Dutch Language History

Dutch is a West Germanic language best known for being the official language of the Netherlands. The Dutch language is also one of the official languages of Belgium (alongside French and German). Around 60% of the population of Belgium is Dutch-speaking, and many more learn Dutch as a second language and understand Dutch words and phrases.

There are approximately 23 million speakers of the Dutch language between these two European countries. However, outside of the Low Countries, several other Dutch-speaking populations exist. It is the primary language spoken in the South American country of Suriname and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten. These are all former colonies that started speaking Dutch when occupied by the Dutch Empire in the 1600s.

As a West Germanic language, the Dutch language is one of the closest relatives to English. In fact, linguists put Dutch words as “roughly in between” English and German languages because they heavily overlap with German vocabulary, and the language relies on German grammar rules. However, like English (and unlike the German language), Dutch never underwent a Germanic sound shift.

Interestingly, English is the only language that refers to Dutch. In both Belgium and the Netherlands, the language is known as Nederlands. These are just some of the interesting facts about Dutch. If you are interested in learning Dutch language history in more depth, keep reading for a journey back to its origins and evolution to the present day.

Dutch Language Origin

The origins of the Dutch language can be traced back to the first century BC. Around this time, the West Germanic language family emerged from the Proto-Germanic dialect. This West Germanic dialect then evolved into Old Frankish by the 6th and 7th centuries, spoken in the areas covering modern-day France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

As time went on, the Frankish language continued to develop until becoming Old Low Franconian – or, more simply, Old Dutch. Linguists regard the evolution into Old Dutch as the primary stage of Dutch words forming a distinct language. It was spoken up until 1150 when it naturally evolved into Middle Dutch. This was around the same time Dutch writing took off and learning Dutch picked up.

The main difference between Old and Middle Dutch is vowel reduction, with back vowels reduced to a schwa (ə) in Middle Dutch words. However, Middle Dutch was not a single homogeneous language of the Netherlands. Speaking Dutch varied considerably depending on the region, with the four major dialect groups being Flemish, Brabantic, Hollandic, and Limburgic.

Modern “Dutch Language”

The Middle Dutch language continued to be spoken until the 15th century when a process of standardisation for a unified language of the Netherlands began. West Flemish and Brabantic dialects were the strongest and most influential around this time. However, following the fall of Antwerp in 1585, the urban dialects spoken here also heavily influenced Dutch words as people moved to the north towards the province of Holland.

In 1637, the first major Bible translation into Dutch was carried out. This further pushed forward language standardisation and a shift towards a unified language of the Netherlands. The Bible translation was primarily based on the urban dialects spoken in Holland combined with other Dutch vernaculars. This became the version used when learning Dutch or speaking Dutch in official settings.

In the Southern Netherlands (modern-day Belgium), the evolution of the Modern Dutch happened much more slowly. In fact, standardisation came to a complete halt under the rule of the French (1795 to 1814). Despite over 50% of the population speaking Dutch, French was taught in schools and used in official settings. It was not until the Flemish movement in the 1800s that Belgium adopted the Dutch language standards developed in the Netherlands.

Alphabets & Writing System

Throughout its entire history, the Dutch language has been written using the Latin alphabet. It uses 26 letters – five vowels and 21 consonants – just like English. Most of the consonant sounds are pronounced the same in Dutch as in English, which makes learning Dutch somewhat easier. However, several differences can trip you up when speaking Dutch words, for example:

  • G makes a “ch” sound
  • J is pronounced “y” as in year
  • V can sound like an “f” (depending on the Dutch dialect)
  • W is a cross between an English “w” and “v” sound

The use of the Latin alphabet when writing the language of the Netherlands is issued by government decree, as is the spelling of words. Spelling was actually one of the biggest challenges when standardising Dutch words, as linguists were unwilling to compromise. It was not until 1804 that spelling was formalised. Even then, however, people contested the rules, and they were simplified in 1863 by De Vries and Te Winkel to aid Dutch learning and comprehension.

This is not the last spelling reform of the Dutch language either! The Netherlands and Belgium officially adopted a new spelling modification in 1946. This was later replaced by the Spelling Act of 2005 – the current version of the language of the Netherlands used in government communications, Dutch literature and educational settings.

Dutch Language Dialects

Although the official language of the Netherlands and Belgium has been standardised, various Dutch dialects are spoken throughout both countries. These Dutch dialects are remarkably distinct from each other, and there are 200 dialects in the Netherlands alone. These can roughly be divided into five regional groups: Hollands, Zeeuws, Brabants, Limburgs, and Nadersaksisch.

There is also another language spoken in the Netherlands called Frisian. This is another West Germanic language that comes from the same lineage but is considered distinct from Dutch. Although Frisian does use some Dutch words, the languages are not mutually intelligible. However, as the official language, most Frisian speakers learn Dutch as a second language.

Interestingly, the use of Dutch language dialects is in decline in the Netherlands. According to recent research, 27% of the adult Dutch-speaking population used a regional vernacular on a regular basis. In 2011, this dropped to 11%. The number of children learning Dutch dialects has also dropped by 8%. The story is entirely different in Belgium – most adults are heard speaking Dutch dialects, and the regional variants are very much alive

Dutch Translation Services

The Dutch language is the official language of the Netherlands, Belgium, and a few old Dutch colonies. Between these countries, around 25 million people speak it as a first language. An additional 5 million people also learn Dutch as a second language worldwide.

To reach this sizeable population, many businesses call on professional Dutch translation. If you need help translating Dutch, Renaissance Translations can help. We have a network of qualified linguists who can offer Dutch translation services across various industries, including highly regulated sectors like medicine and law.

We also offer several other language services, including proofreading, localisation and voiceovers. Contact us today to discuss your Dutch translation needs or request a quote here.