Dutch and English: Language Similarities and Differences

Dutch and English are Germanic languages. They are on the same branch of that language family as both are West Germanic languages (so is German). North Germanic languages like Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic form a different branch.

Linguists construct language families that reflect the evolution of languages, similar to how biologists describe the evolution of species. Dutch and English evolved from a common ancestor language (no longer spoken), which explains their linguistic similarities.

Yet despite this common origin, Dutch and English have, for several centuries, evolved in different ways, leading to some interesting variations between the two.

A first glance at some differences between Dutch and English

The discrepancy between the spelling and the pronunciation of English vocabulary words is something that my partner —a native Dutch speaker— finds amusing.

When he hears the word “apple,” he chuckles and playfully says, “App-le.” When I use the words “knee” or “knife,” he can’t resist commenting, “Why don’t  you pronounce the ‘k’ as we do in Dutch?”

Just to clarify, the Dutch word for “apple,” spelled as «appel», sounds quite similar to its English counterpart. In Dutch, “knee,” written as «knie», appears almost identical in writing, but the 'k' is pronounced, unlike in English.

These subtle differences likely result from the complex ways English and Dutch evolved over the centuries. I keep these thoughts to myself and respond with an amused yet defeated look, saying, “I don't know”.

In a witty response, he adds, “K-now... That's another one!”

To be honest, my partner's jokes are not that funny. Every language has its quirks that seem normal to native speakers but can puzzle language learners. Besides, we all know that English is not a phonetic language.

Recently, I also started to tease my partner about Dutch with its plethora of double vowels and the infuriatingly hard-to-pronounce sound that the letter combination 'IJ' makes.

I've found that a little bit of playful teasing about the funny, sometimes inconsistent rules you notice in a new language can be a fun way to learn and practice them.

A closer look at why Dutch and English are similar languages

Dutch and English are both Germanic languages, which makes them similar in terms of pronunciation, spelling, and even grammar.

Along with German, they evolved separately from a common ancestor language, a prototype of German, spoken in Western Europe hundreds of years ago.

“One Dutch dialect known as Frisian, and only spoken in a single coastal province in the Netherlands, is even closer to English than common Dutch.”

If you think about how English developed on the island of Britain and Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium, you might imagine the semantic distance between these two languages as being the English Channel.

The German language, naturally, developed in Germany, situated just west of the Netherlands and significantly less isolated than Britain.

These linguistic realities mimic the physical ones, with Dutch being figuratively in between English and German but ultimately having more in common with the latter. (we have previously discussed the similarities between Dutch and German)

Still, Dutch is the closest living language to English, and they have a lot in common. One Dutch dialect in particular, known as Frisian, and only spoken in a single coastal province in the Netherlands, is even closer to English than common Dutch.

How Similar Are English and Dutch Vocabulary?

As the game my partner plays reveals, English and Dutch share a certain amount of vocabulary words. Some even have identical spellings and meanings:

English Dutch
Arm Arm
Plant Plant
Lamp Lamp
Water Water
Stop Stop

For the most part, these words are pronounced essentially the same in both languages—at least enough for them to be recognizable to speakers of either language.

There are also recognizable words that have essentially the same pronunciation but slightly altered spellings when written:

English Dutch
Apple Appel
Beer Bier
Card Kaart
Clock Klok
Long Lang

Sometimes, you might be able to guess a word's meaning even though it looks and sounds quite different:

English Dutch
Work Werk
Good Goed
Sand Zand
Green Groen
Stream Stroom

Then there are words that you pronounce differently but may look similar enough to guess their meaning when written, especially when given more context:

English Dutch
Knee Knie
Short Kort
Salmon Zalm
Riddle Raadsel
Seed Zaad

Often, even if a word is not the same in both languages, another word with a similar meaning might help you draw the connection:

Do English and Dutch have Similar Spelling Rules?

English and Dutch have exceptionally different ways of spelling words. But once you start to learn a little about Dutch spelling rules, you'll quickly start to notice many helpful patterns.

