The Dutch Language

Dutch is a West Germanic language, closely related to both German and English and is actually the third largest language in Europe. Dutch is not only spoken in the Netherlands, Belgium, and areas close to the French and German borders, but variations of it are also found in several other continents. Within the Netherlands itself, there are a number of languages directly related to standard Dutch such as in Limburg, Zeeland, and Friesland. The languages of Limburg and Zeeland are not regarded as a separate language by linguists, but rather as a regional dialect. Frisian however, is considered a unique language that is officially the second language of Friesland.

The History of the Dutch Language

Although Dutch has been in active use since the early Middle Ages, it only received international recognition as the official language of the Netherlands in 1612. Even then, this Old Dutch had many regional discrepancies and there was no uniform spelling or agreed grammar rules, partly because not much was put down in writing at that time. The spelling of Middle Dutch, the Dutch language that was spoken from the twelfth century onwards, also mirrored the spoken language that, again differed by region. By the start of the sixteenth century though, more and more people learned to read and write and there was a significant attempt to apply some homogeneity to Dutch spelling. One of the first results of this was the translation of the 1637 King James Bible into Dutch. The vocabulary and spelling used in this work were based on a mixture of regional variations and in particular, the Frankish dialects of Holland and Brabant. This first Dutch bible also inspired the creation of many new words that are still very much in use today. The oldest known Dutch book is not, however, the King James Bible but the Wachtendonck Psalms, written in about 900 AD. This important manuscript includes a large collection of Latin hymns that were partly translated into Old Dutch.

The vast majority of Dutch literature from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period consisted of poems, and even that was in very limited quantities. It was only after 1750 and the founding of several literary societies, that Dutch authors begin to write both professionally and more prolifically. During the Napoleon occupation of the Netherlands, however, the French influence on the language sharply rose and Dutch literature was even banned for a period. As soon as Napoleon was ousted though, there was a great surge in the production of Dutch literature. In those days many Dutch authors were heavily influenced by the renowned British Romantics such as Lord Byron and Walter Scott, but by the end of the Second World War, idealism effectively disappeared, to be replaced by a gritty realism that still characterizes contemporary Dutch literature.

Today, the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Union) is responsible for the advocacy, uniformity and spelling rules of the Dutch language – its most influential members are from the Netherlands and Flanders.

The Geographical Distribution of the Dutch Language

In both the Netherlands and Flanders, Dutch is the official language. Whilst variants of the Dutch language are spoken in the border areas of Germany and northern France, they are not an official language or even recognised as a minority language. Due to the Dutch colonial past, Dutch is, however, the official language of Suriname and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao, and St. Maarten. Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, is one of eleven official languages spoken in South Africa and acknowledged as a regional language in neighbouring Namibia.

Dutch is understood and spoken in many other nations around the world, partly because of the extensive colonial and trading history of the Netherlands, but also because large groups of Dutch emigrants often left a mark on the language of their new home. Although Dutch has not been the official language since independence in both Indonesia and Dutch New Guinea, many of the older generations still speak a few words of it and some legislation is still penned in the language of the former occupier. And Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia today, includes many words borrowed from Dutch.

There are approximately 5 million people of Dutch descent in the United States, who grew up with Dutch. Dutch is still spoken by these immigrant groups, encouraged by the many Dutch clubs and societies that exist. Although Dutch Americans are scattered across the entire country, the largest concentrations of Dutch emigrants and associations are found in the states of Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. Canada is home to a large group of Dutch emigrants too, many of whom arrived after the Second World War and are now concentrated in the big cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa. Canada boasts a large number of Dutch clubs and there are even Dutch radio programs, magazines, retirement homes and a Dutch newspaper!

Many Dutch migrants sought a new life and better opportunities in Australia and New Zealand after World War 2. In addition, there is a large community of South Africans in Australia, making a relatively big group of people who speak or understand Dutch, for whom there is also a Dutch newspaper in publication.

Learn Dutch

In the Netherlands, Flanders and the former Dutch colonies, where the Dutch language enjoys an official status, it is taught in both primary and secondary schools, whilst universities offer courses to further deepen the knowledge and appreciation of the language. Although Dutch can be chosen as a main or secondary subject in the universities of other countries, the global appetite to learn Dutch is not very strong, mainly because it is not a major international language like English or Spanish. Most people who want to learn Dutch do it either because they have ancestors who were Dutch, because they have a Dutch partner, or because they plan to live in the Netherlands for some considerable length of time. For many years the Netherlands has provided special language tuition tailored specifically for foreigners. This NT2 (Nederlands als tweede taal / Dutch as a second language) education is taught to both children and adults alike and focuses on the specific learning needs of non-native Dutch speakers. In 2007 the NT2-education became mandatory for immigrants from outside of Europe, in an effort to encourage those who wish to live in the country, to integrate more effectively into society.

Dutch is a notoriously difficult language to learn, even for those who speak a closely related language, such English or German. This is largely because of the unusual pronunciation of Dutch. The hard "G" can prove a verbal stumbling block for many, in addition to tricky vowel combinations such as uu, ui and eu which are hard for foreigners to clearly differentiate and pronounce. Although, English and German speakers in particular soon discover that there are many familiar words in the Dutch language.