Is The Dutch Language Similar To English? What are the differences?

avatarMille Larsen
7 mins read

The Dutch language is a West Germanic language, which means that it is related to Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and English to name a few. But how close is Dutch actually to English? Can an English speaker understand some degree of Dutch, or is it at least accessible to learn?

Well, there's no doubt that Dutch and English have a lot in common, but they're not what you call "mutually intelligible". An English speaker will need to study the Dutch language and learn it for a while before understanding it completely. Still, you'll be sure to recognize the odd word here or there!

Dutch And English Pronunciation. What Are The Differences?

Dutch and English are relatively similar in terms of pronunciation. There are a few sounds in Dutch that don't exist in English though, but not many.

In the Dutch alphabet, the most strikingly different letter is the Dutch "g". It's that raspy, guttural sound that sounds like you're cleaning your throat. It's somewhat similar to the Spanish "j" or the Arabic "خ" or the Czech "ch". While Czech and Spanish often pronounce the sound a lot softer, the Dutch "g" is almost always very raspy like it's the case with Arabic. For an example, listen to this 6-second recording of how to correctly pronounce "Van Gogh".

Then there's the Dutch "r" which is a thrilled or rolled R. While this sound is very common in a lot of European languages, it doesn't exist in standard English. So that's another difference.

Lastly, there's the Dutch "u" which is pronounced like a French "u" or a German "ü". This sound isn't common in English either (and many English speakers have trouble with it). It's not that difficult to learn, though.

What about similarities? I'd argue that the rest of the letters in the Dutch alphabet are more or less similar to letters in English. The main difference is how they're used together. While each individual sound in Dutch might correspond to another sound that exists in English, complete Dutch words, when pronounced, are a little different.

For a walk-through of the Dutch alphabet and how letters are pronounced, I recommend that you watch this video:

How Similar Is Dutch And English Grammar?

Dutch and English grammar is relatively similar. But there's no hiding the fact that they are two separate languages. With Dutch, you don't have to deal with cases like it's the situation with German or the Slavic languages. It's not an "agglutinative" language like Turkish and Korean, where whole sentences can be expressed in a single word. And the word order and verb structure are relatively similar to English.

But there are small differences in everything. While tenses and verb conjugation follow patterns that are similar to English, they aren't the same. This means that you might have an advantage in learning Dutch if you know English - but you've got to put in the time and study in order to get there. Here's an article I wrote about the difficulty of the Dutch language.

What About Dutch Vocabulary. Do The Words Look Like English Words?

When you look at written Dutch you'd be tempted to conclude that the language is simply a hybrid of English and German. If a word doesn't remind you directly of an English word, chances are that it'll look like German.

The reason for this is obviously that English, Dutch and German are closely related. Most of the words have a common Germanic origin that in time developed in different directions.

Some of the possible differences between Dutch and English might be due to loan words. English has notoriously borrowed a significant part of its everyday vocabulary from French. Coincidentally, Dutch also has a lot of French loan words, but they're not always the same as in English.

This means that sometimes an English speaker will be faced with an unknown word in Dutch that has a Germanic origin, but has been replaced by a French loan word in English.

And the same thing goes the other way around.

A Comparison Between Dutch And English

Finally, to compare Dutch and English, let's have a look at an example. Below you'll find the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in English and then in Dutch.

First in English:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

And now in Dutch:

Alle mensen worden vrij en gelijk in waardigheid en rechten geboren. Zij zijn begiftigd met verstand en geweten, en behoren zich jegens elkander in een geest van broederschap te gedragen.

But they don't seem very similar, you might say. And you'd be right.

But let's try having a look at the English words that have a French (or Latin) origin:

Human, equal, dignity, endowed, reason, conscience, act, spirit

Now let's try butchering that first article in English and replace the loan words with English words with a Germanic origin:

All men are born free and alike in worthiness and rights. They are gifted with understanding and wisdom and should do towards one another in a ghost of brotherhood.

And after that massacre, let's try pointing out the corresponding words in the Dutch text:

Alle mensen worden vrij en gelijk in waardigheid en rechten geboren. Zij zijn begiftigd met verstand en geweten, en behoren zich jegens elkander in een geest van broederschap te gedragen.

So as you can see, some of the replacement words in the English text look like their Dutch equivalents. But it might be a stretch to say that it completely cleared up the text. In fact, the slightly different word-order in the Dutch text, where the verb is placed in the end of each sentence doesn't make the text easier to decipher.

The same goes for some of the choice of vocabulary. Even though both the Dutch and the English text uses words of Germanic origin, they're far from the same.

But here are a few similar words that should stand out: (And even more so if you know German or another language of Germanic origin).

  • All = Alle
  • Men = Mensen
  • Free = Vrij (Okay, this one might not be that obvious)
  • Alike = Gelijk
  • And = En
  • Worthiness = Waardigheid
  • Rights = Rechten
  • Gifted = Begiftigd
  • Understanding = Verstand
  • Another = Elkander
  • Ghost = Geest
  • Brotherhood = Broderschap

Finally: Are Dutch And English Similar?

To sum up this article on the similarity of Dutch and English, yes, they are somewhat similar, but no, they're not mutually intelligible.

The two languages have the same roots and have a lot in common. There are but a few differences in terms of pronunciation. The grammar is close although not the same, and many words have similar origins. But this isn't enough for an English speaker to be able to get by in the Netherlands only relying on Dutch. (In reality most Dutch are pretty good in English anyway).

Dutch is, however, a language that you can learn fairly quickly as an English speaker. To read more about that, check out my article "How Long Does It Take To Learn Dutch".

And if you're interested in learning the Dutch language, I recommend that you go read my guide entitled "How To Learn The Dutch Language By Yourself".