used for primary education (only two other countries have made Creole languages official learning tools for literacy in school). Saba, Sint Marteen and Sint Eustatius, on the other hand, took on English as a preferred language. Saba has its own localized English Creole vernacular, Saba English, and more people speak Spanish than Dutch in Sint Maarten.
As the Kingdom of the Netherlands is a remnant of European imperialism, this is a good time to point out that Dutch colonialism left not only deep-rooted social, political and economical impacts on its territories, but linguistic ones, as well. Take the Dutch derivative, Afrikaans, for example. Though South Africa and Namibia are now independent countries, this language born from Dutch occupation is still very much alive and well today.
Can You Get Around the Netherlands Without Speaking Dutch?
Dutch is viewed by some as a quirky mishmash of English and German, with a few slightly off-sounding but understandable words sticking out (for example, deur and “door” or huis and “house”). If you aren’t able to grasp full sentences, though, don’t worry: 90% of the population speaks English.
Better yet, multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception. After English, German comes in second place with around 71% proficiency, and French comes in third (29%). Other common languages include Indonesian, Moroccan Arabic, Caribbean Hindustani, Sranan Tongo, Tarifit and Turkish, primarily from immigration. There is also a distinct Dutch Sign Language (Nederlandse Gebarentaal) that is not yet officially recognized.
English or German would be your best bet to get around cities like Amsterdam as a foreigner, but that definitely shouldn’t stop you from picking up some Dutch!