Dutch is primarily spoken in the Netherlands, a country with over 17 million inhabitants. The Dutch language, however, is spoken by close to 29 million people word-wide if you also count second-language speakers and over 40 million if you include the very closely related Afrikaans language of South Africa and Nairobi.
The Dutch language belongs to the West Germanic family of languages, meaning that it’s related to such languages as English and German, but also other Germanic languages such as Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. It is by no means mutually intelligible with any of these languages, however, and it has been over 1300 years since it broke off from its Germanic cousin languages.
The Dutch nation have throughout the last few centuries been a colonial power with a vast influence on word history. This has made an impact on the linguistic landscape of many different regions in the word, and it’s the reason why Dutch is spoken by several countries today.
In Europe, Dutch is spoken in the Netherlands, the Flemish dialect of Dutch is one of the main languages of Belgium and spoken by minorities in France and Germany. In the US and Canada, Dutch is spoken by immigrants from the mid-20th century and in Suriname, Aruba and Sin Maarten in South America, Dutch is spoken as a colonial language. While Indonesia is turning its back to Dutch history, many still speak the language and in South Africa and Nairobi, Afrikaans, which is an off-shoot of the Dutch language, is spoken by millions.
Dutch, in other words, is a language spoken around the globe by a lot of different cultures and peoples.
In the following, I’m going to get into each of the different regions where Dutch or a variant of Dutch is spoken.
- 1 Dutch – The Language Of The Netherlands
- 2 The Dutch, Or Flemish Language In Belgium
- 3 The Dutch Language In Suriname
- 4 The Dutch Language In The Antilles: Aruba, Sint Maartin, Curaçao And Others
- 5 The Dutch Language In Canada
- 6 The Dutch Language In The United States
- 7 The Dutch Language In Indonesia
- 8 Afrikaans in South Africa
- 9 Afrikaans In Nambia
- 10 And That’s Pretty Much It
Dutch – The Language Of The Netherlands
The Dutch language is a Germanic language that originally broke off from the other Germanic languages some 1500-1700 years ago, when it first became Frankish. The Frankish language was spoken in different areas in the region at different times, even in modern day France where it was spoken in Gaul and went on to influence Old French.
In the Middle Ages, Dutch further broke away from linguistic features that still remain its sister language, German today, like case endings and the use of the subjunctive.
It was, however, in the Netherlands that Dutch evolved into the language that it is today. Many people figuratively call Dutch a language “in between” English and German, and when listening to the language, one can’t help but seeing similarities to both of these languages.
With the growing influence of the Dutch language, especially fueled by the activities of The East India Company, the Dutch language began to spread out throughout the world and influenced several countries from the 17th century onward. It is, in other words, as a direct result of colonialism that variants of the Dutch language today is spoken on five continents.
The Dutch, Or Flemish Language In Belgium
Before Dutch became a colonial language that spread throughout the world, it was already a language spoken in multiple countries. Along with the Netherlands, Northern Belgium speaks Dutch, or more specifically the Flemish dialect which is a version of Dutch with slight differences from standard Dutch in terms of pronunciation, where for example the pronunciation of the G is a little softer, but also with variations in grammar and vocabulary.
So while Dutch, or Flemish is an official language in Belgium, it’s mostly spoken in in Northern region of Flanders. In total, around 60% of Belgians speak Flemish which amounts for around 6,5 million people. 16% more speak Flemish as a second language in Belgium
The Dutch Language In Suriname
Suriname is the smallest sovereign state in South America. It’s got a little less than 600.000 inhabitants, of which 60% speak Dutch as a mother tongue and almost everyone else speak it as a second language.
The variety of Dutch spoken at Suriname, Surinamese Dutch is mutually intelligible with other Dutch dialects, but it has some notable differences in pronunciation as well as quite a few loan-words from the other languages spoken at Suriname.
Apart from Dutch, a vast variety of languages are spoken at Suriname, attesting to the country’s history, both as a colony, but also as a country to which a lot of migrant workers went and settled.
Other languages than Dutch at Suriname include Sranan Tongo, a Caribbean dialect of Hindustani, Javanese, several Maroon languages spoken by the descendants of African slaves, different Chinese languages, English, Spanish and Portuguese as well as several Native American languages.
The Dutch Language In The Antilles: Aruba, Sint Maartin, Curaçao And Others
The Netherlands remains the sovereign state to 6 islands in the Lesser Antilles in the Carribean. These are Aruba, Sint Maaten, Curaçao, Saba, Bonaire and Sint Eustatius.
Despite the 6 island having a lot in common in terms of history, their linguistic situations are not the same.
- Aruba‘s official language is Dutch, but it is only spoken as a native language by 6% of the island’s 112.000 inhabitants. Most inhabitants at Aruba speak at least four languages, Papiamentu, Spanish, English and Dutch being the most current. Papiementu is a local creole language with strong roots in Portuguese as well as certain African languages.
