This post may contain affiliate links, which means that when you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.

Dutch and German: Language Similarities and Differences

Dutch and German are related languages that belong to the same family: the Germanic languages. They are even more closely related as they are on the same branch (West Germanic languages) which also includes English. Another branch, the North Germanic languages, includes languages such as Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish.

The High German consonant shift

Dutch and German share many cognates (words derived from the same etymological ancestor). Many of these words, however, have different spellings due to a phenomenon called the High German consonant shift.

Between the 3rd and the 8th century, the German language underwent some changes in pronunciation. These changes did not occur in the other Germanic languages (like Dutch and English), leading to a divergence between German and Dutch.

The three main high German consonant shifts are the following:

Examples of Dutch and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (d→t) consonant shift:
English Dutch German
word woord Wort
good goed gut
cold koud kalt
bread brood Brot
red rood rot
blood bloed Blut
door deur Tür
day dag Tag
daughter dochter Tochter
Some Dutch and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (t→z) consonant shift:
English Dutch German
heart hart Herz
train trein Zug
two twee zwei
ten tien zehn
Some Dutch and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (k→ch) consonant shift:
English Dutch German
book boek Buch
milk melk Milch
make maken machen
speak spreken sprechen
cook kok kochen

If you are interested in learning German or Dutch online, check out this German course or this Dutch course.

Dutch and German have fewer words from Latin (compared to English)

There is a historical reason which explains why English has more Latin-derived vocabulary words than German and Dutch.

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 caused Old Norman, a French dialect, to become the language of the Anglo-Norman government. Over several centuries, this French dialect gained wide usage in the royal court, church, and justice system of England. As a result, many French vocabulary words, which originated from Latin, entered English as loanwords, replacing some of the original Germanic terms.

In contrast, Dutch and German have not had as many of their original Germanic vocabulary words replaced by Latin-based words.

English/Latin German Dutch
language (lingua) Sprache taal
art (artem) Kunst kunst
opinion (opīniō) Meinung mening
color (color) Farbe kleur
face (faciēs) Gesicht gezicht
motion (motio) Bewegung beweging
society (societās) Gesellschaft maatschappij
victory (victōria) Sieg zege
cause (causa) Ursache oorzaak
direction (dīrēctiō) Richtung richting
air (āēr) Luft lucht
village (villāticus) Dorf dorp
visit (vīsitō) Besuch bezoek
century (centuria) Jahrhundert eeuw
voice (vōx) Stimme stem
dictionary (dictiōnārium) Wörterbuch woordenboek

My experience learning German after Dutch

The author is a native English speaker who learned Dutch for 5 years, and after that moved to Germany. In this article, he discusses the similarities between Dutch and German, and how those made it much easier for him to learn German.

As I walked to my German A2 course for the first time one brisk September morning in Berlin, I was feeling a tad trepidatious. While I knew the basic German greetings from my previous visits to the city which I now call home, I had never taken a German language course before.

Yet here I was, strolling straight past the A1 Level, as though I already knew it all. I felt like an imposter.

"You'll be fine! You know Dutch." The reassuring words of my partner rang in my head as I neared the German language school. But I wondered if any confidence I might perceive in myself wasn't just hubris.

I knew there were similarities between Dutch and German. But could enough overlap really exist to save me from making a fool of myself?

I took my seat, and the language class began. My teacher spoke only in German, and my classmates nodded along in perfect sync with the stream of sentences flowing from her mouth. Remarkably, so did I.

Could I understand the nuance of every word? No. But what the teacher said wasn't gibberish. I could tell where sentences began and ended, and enough of the German vocabulary words were similar to Dutch that I could figure out a lot through context.

Maybe I wasn't an imposter after all.

The Similarities between Dutch and German

Vocabulary similarities

The close relationship between English, German, and Dutch can be seen (but not as easily heard) with words and phrases like:

(English [EN] / German [DE] / Dutch [NL])

While Dutch has more in common with English vocabulary than German does, there is significantly more overlap in the lexicons of German and Dutch than either one shares with English. Consider the following words:

Of course, any list of examples only begins to scratch the surface. To be more succinct, the lexicons of German and Dutch overlap in a way similar to those of Spanish and Italian.

Similarities in grammar and syntax

Simple German and Dutch sentences that use the present tense follow the basic subject-verb-object structure used in English.

In contrast to English, sentences in German and Dutch change their word orders frequently. For instance, when a sentence begins with an adverb like “yesterday” or “actually,” the verb should come before the subject of the sentence, like so:

The suffix '-lich' in German and the suffix '-lijk' in Dutch have similar pronunciations, and they are typically used to denote adverbs. They are like the suffix '-ly' which is often added to English adjectives to construct adverbs.

German and Dutch sentence structure also changes when auxiliary verbs are used. Auxiliary verbs, sometimes called “helping verbs”, are verbs like “have” or “seem”, which require the use of another verb, in the infinitive form, to complete the statement:

Note that in the German and Dutch versions of the statement, the verbs «sehen» and «zien» ("to see") are placed at the end of the sentence.

Returning to the first day in my A2 German course, the grammar lesson that morning was on constructing sentences using the conjunction «weil» («because»). I already knew how to do this using the Dutch equivalent: «omdat».

In this case, the verb of the secondary clause always goes to the very end of the sentence.

When I was first learning Dutch, this grammar rule proved very confusing. But by the time I started learning German, I had already thoroughly internalized it.

My prior knowledge not only made it easier for me to transfer the concept to German but was also key in helping me follow along with my teacher during class that morning.

Dutch-German Vocabulary False Friends

Some German and Dutch words appear similar but have different meanings. Language learners refer to these word pairs as “false friends”.

Dutch-German Vocabulary False Friends
Dutch German
meer (lake) Meer (sea)
zee (sea) See (lake)
bellen (to call) bellen (to bark)
varen (to sail) fahren (to drive)
gekocht (bought) gekocht (cooked)
slim (smart) schlimm (bad)
tot (until) tot (dead)
wie (who) wie (how)

German and Dutch: the differences

German and Dutch clearly have significant similarities, but their differences are numerous as well. They are distinct languages, after all.

Spelling and Pronunciation

Dutch and German utilize many of the same sounds, but they have vastly different rules for spelling.

When reading Dutch, one notices the frequent use of vowels and unfamiliar letter combinations, while German's dauntingly long words and regular use of umlauts tend to intimidate new learners.

Some basic German-Dutch spelling and pronunciation differences are as follows:

Many Dutch words which start with the letter combination “vr” correspond to German words which start with “fr”:

English Dutch German
question vraag Frage
woman vrouw Frau
free vrij frei
early vroeg früh
Friday Vrijdag Freitag
friend vriend Freund
foreign vreemd fremd
joy vreugde Freude
peace vrede Frieden

Grammatical differences

Generally speaking, the rules of German grammar are much more complicated and complex than those of Dutch. Take the following examples, for instance:

To continue learning about the similarities and differences between Dutch and German, have a look at these lists of the 1000 most common Dutch words, and the 1000 most common German words.

Browse all articles by language