Knowing these, you're bound to start picking up loads of new vocabulary words just through context. Consider the following three examples:

Dutch vocabulary words are sometimes spelled with the letter 'V' while their English equivalents are spelled with the letter 'F'.

Another common difference in spelling between Dutch and English is that Dutch words sometimes use the letter 'J' where their English equivalents use 'Y'.

Dutch and English pronunciations differ for words that start with the letter combination 'KN'. In Dutch, both the letter 'K' and the letter 'N' are pronounced. But often these words are similar in meaning and spelling to words in English.

My personal favorite KN-word in Dutch is the word for “marble”, which is «knikker».

The onomatopoeia of the KN-sound in Dutch, followed by the second K-sound always reminds me of the pleasant sound marbles make when they hit each other. So, even though it doesn't sound like the corresponding English word at all, it's still easy to remember.

Dutch and English offer differ in how they form plurals

When it comes to pluralizing words, Dutch has far more rules to follow than English. Too many, in fact, to list here. However, the two most basic and significant rules in both languages show again how they are so similar—yet so very different.

In English, the plural form of a word is often formed by adding the letter 's' at the end of it. This rule applies to some Dutch words but not all. Here are some examples:

If an English word ends with '-s', '-x', '-z', '-sh', or '-ch', the plural is formed by adding '-es' to the of the word. This never happens in Dutch. Instead, the majority of Dutch words are pluralized by adding '-en' to the end:

Long and Short Vowels in English and Dutch

Much of the time, Dutch's unique pluralization rules are all about keeping vowels long or short.

Long and short vowels have much greater significance in Dutch than in English—a feature I personally still struggle with after eight years of speaking Dutch.

Written, you can easily distinguish between short and long vowels by the use of single or double vowels, like so:

As you can see, using a long vowel instead of a short, or vice versa, will likely change the whole meaning of your sentence in Dutch.

The risk of this happening in English is considerably less. Luckily, your average Dutch speaker will likely know what you meant and ignore your mistake.

How to Use the Verbs for “To Be” in English and Dutch

In many languages, the verb “to be” has all kinds of complicated irregular conjugations. English and Dutch are no different from them. Below are the rules for conjugating the present and past in both languages.

English Dutch
I am... Ik ben...
You are... Jij bent...
He is... Hij is...
We are... Wij zijn...
You [all] are... Jullie zijn...
They are... Zij zijn...
English Dutch
I was... Ik was...
You were... Jij was...
He was... Hij was...
We were... Wij waren...
You [all] were... Jullie waren...
They were... Zij waren...

You don't have to look so closely before you see that English and Dutch have some overlap in how they conjugate their verbs “to be.” Namely, both use the present tense “is” and the past tense “was.” You may have even noted that some of the pronouns are similar.

Now to get a feel for the similarities between Dutch and English, look at the following Dutch sentences:

Hij is ziek.
Zij is te kort.
Het water is warm.
Ik was soep aan het eten.
Jij was zo oud.
De melk was zuur.

Even without knowing a thing about Dutch spelling or pronunciation, it is more than likely you can understand the meaning of these sentences at least a little. If you're thrown off by the spelling, it may help you to read them out loud.

Here are the translations of those Dutch phrases:

“He is sick.”
“She is too short.”
“The water is warm.”
“I was eating soup.”
“You were so old.”
“The milk was sour.”

This feature is perhaps one of the most helpful parts of learning Dutch as an English speaker or vice versa. It makes learning what is generally every language's most common yet complicated verb conjugation that much easier and straightforward!

Conclusion

At the end of the day, English and Dutch are two different languages with countless differences between them. An English speaker learning Dutch, or vice versa, will face plenty of challenges along the road to fluency.

But for all their differences, the similarities between them abound. In my own experience learning Dutch, discovering them has been half the fun.

To learn more about the Dutch language, see this article on writing letters and emails in Dutch.