- Curaçao is an island with a situation relatively similar to Aruba. Dutch, Papiamentu, Spanish and English are current languages, and while Papiamentu is the most common language, even being used as a medium for teaching in schools, Dutch is the official administrative language. Dutch is spoken as a primary language by about 8% of the island’s population of about 158.000, but most inhabitants at Curaçao speak it as a second language.
- Bonaire, like Curaçao and Aruba is a polyglot society where Papiamentu, Dutch, English and Spanish are important languages. Of the island’s roughly 20.000 inhabitants, about 9% speak Dutch as their first language. Papiamentu is a much more common language on the island with about 75% native speakers, but even Spanish which is spoken by 12% is more common than the official administrative language, Dutch.
- Sint Maarten is an island of 42.000 inhabitants of which 4% speak Dutch as their first language. Interestingly, Papiamentu isn’t common on Sint Maarten and other creole languages are only spoken by about 8% of the population. The most current language on the island is English, which is spoken by 67% and which is an official language along with Dutch. While Dutch isn’t spoken broadly as a first language, most of the island’s population speak Dutch as a second language.
- Saba has a modest population of 2000 people who, for the most part, speak English, Dutch and an English-based creole language. While Saba is politically affiliated with the Netherlands, English is a much more common language than Dutch on the island, even in everyday life, Saba-English is the vernacular language spoken.
- Sint Eustatius is a small island with around 3200 inhabitants of which most people speak an English-based creole language. Much like Saba, Dutch and English are official languages and most inhabitants are bilingual, despite English being the more currently spoken language.
The Dutch Language In Canada
In Canada, a little under 100.000 people, or 0.28% of the population speak Dutch as their first language (According to 2016 statistics). The numbers appear to be falling, however, which might be due to the Dutch language only being spoken by an elderly group of Dutch-Canadians who emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada during and after the second world war.
The Dutch Language In The United States
The Dutch has a long history in the United States and the Netherlands originally played an important part in the colonization and settlement of North America, partly by founding “New Amsterdam”, the city later renamed “New York”. As a side note, the eighth president of the US, Martin Van Buren actually spoke Dutch as his first language.
Today, around 4,5 million Americans can trace their heritage back to Dutch settlers. It would be wrong to assume that any of these Americans spoke the Dutch language today, however, since they’ve been a part of the USA for centuries.
Roughly 130.000 Americans people are said to speak Dutch at home today. These people are concentrated mainly in the states of California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan.
As it’s the case for Canada, the majority of the US’s Dutch speakers are ageing, and the number is declining.
The Dutch Language In Indonesia
Indonesia was a Dutch colony for over 350 years, but surprisingly only very few Indonesians speak Dutch to this date.
One of the reasons for this might be the Dutch language politics during the colonial era. While other colonial forces, like the French, the British and the Spanish sought to assimilate their colonies in terms of teaching them the language of the colonizer as well as trying to convert the subjects to their religion.
The Dutch had another strategy, namely to try and avoid the empowerment of Indonesians by not allowing them access to the Dutch language, but rather focusing on a modified version of the Indonesian Malay language which was later to become Bahasa Indonesia.
The Dutch’s influence on the Indonesian language is clearly visible from looking at the amount of Dutch loan-words still used in the language today.
Today, hardly anyone speak Dutch in Indonesia, except for a few members of the older generation and people who have learned the language to access historical records and documents.
Afrikaans in South Africa
In South Africa, around 13,5% of the populations (or 7 million people) speak Afrikaans as their native language, whereas over 10 million people speak it as a second language.
Afrikaans is not Dutch, but it’s the language that evolved from Dutch in the African Dutch colonies from the 18th century and onward. Since 1961, Afrikaans has been the official language of South Africa.
While Afrikaans is almost completely mutually intelligible with Dutch, it’s got around 5-10% loan words from local African languages mostly from the Khoisan language family, as well as a slightly different grammar, which is more regular than standard Dutch and an adjusted way of spelling that follows Afrikaans pronunciation.
Afrikaans In Nambia
Nambia used to be part of South Africa, and until its independence in 1990, it shared its linguistic policies.
After the country’s independence, however, Nambian chose to make English their sole official language, a language only spoken by a little under 4% of the population as a native tongue.
In contrast, closer to 10% (or 220.000 Namibians) speak Afrikaans as their native language, whereas almost everyone speak it as a second language.
And That’s Pretty Much It
Dutch, Afrikaans and Flemish are basically variants of the same language, and it’s spoken all around the world. And while colonial times are (thankfully) in the past, Dutch remains an important and influential language around the globe.
Would you like to learn the Dutch language?
Go check out my article called “How To Learn Dutch By Yourself“.